Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Sen. Saxby Chambliss; Severe Weather Moves Through the Eastern US; Government Surveillance Program Questions Remain; Syria Has Crossed the President's Red Line; Interview with John McCain
Aired June 13, 2013 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Jake. Happening now, lawmakers are briefed on the government's electronic spying. Many are on board, but a top Democrat fears the U.S. is on the verge of becoming a surveillance state. And people close to the NSA leaker are in lockdown, but one friend is going public. Wait until you hear what she has to say to CNN.
And a massive storm system sweeps out of the Midwest and slams the area around the nation's capital. We'll tell you what lies ahead.
Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Brianna Keilar. And you're in the SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
KEILAR: We begin with breaking news. Congress has been notified that the United States will acknowledge Syria has used chemical weapons multiple times. That's been the red line for the Obama administration, and that red line has now apparently been crossed. Let's go straight now to CNN pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. Barbara, what's developing?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, this story has been brewing behind the scenes in Washington all day. Now, at this hour, White House officials briefing reporters are about to tell them that the red line has been crossed, that the U.S. intelligence community has determined the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons multiple times in small amounts.
This all dates back to at least two incidents in March when it is believed small amounts, relatively small of sarin were used against civilian populations in Syria. This puts the president in a difficult position because it has been his position that when the red line is crossed, he will have to do something to act, to help the rebels, to help the people of Syria. We do not expect the White House announce a next step.
But Congress is certainly getting more concerned about all of this. The ranking Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee talking about it a short time ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS, (R) INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: We now know that chemical weapons have been used for almost a year by the Syrian regime. We've done nothing. So, I think it's time that we act in a very serious way. If a no-fly zone is what they decided to do, then, I'm sure our military has taken the right preparations for carrying out a successful operation and I'll support that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: And Barbara Starr, we're going to have you stand by there at the Pentagon. Let's go straight to the Senate floor where Senator John McCain is talking about this.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: It's terrible. So, I applaud the president's decision. I applaud the fact that he is now acknowledged what the French and others and all the rest of us knew, that Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons, but just to provide additional weapons to the Syrian army is not enough. We've got to change the equation on the battle ground and if I might say, I have seen and been in conflicts where there was gradual escalation.
They don't win. If all we're going to do is supply weapons, then there will be a commensurate resupply by the Iranians and the Russians and others. So, I thank the president for acknowledging that the Syrians are using chemical weapons in massacring their own people, and I applaud his decision to provide additional weapons.
I do not -- every ounce, every bone in my body, knows that simply providing weapons will not change the battlefield equation and we must change the battlefield equation. Otherwise, you are going to see a regional conflict, the consequences of which we will be paying for a longer long time. And I yield to my colleague from South Carolina.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, thank you. I would like to add my voice to the president's decision to act, because I think action by the United States and the international community is required. What does it matter to the average American that we contain this war in Syria and that it ends sooner rather than later?
The chemical weapons that now have been acknowledged to be used by Assad against his own people, my goal is to make sure they're not used against us or Israel, our allies throughout the world. And if we don't stop this war, the chemical weapon caches, the numbers in the hundreds of thousands of weapons that could be used could be deployed that could kill thousands of Americans or Israelis or people that are aligned with us.
So, really, the president's decision to intervene comes from an escalation of the use of chemical weapons by Assad. As Senator McCain has indicated, the threats to our country are not just from the chemical weapons --
(END VIDEOTAPE) KEILAR: Let's get now to our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's there on Capitol Hill, watching what we just saw, Dana, Senator John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham. What is the Congressional reaction to this news that the U.S. government is acknowledging that Syria used chemical weapons against rebels?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you just heard it real-time, Brianna, the senator from Arizona, Senator McCain, and Senator Lindsey Graham, two of the most hawkish senators when it comes to Syria waited about a nanosecond between this becoming public and going to the Senate floor and saying that this is just the latest example from their perspective of why the president and why the administration has to be much more aggressive when it comes to helping the Syrian rebels and getting more involved in this conflict and not doing it piecemeal, as Senator McCain was just saying.
And I should just update you. As we're talking, as we're learning this information, our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is getting information as well, and she's reporting that a senior intelligence official is saying that the weapons -- the chemical weapons used on a small scale is sarin gas in Syria and this intelligence official says 100 to 150 people have died as a result of this gas.
So, this is more information we're getting on the disclosure of how much of these chemical weapons were used, and of course, the deadly impact of the chemical weapons.
KEILAR: Dana, stand by for us. We're going to go to the Pentagon now, back to Barbara Starr. Barbara, tell us what are you hearing there? I know we had to cut out from you a little earlier to get some reaction there, quick reaction from Congress. What else are you hearing?
And also, if you could sort of talk a little bit more about some of these new details that we're just getting in here to the SITUATION ROOM about how many people may have died because of the use of chemical weapons?
STARR: Well, Brianna, these two incidents back in March in which sarin gas was suspected to have been used have been looked at by the intelligence community in Washington and intelligence services around the world for the last many months trying to determine what happened. We now know that they feel very comfortable saying that Sarin was used.
But I think one of the real bottom lines here for the president and for the United States and Congress is besides the humanitarian disaster, as bad as that is, why is this also important? You heard one of the senators there talking about the concern that these chemical weapons as Syria implodes, becomes more disorganized, could the chemical weapons wind up in the hands of al Qaeda and become a terrorist threat.
There is a much deeper, believe it or not, concern as well. Iran. In the last several weeks, Iran has considerably stepped up its power influence and operations inside Syria. We talked to people today who tell us there are at least three Iranian militia training camps inside of Syria, perhaps, thousands of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters.
Why is that so key? As Iran extends its influence and looks for more power, more influence in the region, there are economic concerns. This could embolden Iran. Many people worry in regards to the Persian Gulf oil shipping lanes could make Iran much more bold, Brianna. That begins to affect the world economy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that 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. That would change my equation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: Now, it does appear that this has evolved here over the last couple of months. Let's bring in Dana Bash, our chief Congressional correspondent there on Capitol Hill where reaction is just starting to get -- starting to come in. Dana, we had a sense obviously a couple of months ago when it appeared that a red line may have been crossed and the administration was very careful about describing exactly what had happened, clearly, wanted to have the time to be able to calculate a response to this.
But talk a little bit about what you're hearing there on Capitol Hill. We just heard from Senators John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham. How much impact do you think what they're calling for, which is essentially more than what the administration is doing? How much impact is that going to have on what President Obama may ultimately do?
BASH: You know, I think that the impact is going to be the news of this information. Now, obviously, it probably should go without saying that there is skepticism, widespread skepticism, and it certainly is included here on Capitol Hill since what happened with the Iraq war, when Americans were told that there were chemical weapons and it turned out not to be true, about going into a conflict that the United States is not directly involved in because of any kind of chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction.
Having said that, we just went back and looked at a poll that was done just last month asking this question, whether or not U.S. military action would be justified if, in fact, the Syrian government used chemical weapons in its country. Sixty-six percent said yes. So, that should give supporters of more action based on this news a lot of support from the American people if this poll is to be believed. Having said that, I will just tell you that, you know, this has already been a debate here on Capitol Hill between those who are much more hawkish, like the ones we saw on the floor, Senators McCain and Graham and those who are really, really reluctant and know that there is a lot of fatigue out there for the U.S. getting involved in any more conflicts.
KEILAR: Dana Bash for us there on Capitol Hill. We'll be heading to the White House in just a moment, but first, watch what Sen. John McCain said on the Senate floor just moments ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCAIN: -- also and that will announce (ph) that we will be assisting the Syrian rebels in Syria by providing them with weapons and other assistance. I applaud the president --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: So, that was Senator John McCain as we head to the White House to talk to our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin. Jessica, we heard Sen. McCain saying on the floor there. He's calling for more, more than what the administration is doing, but we've seen this sort of back and forth before as the situation has evolved in recent months. The White House has taken a much more cautious approach, certainly, than Senators McCain and Graham are calling for.
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. As you well know, Briana, and yet, this is the game changer. The president has said his red line will be crossed if they find evidence that chemical weapons have been used. And the White House is about to announce, I'm on hold for a conference call in which they're going to do it, that they have evidence that chemical weapons were, indeed, used.
And so, that changes the calculus from here. The next question, as you've been discussing, is what does the White House do? And, you know, there are three options. There's this option of a no-fly zone. And I'll tell you that, realistically, there's not an expectation that the president is backing that at this point. There's a possibility that there could be some very serious heavy weaponry put into the effort to back rebels there, that the U.S. would really get behind surface-to-air missiles and bolster that, the rebels in that way.
That is unlikely. What, you know, informed experts believe will happen, if anything now, is some form of supporting the rebels either through arming them, training them, or enhanced intelligence engagement in the country. And by that, I mean sending more CIA operatives into the country, more Intel support.
And the president clearly is not going to come out and announce that. That's just something that would happen, if it does happen. So, I don't expect you to see the White House coming out and making an announcement to say we're going to do covert operations there. What we do expect is for the White House to announce this chemical weapons discovery, and perhaps, that's all for today. And we'll learn more about next steps in the coming days and weeks -- Brianna.
KEILAR: And, Jessica, we're hearing from Senator McCain. He's talking about how, from his perspective, that he knows as fact that the administration will be arming the rebels. You talked about obviously a lot of other type of aid that has already been provided to the rebels. Do you think this may be something that we could hear coming up in this information that we're expecting to get any moment now from the administration?
YELLIN: We -- yes. It's possible. And, there's different interpretations of what arming the rebels means and to what extent. The big questions will be how much, in what ways, and is it going to be enough to satisfy John McCain? It may be that Senator McCain has one notion of what arming the rebels means and the White House might be doing it in a different way.
Keep in mind, the president is going overseas to meet with European leaders at the G8 in just a few days where he has to come in and will face enormous pressure to talk about Syria, have a public position on it and that might be also a motivating factor to come out with this information before he goes to Europe to meet with them.
KEILAR: And I think we're getting a preview certainly of what Senator McCain thinks as he's on the Senate floor there calling for even more just moments ago. Jessica Yellin for us there at the White House, thank you for that.
We have much more coming up this hour on this breaking news. The White House says that Syria has used chemical weapons. Senator Saxby Chambliss will be joining us with reaction in a moment.
And also ahead, a friend of the NSA leaker, Edward Snowden, is going public to defend him in an interview here in the SITUATION ROOM. The personal message that she's sending him just ahead.
Plus, thousands are without power right here in the Washington, D.C. area. We'll have the latest on the wild weather that is hammering the region.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
KEILAR: We have breaking news here in the SITUATION ROOM. The U.S. government now says that Syria has crossed that red line that President Obama delineated last August by using chemical weapons, confirmed, against the rebels on a small scale but still a very significant development.
Let's play some sound from Senator John McCain. He was on the Senate floor just moments ago talking about how the U.S. will now be arming rebels, but he clarified that. Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCAIN: It's my understanding that the president has not made the final decision on arming, but he has made the decision that chemical weapons have been used.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: OK. So, we heard Senator McCain clarifying there. It seemed to be backtracking a little bit on the next step for the U.S. government. We are, at this point, awaiting information, a conference call that the Obama administration will be having in moments. And our White House correspondent, our chief White House correspondent is monitoring that. We'll be getting details to you as soon as possible.
In the meantime, we have Senator Saxby Chambliss. He is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the phone. Senator Chambliss, your reaction to this news today?
VOICE OF SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS, (R) GEORGIA: Well, I think it's time that the president came out and said that we now know and because we validated it over the last several monies that Bashar Assad has, in fact, used chemical weapons against his own people in Syria, as well as against the opposition rebels.
So, when the president said that was a red line, I wish that as soon as that had been validated that he would have stepped up and said the United States is not going to stand by and see more innocent people in Syria get slaughtered, but I am glad that he's stepping up right now. And as Senator McCain said, maybe the final decision has not been made relative to arming the rebels. That has to be done very carefully, but we have a pretty good idea of who the folks are that we want to keep arms out of the hands of, Brianna.
But the president knows who those are, the intelligence community knows who those are, the military community knows. And, if the decision is to put lethal arms in the hands of the rebels, and it can be done in a very judicious way
KEILAR: How do you want the administration to react here aside from arming rebels? We heard from Senator McCain, he said that even more than that needs to be done just moments ago on the Senate floor.
CHAMBLISS: Well, Senator McCain has been advocating a no-fly zone for months. I've been very skeptical of that up until the last several weeks. But it's pretty obvious that if strong action is not taken, then Bashar Assad is going to remain in power for months, maybe even years. The Iranians are arming him. The Russians are arming him. Hezbollah has complete run of the country of Syria now.
So, we've got terrorists who are fighting with the Assad regime. The United States has never stood by and seen innocent people slaughtered to the extent that's happening in Syria. The United States does not need to be the world's policemen, but the United States does need to step in when tyrants like this, really, in a very militant way, kill innocent people on a regular (ph) basis.
Maybe a no-fly zone is the appropriate way to go. If the military of the United States decides that's the way to go, then I would support that. KEILAR: And you are critical of sort of this response that has, I guess, evolved from the Obama administration. A couple of months ago, we heard from, I think, initially, it was from the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, and he was talking about there was some degree of certainty, but the idea of the red line being crossed wasn't definitive. Now, today, it is definitive.
It seemed that that was being done also said that the administration, although, there were obviously terrible atrocities being committed in Syria, that the administration was trying to, I guess, to consider its options and make sure that they did something in a very precarious situation, that they did the right thing and they didn't complicate matters further.
But you think that this should have been sorted out before now or do you think that it's important to have had this time to figure that out?
CHAMBLISS: Well, the president stated months ago that his red line was the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. We've known that they've been using chemical weapons for almost a year now against the opposition and against his own people in some cases. The president has taken his time, and as a result of taking that time, thousands more innocent people have been killed.
So, I've been critical, I think, for the right reasons, just like Senator McCain has, but I'm supportive of the commander in chief's decision if it is now to take appropriate action, and I'm sure that whatever that action is, it will be appropriate and it will be forceful. And hopefully, it will bring about the removal of office from President Assad because if we don't remove him from office, then innocent people in Syria are going to continue to be killed.
We're going to see refugees flood into Jordan and other countries in the Middle East and they're simply overrun in that country now. And, the situation in Syria has been boiling over way too long. And it's an opportunity for terrorists both from the standpoint of operations as well as training.
KEILAR: And senator, we know that you will be awaiting to see what the administration's reaction is as you call for arming the rebels. Some of your other Republican colleagues calling from war (ph) for a no-fly zone. Thank you so much for joining us here in the SITUATION ROOM.
CHAMBLISS: Sure. Good to be with you.
KEILAR: Now, CNNs Fred Pleitgen is on the ground in the Syrian capital. He will be joining us live next.
And we'll break down what kind of chemical weapons were allegedly used and why they're so dangerous.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News. KEILAR: Our breaking news here in the SITUATION ROOM, the White House notifies Congress that Syria has used chemical weapons multiple times, crossing that red line set by the Obama administration. Officials say Sarin gas was used leading to the deaths of 100 to 150 people. Let's go live now to CNNs Frederik Pleitgen. He is inside of Syria.
And Fred, I understand, as you await to be in touch with some rebel leaders there, you have been able to get in touch with the Syrian government. How are they reacting to this development?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Syrian government, Brianna, for a very long time has been selling me that they were not the ones who used chemical weapons. They claimed that it was the rebels who used chemical weapons. They say they were all the first ones to actually go to the United Nations and say that chemical weapons were used in the part (INAUDIBLE).
They also said that they wouldn't let inspectors into the country to actually see if those claims were real or not or at least not give them blanket capability to go into the country and check out these claims. Now, the rebels, for their part, in the past couple of weeks have been claiming again and again that chemical weapons were being used. I was in touch with some of these people via social media as they were saying they were under attack by some sort of chemicals.
It's really unclear in many cases whether or not chemical weapons were used, obviously. Some were saying that there was proof, others were saying that there was not. And I can tell you from the past couple of times that I've been here, I've been talking to government officials and time and again they promised me to take me to places where they claim that chemical weapons were used by the rebels and they never came through on those promises, they never showed us any of the alleged victims of all of this.
So, it really has been claimed and counterclaimed, but the government has been very adamant saying that it did not use chemical weapons and at no times did use chemical weapons in the battle here -- Brianna.
KEILAR: Fred Pleitgen for us there inside of Syria. Thank you for that.
Let's get a closer look now at Syria's chemical weapons, including the extremely dangerous sarin gas, which the Obama administration says has been used multiple times leading to as many as 150 deaths. CNNs Tom Foreman is here live now -- Tom.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Brianna. Really, we are talking about sarin right now, because this is an incredibly potent and dangerous weapon out there. It was developed in the 1930 originally as an insecticide and very soon after was converted into a weapon which many people sort in trying to see how it might be exploded -- exploited in different ways. Let's talk about where we think it was used in Syria.
We don't really have any proof -- we have a sense that it certainly would be connected to maybe some of the major complex in some of these areas, but how do you deploy this sort of thing? Let's flip this over and talk about this.
Sarin can actually be launched toward a target by perhaps an artillery shell or it can be carried by an airplane or to be fired by a missile. And it spreads very rapidly. It's a liquid and it turns into a gas quickly.
Now we showed it here so you could see something, but the truth is, it is colorless and it is odorless and somebody could be under attack from sarin gas, and have no idea it's happening even though this is much, much more lethal than cyanide.
What does it do to you? Let's flip this over and talk about some of the symptoms. If you get hit by it, you could have blurred vision, you could have rapid breathing, you could have heavy sweating, confusion, you could headaches, and in the most severe cases, you start talking about nausea and convulsions, and paralysis and even death as essentially this shuts down the body's ability to control your breathing functions.
As I said, it's much more poisonous than cyanide. And in a heavy dose of this, death can occur within minutes. Plus people who have passed through an area with sarin gas, it can actually travel in their clothes for 20, 30 minutes, so that if they go somewhere else, they could even contaminate other people nearby. That's why most of the world banned this as a weapon back in the 1990s, Brianna. And why there's going to be so much concern now that the U.S. is saying it in fact has been used there.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. And why the U.S., the President Obama said in August that this was the red line.
Tom Foreman for us, appreciate that explainer.
And we'll be staying on top of this breaking news. But when we come back a friend of self-confessed NSA leaker Edward Snowden is going public to defend him. The message that she's sending him just ahead.
KEILAR: Happening now a friend of NSA leaker Edward Snowden goes public to defend him here in THE SITUATION ROOM. The personal message she's sending him just ahead.
Plus a new mandatory evacuations order as tens of thousands of acres burned as officials declared one of Colorado's raging wildfires to be the worst in the state's history.
And a mother nabs an alleged sex predator by pretending to be her 11- year-old daughter.
Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Brianna Keilar and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
The government's secret surveillance program are getting a strong endorsement today from top security chiefs visiting Capitol Hill. FBI director Robert Mueller met with the House panel and for the most part he was preaching to the choir with key lawmakers in both parties defending the snooping as legal. But there are also skeptics who worry the surveillance goes way too far.
CNN chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash reports.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The FBI director defended secret surveillance programs with the ultimate example, 9/11, saying the government could have sniffed out the hijackers if it had their phone data.
ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: The simple fact of their detention could have derailed the plan. In any case the opportunity was not there. If we had had this program, that opportunity would have been there.
BASH: That did not move the committee's top Democrat.
REP. JOHN CONYERS (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I am not persuaded that that makes it OK to collect every -- every call.
BASH: In fact, John Conyers revealed he had been briefed on the secret programs and has deep concerns.
CONYERS: It's my fear that we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state.
BASH: The outgoing FBI director repeatedly insisted collecting Americans' phone records keeps them safe and disclosure of these programs is already doing damage.
MUELLER: Every time that we have a leak like this, and if you followed it up, and you look at the intelligence afterwards, there are persons who are out there who follow this very, very, very, very closely and they are looking for ways around it.
BASH: But countless attempts this week to explain to Congress the extent of data collection has hardly cleared things up. Like when this Republican asked about his cell phone.
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: If you're going to follow what this telephone number is, where it is, is that or is that not content?
MUELLER: I think that's a very -- I tell you I think it's a very difficult question and I'd want to think about it.
BASH: Still, there is significant bipartisan support for the secret programs. Advocates emerged from classified briefings trying to clarify.
REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Monitoring wrong word, not happening. Surveillance, wrong word. Not happening. You ought to strike that from your vocabulary if you want to accurately describe it. SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: The privacy of Americans is protected under these procedures. It is misunderstood that Americans' private information, telephone calls and e-mails, are being rummaged through by the government. That is not true.
BASH: Now Senator Nelson was speaking at a briefing for all senators that just wrapped up about an hour ago. All senators were invited, 47 attended. And afterwards the Senate Intelligence chairman woman said that Intelligence officials are working to declassify the idea that terror plots were actually stopped and give information details about that. And they hope to do that even by Monday -- Brianna.
KEILAR: It certainly would be proof that would help them if they can detail that.
Dana Bash for us on Capitol Hill.
Coming up, a friend of self-confessed NSA leaker Edward Snowden is going public to defend him. The message that she's sending him just ahead. And more on that breaking news. The White House says Syria has used chemical weapons. Does this mean the U.S. will send war planes over Syria?
Senator John McCain will join me live in a moment.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
KEILAR: Breaking here in the CNN SITUATION ROOM.
Congress has been notified that the U.S. will acknowledge definitively that chemical weapons have been used in Syria by the Syrian government.
Let's head straight now to the White House where our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is standing by with the latest.
Jess, what can you tell us?
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Brianna.
Well, the White House has now officially acknowledged that they found chemical weapons were used and that in a statement this, quote, "has changed the president's calculus on Syria." In an ongoing conference call, one of the president's senior national security official said that the White House has made a determination that they will provide military assistance to some forces inside Syria but will not specify beyond that what the scale, the scope or the nature of that military assistance is.
And so that will be the next question we will be asking and I'm sure your next guest will have plenty of questions of his own on that. But the headline is, chemical weapons and this crosses the president's red line. Now he's stepping in to some form of military aid into Syria -- Brianna.
KEILAR: And still a lot of questions there.
Jessica Yellin for us at the White House.
And joining us now with more on this breaking news, Republican Senator John McCain, he is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senator McCain, thanks for being with us. You were, first off, let me ask you this. You were just on the Senate floor and you talked about how the administration was going to be arming the rebels. You sort of back pedaled on that. Maybe you didn't want to get ahead of them there. I'm not sure if that's what it was. But now they've come out, we understand, and they've said that they will be giving military assistance to some forces. Not a lot of specifics here, and I know that this isn't going to be enough for you.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well, it can't be enough. The Russians are providing the most sophisticated equipment, missiles, airplanes and we have so far only seen light weapons come in, and in our case perhaps flak jackets and MREs. But I have been told that, as I mentioned on the floor, that there'd been military assistance. But they need a lot more than military assistance.
We need to establish the no-fly zone. We need a safe zone within Syria. Every time that we have escalated a bit in our assistance, the Russians, Hezbollah, the Iranians are all in. And so you've got to change the equation on the ground and you can't do it with half measures. You cannot do it with just supplying weapons. Assad is far too successful for that to be effective now.
KEILAR: And I know that you're certainly advocating in favor of a no- fly zone? We just heard from your Republican colleague, Senator Saxby Chambliss, who said he wouldn't want to go that far. Why do you think that's a good idea? And also if you can speak to the fact that obviously a lot of Americans and certainly this administration is war weary and is fearful of getting involved to such a degree in another, I guess, war in this region.
MCCAIN: Well, first of all, the president of the United States needs to go and tell the American people why we are going to take action that I am advocating. Second of all, this is now a regional conflict. This isn't just a civil bunch of demonstrators being beaten up. This is a regional conflict.
It spilled over -- Jordan is destabilized. Lebanon is about to erupt into sectarian violence. Jihadists are flowing in from all over the Middle East. This is erupting into a regional conflict where the United States' vital national security interests are at stake.
If Iran -- if Bashar al-Assad goes, it's the greatest blow to Iran in 25 years. If Bashar -- they succeeded keeping him, that will be a great victory for the Iranians and everything that they represent. No, we don't want boots on the ground, and, yes, we should be able to establish a no-fly zone relatively easily. If we can't, then we are wasting hundreds of billions of dollars of American taxpayers' money on national defense.
KEILAR: There are certainly complications in arming the rebels in this case. We've seen that in the past with other conflicts. Can you speak to that and perhaps some of what your concerns are. And also in a way how the U.S. can make sure that arms don't fall into the wrong hands, considering, you know, all of the rebels aren't necessarily I guess the good guys.
And you look at a conflict like this and it gets very complicated, it not as clear as those are the good guys and those are the bad guys.
MCCAIN: Yes. It was a lot less complicated a couple of years ago and it was a lot less complicated a year ago when every member of the national security recommended the president's recommended giving arms to the rebels and he turned that down. And now every day that goes by it's much more complicated.
There are no good options. There is a chemical weapons caches which have to be secured, which if they spread around could have catastrophic consequences. But all of the options that I'm talking about, how difficult they are, I'm talking about establishing a safe zone, it's neutralizing Bashar's air power, which is a decisive factor now in this conflict, as compared to doing nothing.
Look what the consequences of doing nothing are. They are catastrophic in a regional conflict. So I don't say it's easy, I don't say that there are any real good options. But I know what the worst option is, is what we've been doing for the last two years, which is nothing.
KEILAR: Now, Senator McCain, can you give us a sense of how you found out that the U.S. would be arming the rebels?
MCCAIN: I had heard that from a reliable source that I'm sure would not like for me to give you his name, Brianna, and I'm sure you understand that.
KEILAR: I certainly understand that. And I know --
MCCAIN: But the president -- but the president, as you know, that what was just said I think corroborates that. Now the question is, is what kind of weapons. They have enough light weapons. They've got enough AK-47s, AK-47s don't do very well against tanks. They need anti-tank weapons and they need anti-air weapons.
KEILAR: All right. Senator John McCain, thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We will continue to follow this breaking news. The U.S. government now acknowledging that Syria has used chemical weapons on a small scale but causing between 100 to 150 deaths, we are told, by sources.
This is that red line that President Obama outlined last summer and it has now been crossed officially according to the Obama administration.
This is breaking news. We'll continue to follow it right after the break.
KEILAR: Our breaking news, the White House notifies Congress that Syria has used chemical weapons multiple times, crossing the Obama administration's red line. Officials say the nerve agent sarin gas was used, killing up to 150 people.
And joining me now to talk about this, CNN's chief political analyst Gloria Borger, chief national correspondent John king, and our chief political correspondent, Candy Crowley, the anchor of CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION."
So first off, guys, let's talk about the timing of this because this has been a long time coming, obviously.
CANDY CROWLEY, ANCHOR, CNN'S STATE OF THE UNION: See, we do know that they have been talking -- in the last week, two weeks at the White House and elsewhere about -- Hezbollah is what really sort of brought them back to the table discussing how can we help here with the increasing evidence that Hezbollah is now in there fighting along with Iran and other folks we don't like.
So there was that. I -- you know, John and I disagree on this. It is interesting to me that last night it leaks out from somewhere that Bill Clinton supported John McCain and a forum that wasn't opened to reporters and said, I think we should go farther in helping the Syrians and today, here they are. I think that's coincidental but, you know, nonetheless it certainly hasty.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, but this was been an issue since last April when the president came out and the Defense of Secretary Chuck Hagel came out, and they said, look, we understand there were reports that there's use of sarin gas, we're not sure how the extent of it, we're not sure --
KEILAR: Some degree of reliability, yes.
BORGER: Some degree of reliability. We're not sure of the chain of custody of all of this. So they needed to do their own investigation. Clearly they've done their own investigation they came at, and they're -- they are now saying, yes, the red line has been crossed, as they said in April, but now Ben Rhodes, who is part of the national security apparatus, a senior adviser to the president, on the record came out and said the president has made a decision about more support, includes -- which includes military support but he can't provide the detail, but he can say that it's different in scope and scale from what we have seen.
KEILAR: But then that leaves -- that leaves a lot of questions and you have Senator John McCain who wants to see a no-fly zone going much farther than even some Republicans. What are the risks here of the White House getting involved in this, providing arms to the rebels, and what could follow from there?
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: One of the reasons the president has been so deliberate and so cautious and so reluctant is because once you say you're in, you can say we're in on a limited basis. We're going to arm a certain rebel group. But then you are in. And the situation on the ground, Brianna, and this is important, has changed so dramatically from just a couple of weeks ago, a couple of months ago.
Assad is now winning. There was stalemate before. There were even times when it looked like the opposition was winning and moving on Damascus from a military standpoint with the help of Iran, with the help of Hezbollah, with the help of the fighters from Iraq, the regime is now winning.
And so the United States is going to make an investment, is going to step up, saying this red line has been crossed. It will start with limited assistance to those in the opposition that it trusts. And the president is right in saying the choices here go from bad to worse. There are members of the opposition who are affiliated with al Qaeda or who are -- have affinity for al Qaeda, who have no affinity or love lost for the United States of America.
So the choices are bad. The question is, can you get in in a limited basis and if the regime continues to win on the ground, have you then essentially butt the crisis? Do you have a responsibility to go beyond --
CROWLEY: Long term, I have to say, that the other thing is, even if you never set foot in there, which there is no intention of doing, even if you can do a no-fly zone and everything works out, where do those weapons end up? That's always the long-term problem. Are you arming the wrong people here and they'll turn them against you eventually.
BORGER: And let me just also say that Ben Rhodes from the White House also said that no decision on a military operation, like a no-fly zone, has been made. You just spoke with John McCain. That's exactly what he wants. He believes this might be a step in the right direction but he clearly believes it is not enough because he believes that if Assad -- if Assad wins --
CROWLEY: Well, and he wants them to take out the --
BORGER: So did the Iranians.
CROWLEY: You want someone to take out the -- their air base because I mean, you know --
BORGER: The strip -- the air --
KEILAR: What are as well the complications with the -- or the chemical weapons that you see? I mean, there -- this is the main concern when you're looking at Syria. There are caches of chemical weapons stored all over the country and they are very dangerous.
KING: And the Pentagon think it would take 20,000 troops if you're going to go in and secure those sites. That's why the president does not want to put U.S. boots on the ground. He doesn't think the country supports that, he doesn't think the country is ready for that, he doesn't think the military wants that, and so that's why now you have urgent consultations with the Brits, with the French, with the Arab allies in the region about what will you do?
If we come in with more intelligence, if we come in and arm the rebels, if we come in and maybe put some covert operatives on the ground to locate things to try to make sure --
BORGER: Which they won't announce.
KING: Which they would never announce, they won't discuss probably. If we do these things, are you willing to do more? Because again, as the president makes this investment, as he steps across that red line, Assad has crossed it, now the president is going to join him on the other side and up the ante. You can start off on a limited way. You better line up your ducks. You better have help. Because once you're in, you're in.
BORGER: And here's the important thing that Bill Clinton said last night in this closed session which turned out to not be so much off the record. What he said that he was talking about the Arab spring and he said, you know, this could all be thrown away if this thing in Syria goes wrong and he said, I don't think Syria is necessarily Iraq or Afghanistan, telling the -- you know, the message being, we don't need to put troops on the ground there.
KING: And it won't be 10 years.
KEILAR: I do think a lot of Americans look at this situation and we hear the administration talking about national security concerns for the country but I think that doesn't necessarily connect with a lot of Americans. What are the national security concerns that really can hit them on a very personal level here?
CROWLEY: Oh, my goodness. I mean, you know, with Iran in there, with Hezbollah in there, this is -- I mean, the whole Middle East has always, as long as I've been alive, been a tinder box. But in Syria right now could set everything else on fire. Similarly, the U.S. help could, you know, make it worse. I mean, there's just no -- this is -- this is so many bad options here.
But the fact is, that the Middle East, where shall I, you know, mention that we still get our oil from there? The Middle East in turmoil, A, grows more terrorists. B, that's still where much of our oil supply is. There are many, many U.S. strategic reasons to have Syria calm down.
BORGER: And let me just say that this discussion of arming the rebels is something that has caused some consternation inside this administration in the past. For example, Hillary Clinton and former CIA director secretary Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta were all for some form of arming the rebels at one point and that went by the boards.
And so this is -- it has been an ongoing discussion in this administration and it appears that, as of today, the president has moved.
KING: Look at the map. It's the most complicated neighborhood in the world and every time you think it can't get worse, it does.
KEILAR: John King, Candy Crowley, Gloria Borger, thank you so much for your insights on this.
Now our breaking news in THE SITUATION ROOM will continue right now with Jim Acosta -- Jim.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Brianna.
Happening now, breaking news. A game changer in Syria's civil war. The White House confirms the Assad regime has used chemical weapons more than once. We're getting word on President Obama will do in response.
Plus unprecedented damage from a raging Colorado wildfire. Now residents of a major city are at risk.