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Colorado Wildfires; Syrian Crisis; Interview With Senator John McCain; Is Clinton Setting Stage for 2016?; 9 Girls, 9 Countries, 1 Mission

Aired June 14, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The U.S. dives into war in the Middle East, so what could possibly go wrong?

I'm John Berman, and this is THE LEAD.

That world lead, what lies beyond the red line? The U.S. drawn deeper into Syria's civil war, ready to give the rebels military backing, but accused of lying about it by the Assad regime. CNN there on the ground.

The national lead, it is already being called the worst wildfire in Colorado history, and crews only have a tiny fraction of it now contained, so how much more damage will it do?

And the politics lead, Hillary Clinton appearing at the same event where her husband is sharing the stage with one of her potential 2016 rivals, should they both decide to run, of course.

I'm John Berman.

And, first, the Tapper lead. For the first time ever, Jake Tapper is off today.

Meanwhile, we begin with the world lead and the steep escalation in the American role in the Syrian conflict. We're in, sort of. The U.S. government now ready to give military support to the rebels who are battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, this after U.S. intelligence concluded that Syrian troops did indeed use chemical weapons against rebel forces on a small scale.


BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Both because of our own intelligence assessment and because of the fact that we believe that the regime has maintained possession of its chemical weapons arsenal leads us to the very firm conclusion that any use of chemical weapons would have been by the regime.


BERMAN: Specifically, we're talking about sarin nerve gas, which is one of those inventions you kind of wish mankind could uninvent.

According to the White House, 100 to 150 people have died from chemical attacks in Syria, which, to be frank, is 0.001 percent of the nearly 93,000 people who have died since the civil war began two years ago. There are so many people dying, regardless of the method, but chemical weapons, that is where President Obama drew the red line last August.

The Syrian regime denies using them and says Washington gave -- quote -- "a statement full of lies" and also accuses the Obama administration of -- quote -- "flagrant tricks to justify arming the opposition."

New today, the White House says it would be a lot more difficult, a lot more expensive to set up a no-fly zone over Syria than it was in Libya in 2011, but the White House did not rule it out completely.

Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, said today that arming either side in this conflict would -- quote -- "not be helpful."

Many of the rebels are actually al Qaeda sympathizers. Hezbollah is fighting on the side of the regime. That's the Lebanon-based Shiite political party and militant group that the State Department classifies as a terrorist organization. Clearly, the danger of arms falling into the wrong hands is evident.

So whether or not you agree with arming the rebels, this fact is inescapable. As we said, people are dying in Syria every single day.

CNN has a crew right there on the ground in the capital city, Damascus.

And that is where we find our own Fred Pleitgen, standing by live.

And, Fred, the question is this. How are the Syrian government just Syrian people reacting to this new decision by the United States to give support to the military rebels?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, on the one hand, you have already mentioned that there was a lot of anger on the part of the Syrian government.

They came out and said that what the United States was saying, these allegations were lies to try and supply the rebels with weapons. But, clearly, they are also very, very worried about all of this, because, of course, they know that the United States would be the formidable force that could make a large difference on the ground here in Syria.

One of the interesting things that I did today is I walked around Damascus and I spoke to people there who support the government, and a lot of them really were in this mode of disbelief. They said they would never believe that their government would ever use chemical weapons. They believe that it was all fabricated, that this was all done by the opposition if anyone used chemical weapons.

And then there was that mode of defiance where people were saying, well, if America wants to come here, if America wants to help the rebels, let them do that, we are ready to fight against America, but, of course, in everything that people here say, you do hear that worry and that concern that if America were in fact to play a larger role in this conflict, it would mean a lot of trouble for the Assad regime.

BERMAN: The White House has made fairly clear, Fred, that they are not talking about a no-fly zone. They think that is on the table. They are not ruling it out, but it's not something they are actively seeking right now. Mostly seems like they're talking about small weapons.

Is there a sense there on the ground that these types of small weapons could turn the tide on behalf of the rebels?

PLEITGEN: No. A small amount of weapons would not turn the tide on the side of the rebels.

One of the things that there's a lot of here in Syria is those small weapons. There's a lot of rifles here. There's a lot of mortars. There's a lot of RPGs that are going around on both sides. The big thing would be sophisticated anti-tank weapons, for instance, and, of course, also anti-aircraft weapons, because we do know that the Assad army does have a pretty formidable military.

It has got airplanes. It's got those heavy tanks. And, of course, it also has Hezbollah fighting in its ranks as well, and that really seems to be what has been making the difference in the past couple of weeks, because the Hezbollah fighters don't only provide manpower on the battlefield, but they are also formidable in urban combat. And that is exactly what is going on.

And the other interesting thing that I have seen, John, because I have been going around Damascus to the front lines here in the city, because there are some districts held that are by the rebels, and the Syrian military was very, very confident that they now have the upper hand. I have never seen them speak so openly to Western journalists as they did with me in the past couple of days.

We will see where that goes now with this whole new equation, but the past couple of days, they have been very confident. Certainly, America entering the scene would deal a very large blow to that.

BERMAN: All right, Fred Pleitgen in Damascus for us this morning -- or this afternoon -- which could be a different very Damascus today than it has been over the last few months. Our thanks to Fred.

One person who has been arguing for intervention almost since the civil war began in Syria is Senator John McCain. And he may finally be getting his wish, or at least part of it.

The senator joins me now.

And, Senator McCain, the White House makes clear that the U.S. will start providing military assistance to the rebels. Presumably, that means weapons.

So what kind -- what weapons are you comfortable giving the rebels there? And are there any weapons you're not comfortable giving them?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I am -- I am comfortable with giving them whatever the weapons they need to defend themselves against the onslaught of Russian weapons of the most sophisticated kind, Iranian weapons, and the kinds of unequal battlefield that we are in today.

And I am absolutely convinced that we need to have heavy weapons, both anti-tank and anti-air.

And finally, could I say, unless we take out Bashar al-Assad's air -- air assets and establish a safe zone, it will not change the favorable conditions on the battlefield for Bashar al-Assad.

BERMAN: Let me ask you frankly, are -- are the rebels losing right now?

MCCAIN: Absolutely. There's no doubt about it. I received a call from General Idris that -- a few nights ago that portrayed the situation in Qusayr as dire. And, obviously it's fallen. Next is Aleppo.

They're using their air assets to fly men and equipment in and then surround the city. And the bloodletting and the massacre goes on, much to our shame.

BERMAN: So will this be enough to turn the tide, the weapons that will be going in now?

MCCAIN: It will not. We have to take out -- we have to establish a safe zone, move the Patriot missile batteries close take out, with cruise missiles, their air assets, and -- and logistics on the ground and establish that safe zone. Then we can change the equation on the ground, not before.

BERMAN: Well, the safe zone, Senator, doesn't appear to be happening. The White House makes clear that they certainly don't want -- they are not seeking a no-fly zone there.

So then why do this limited amount to begin with?

MCCAIN: Well, I think that's a legitimate question. It may help prevent some of the slaughter that's going on. But as far as changing things dramatically, I'm afraid that it won't. And I think we have to gauge in many respects, what will succeed and what won't and the consequences of us doing nothing which have obviously been very detrimental to the United States' national security interests over the last couple of years.

BERMAN: One of the reasons for doing this now, the White House said, is because Syria crossed the red line on chemical weapons. They have proof, the White House says, of the use of sarin gas.

Now, Politico has an interesting article today, quoting an Obama administration official who says this, who said: "Would we have made the determination Assad had breached the red line even if we didn't have the evidence? Probably," says this administration official in Politico.

So was the red line really sarin gas here or was it the facts on the ground?

Was it the fact that the rebels seem to be losing ground there?

MCCAIN: Well, I think it's more than coincidental that those two events coincided. But the French and others had already concluded that he's using this sarin gas in small quantities.

But again, here's -- this is the red line and we alleged they've killed between 100 and 150 people. Ninety-three thousand have been massacred as we have stood by and watched the casualty numbers continue to go up. It's disgraceful.

BERMAN: You said it's more than coincidental that we're declaring the use of chemical weapons at the same time we're deciding to arm the rebels there.

Are you suggesting somehow that politics are at play here, domestic politics?

MCCAIN: No, I -- I think that they're beginning to realize, in the White House that their predictions that Assad would fall, their present statement saying Assad must go, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then secretary of Defense, testifying before Congress, it is inevitable that Bashar al-Assad will fall.

No one believes that now, under the current conditions. And the effect on the Middle East of a Bashar al-Assad success is incalculable. It's already turning into a regional conflict. And they're beginning to realize that that is a fact, too, Jordan, Lebanon being destabilized.

The efforts of an Iran -- of an Assad victory on the view of countries in the region about the power and influence of Iran are incalculable.

BERMAN: There seems to be a lot of schisms within the rebel community there, different rebel groups.

MCCAIN: Actually, that is not true.


BERMAN: You think they're united?

You think that -- that none of these weapons will end up in the hands of people who some people consider extremists?

MCCAIN: Well, I think some of them might and I think that's the risk we take. But I think if we have a safe zone and move the opposition council in there and have them coordinate with the with the military and they can much easier get the weapons to the right people and use it effectively.

Look, this is a mess. We -- we -- you and I haven't even discussed the chemical weapons caches.

But to do nothing is the worst of all options, in my view. It's going to be very, very difficult, much more difficult than it would have been two years ago. And I'm not saying it's easy, but I'm saying the status quo is the worst of all options.

BERMAN: Senator John McCain, thank you so much for joining us.

We really appreciate it.

MCCAIN: Thanks for having me on.

BERMAN: And, coming up, didn't she say she wanted to take a break? Hillary Clinton outlines a very aggressive post-State Department agenda, which of course has people asking about a 2016 presidential run.

Plus, you thought that the birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's was expensive? You're lucky you didn't get charged $150,000 for singing happy birthday in public. What, you really thought the birthday song was free?


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

In our national lead, it is being called the worst fire in Colorado. The Black Forest wildfire has destroyed 389 homes so far and killed at least two people in the central part of the state. Colorado is a tinderbox right now; 38,000 people have had to evacuate, some with only moments' notice. And this wildfire has burned through 16,000 acres and at last check the firefighters said it was only 5 percent contained, just 5 percent.

The politics lead. Hillary Clinton might not be talking 2016 in Chicago this week, but then she doesn't have to, because she knows that we will. We can't help ourselves. And why should we, with a constant diet of crumb-like clues that keep falling.

The former secretary of state is co-hosting the Clinton Global Initiative Conference with her husband and today, she launched a new initiative that could go over with one highly coveted group of voters, and that is if she runs.

THE LEAD's Erin McPike is live in Chicago with more.

Hey, Erin.


It is all 2016 here, actually, because in a few minutes, Chris Christie will be taking the stage with Bill Clinton. Now, we should be calling Chris Christie the ultimate Republican maverick, because all of his colleagues, or many of them, I should say, around Washington for Republican cattle call. But later today, I think we're going to see what could be a preview of 2016 on this stage. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCPIKE (voice-over): If you were putting together a fantasy team of 2016 presidential candidates, you'd probably pick from this week's lineup, and start right here in Chicago.

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm pleased to be here to announce new commitments that have come out of CGI America. I am now able to share these responsibilities with Bill and Chelsea.

MCPIKE: Private citizen Hillary Clinton has turned her agenda to a philanthropic agenda, leaving attendees here at this week's Clinton global initiative meaning, buzzing that she'll be the odds on favorite for the Democratic nomination three years from now.

(on camera): D you want to see her run for president in a few years?

VICTORIA SCHRAMM, CGI MARKETING ATTENDEE: Absolutely. I think if there is any woman who can do it, Hillary is the woman.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL (D), CHICAGO, IL: President Clinton, thank you very much.

MCPIKE: The only Democrat who got minor attention this week and could be in the 2016 mix is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but he was a distant second fiddle to the main event. But the curious attraction at the Democrats party in Chicago was the appearance of another potential 2016 hopeful, a Republican.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Special lection is not about playing politics, it's about doing the right thing.

JIMMY FALLON, COMEDIAN: You ain't lying, C.C.

MCPIKE: Fresh off of slow jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon, Chris Christie is set to take the stage with Bill Clinton the talk leadership and collaboration. It could easily be a preview of the next general election giving the political watchers a visual image now of political heavyweights pitted against each other sharing the stage. Maybe a sly move by Christie, but it may not have sat well with the conservatives who will have to bear him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is more moderate. So, that's probably, you know, he's got a bad rap from hanging out with Obama.

MCPIKE: Christie opted for the Clinton event instead of the faith and freedom coalition's conference, a conservative cattle call of likely presidential GOP contenders going on in Washington. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan all took turns addressing the party faithful.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: What the American people are seeing everyday as they turn on the TV screens, as they see these investigations, as they see this overreach, is this is not what I bargained for.

MCPIKE: Of course, Paul Ryan won't face off against President Obama again. If the last two days are any indication, the next three years in politics are shaping up to be Hillary Clinton versus the Republicans.


MCPIKE: Now, for any of the other Democrats, it is hard to get attention when every move that Hillary Clinton makes is news. A little earlier today, Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton took this selfie photo backstage.

Now, I can also tell you that President Bill Clinton announced earlier today that CGI America next year, will be held in the swing state of Colorado, in fact in Denver, the site of the 2008 Democratic convention. So, fry up some Rocky Mountain oysters, I know how much you love those, Berman.

BERMAN: Yes. They are favorite, Rocky Mountain oysters, so, so good.

Erin, I have been going through a forensic analysis of that tweeted photo with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton right there to look for any kind of signs in there that Hillary Clinton might be running in 2016. I think there is something in the smiles, but we're going to get back to you on the few weeks on that.

Erin McPike --

MCPIKE: Don't you think? Yes. I think so, too.

BERMAN: It means something. It has to. Erin McPike, appreciate it.

Coming up, they are revolutionaries and they are only young girls. A new film focuses on girls around the world who are fighting for education. We will speak to Freda Pinto, star of "Slumdog Millionaire", about her role in this new film.

Plus, his last divorce reportedly Rupert Murdoch over a billion dollars. So, what about this one? And will the reason behind a divorce make a difference in just how much Wendi Deng will get?


BERMAN: Her breakout role was as a girl fighting to survive on the streets of Mumbai in India in the 2008 smash hit "Slumdog Millionaire". But now, actress and activist Freida Pinto is using her celebrity to tell the stories of young women across the globe, in the new CNN documentary "Girl Rising."

Take a look at this.


FREIDA PINTO, ACTRESS: I will read. I will study. I will learn. If they try to stop me, I will just try harder. If they stop me, there will be other girls who rise up to take my place. I am change.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BERMAN: Freida Pinto joins us now.

This film, Freida, follows nine different girls in nine different countries all struggling for education and empowerment. Their stories are told with the help of celebrated writers and renowned actresses like Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Selena Gomez.

Tell us about the power of this film and how you got involved.

FREIDA PINTO, NARRATOR, CNN FILMS "GIRLS RISING": Well, I feel that a film like this reaches out to people from different parts of the world, and especially people who we want to help as influencing decisions and policy-makers as well, using the celebrity voices, or voices of people who are in the industry, the entertainment industry, makes it all of the more powerful, and more useful for filmmakers as well, because they have a reach, they have a fan following, they have a fan base, we can appeal to them to make a change.

We have been talking about a world where we see children very happy, but we can't really talk about it unless we actually do something about it. So I feel through this film, I've had the opportunity to do a little bit of what I could possibly do, and then go out there and continue advocacy, and which ever possible way I can.

I'm hoping that this film will go to the other countries as well, and not just the United States. I know it's going to have its release in England as well. So, I'm really hoping that it goes across the globe to India, and Pakistan and Afghanistan.

BERMAN: Growing up in Mumbai, Mumbai is such a big and complicated city. But growing up there, you witnessed incredible poverty, you saw girls denied education in some cases, sometimes forced to marry and have children, while they were still children themselves, did that help to draw you into the project to help inspire your work as an activist.

PINTO: For me, the reason why I wanted to be part of this is quite simple. I had a lot of things that a lot of children did not. And I had a good education and a lot of children did not. And I just thought it was unfair, because when it was little, all I was told is that education is like a basic necessity like food, clothing, shelter and water. And that was not really the case.

So my, the reason why I wanted to be part of the project is because it talks education for all without any discrimination, especially the targeting 61 million children girls who are not in school and trying to bring them into school. So, I think what I had, the privileges that I had made me want to become part of this project to help those who did not have these privileges.

BERMAN: It does like a wonderful project, certainly on that everyone here is proud at CNN.

Thank you so much for being with us to talk about the documentary.

"Girl Rising" airs this Sunday at 9:00 p.m., only on CNN. Coming up, in politics, there are nice compliments, calling someone hardworking or creative. There are uncomfortable compliments, like say, applauding someone for their high rate of fertility. That's exactly what former governor of Florida Jeb Bush said today in his defense of immigrants in a new Senate bill.

So, let's check in with our political panel in the green room.

Maria Cardona, scale of one to 10, how offended are you by that comment?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look, John, you have to take it in context. When I got pregnant and had my second child, my doctor actually told me that I was made to have children and I should have lots of them. That didn't offend me hearing it from doctor. Jeb Bush is not a doctor. But does it get to the level of offensive? Stay tuned.

BERMAN: Jeb Bush, not a doctor, statement of fact. We will have more on that and much else.

THE LEAD will be right back.