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Chemical Attack Outside Damascus?; Has Syria Crossed U.S. Red Line Again?; Muslim Brotherhood on the Run; Did U.K. Government Try to Stop the Press?; The Last Pharaoh Returns from the Grave

Aired August 21, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


HALA GORANI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Horrifying news out of Syria tonight. Opposition sources claim that a barrage of explosions near Damascus have left hundreds dead and wounded in what the Syrian opposition says is a chemical weapons attack.

Social media sites showed video of what appeared to be lifeless bodies with no visible wounds. Witnesses claim that the attacks happened between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning in the middle of the night. And that victims, including many women and children, tried to take shelter in their basements, exactly what they should not do in a gas attack.

The Assad government is denying the allegations calling them, quote, "completely baseless." Due to restrictions in the region, CNN can't independently verify these claims. A U.N. group arrived in Syria just this week to examine whether either side has used chemical weapons in this civil war, a war that has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people.

A year has passed since President Obama first warned President Assad that the use of chemical weapons would cross his so-called red line. In a moment, I'll ask an American State Department spokesperson whether today's incident will in any way change the administration's response to this remorseless humanitarian nightmare.

But first, a closer look at what we know about the details of the attack with Gwyn Winfield, editor of the CBRNe (sic), the journal of chemical, biological or nuclear threats, and we have to warn you that these images are very graphic.

Gwyn Winfield, thanks for being with us.

You've seen some of the video that has emerged online.

What do you make of it?

GWYN WINFIELD, EDITOR, "CBRNE WORLD": Well, I've been tracking these all day. And the first ones that you saw in the morning were very much the small children coming in and there were a number of those and that ties into your comment earlier about the basements.

But as the day's gone on, the type of people involved in these attacks has changed. We're see far more adults involved now, showing far more symptoms, a lot of the children in the initial ones were really not in a very good way. A lot of dead in there. And now with some of the male survivors that are coming in, they're still sort of clinging to life; they're showing more sort of typical chemical warfare agents signs and symptoms.

GORANI: All right. Give us more details about that, because we've heard terms such as "sarin," such as "mustard gas," possibly used.

Others are saying is this a very highly concentrated tear gas, for instance, attack. What do you think?

WINFIELD: Well, the story first broke this morning and we were looking at potentially tens of dead, that was initially what I thought in that it could well be concentrated riot control agent with these people being in buildings, if they get a large enough dose of riot control agent, it can be fatal and it can give the sort of respiratory problems that we see in these.

But again, as the footage has gone one, it looks more and more likely that some kind of organophosphate. So that is some kind of nerve agent, has been used. Now again, the toxicity, the number of dead, even the largest elements, doesn't actually look like it was a -- what we might think of as a pure weapons grade sarin attack.

It may well be that this is some kind of Assad home brew, where he has managed to get elements of an organophosphate, mix it with other chemicals and then delivered it onto these people.

Until we can get some blood and potentially hair samples from these people, whether that's to Ake Sellstrom at the U.N. or outside of the country, we won't know exactly what those chemicals are. And until we do that, it's going to be very difficult to be able to provide any meaningful help to those people on the ground who are still suffering.

GORANI: Right. And how quickly do you have to get to them?

Do you have to get to the scene in order to determine what happened?

WINFIELD: Well, again, if it is -- it's difficult not knowing exactly what the agent is. The sarin is a highly volatile agent. So the agent itself, it could be a gas; it could be a vapor. It could even be an aerosol -- will now have dispersed. There may well be some in the soil. But where the people are going to have to start looking for it is in hair and blood samples.

And the next 48 hour window is going to be crucial to that. There's going to be certain signs in the blood that certain key elements are going to be depressed.

They need to be able to start looking at those and then taking samples from either people's clothes or from their hair to be able to get a clear sample and that will then need to go to a laboratory, to a mass spectrometer to try and actually work out what the chemical signature of this is.

I mean, we've yet to work out exactly who delivered these munitions. But the one thing that we are sure about when you look at the amount that's used, is it has to have been a military. This isn't a small rogue element; this isn't a small group. This is a concentrated, well-organized attack by a significant player.

GORANI: Gwyn Winfield, thank you so much for joining us with your perspective. A lot of valuable analysis there and information. Thanks again on this yet another Syrian tragedy.

Now to the question of whether today's attacks will in any way impact U.S. policy on Syria. Jen Psaki is the State Department spokesperson. She joined me moments ago from Washington.


GORANI: Jen Psaki, State Department spokeswoman, thank you very much for being with us.



PSAKI: (Inaudible) having.

GORANI: And on a horrific day for Syria. I'm sure you've seen some of the amateur footage, some of the testimony coming out of that country with row upon row of dead bodies, with no obvious sign of external trauma and the suspicion at this point, that this is a chemical attack, what is the reaction of the United States government?

PSAKI: Well, thank you for the question. We are deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of civilians have been killed by alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. The U.N. investigative team is on the ground now, as you know. And we have called for that team to have access, to be able to interview people, to be able to look at events on the ground and look into what happened here.

We -- if there's nothing to hide, there's no reason the Syrian regime should hold back from allowing this team from unfettered access and that's certainly what we're calling for publicly and privately.

GORANI: And if the evidence does show this is indeed a chemical attack, and we're looking at a much larger scale than any previous suspected chemical attacks, what will the United States do then?

PSAKI: Well, I don't want to look into a crystal ball. But as you know, the U.N. will be meeting in the next 24 hours to certainly discuss these allegations and events on the ground in Syria. And we will be watching this closely. The president has been clear; the secretary has been clear, that the use of chemical weapons is absolutely unacceptable. And that's why we've been so strong in calling for unfettered access for the investigative team to get to the bottom of what's happened here.

GORANI: So in what way would it be a game-changer for the United States?

PSAKI: Well, as you know, when the president made the announcement just a few months ago that the red line had been crossed, that we had expanded our scale and scope of aid, he made it clear that all options remain on the table, barring boots on the ground. Those discussions are ongoing.

I can't predict what will be the outcome here. These are allegations; these are reports. But we don't have any corroborative evidence of the use yet. That's why we want the U.N. to be able to have access to the ground and unfettered access.

GORANI: So all options, barring boots on the ground, so no direct military intervention with U.S. boots on the ground. Is that the case?

PSAKI: That is right. We've been clear that boots on the ground is not part of the options being considered. But all options remain on the table. I'm not going to outline those here, but that certainly is a discussion that continues. But the president and the national security team.

GORANI: We keep talking about chemical weapons. but as you know, Jen, we're looking at more than 100,000 people killed. At what does it become a humanitarian imperative for countries like the U.S. and its allies to act to stop the carnage? History has taught us one thing and that's if you don't act when carnage unfolds in a country like Rwanda or elsewhere, it continues.

So when will the U.S. feel that this is an imperative?

PSAKI: The events on the ground are horrific, whether it's chemical weapons use or whether it's just the death of tens of thousands of civilians at the hands of the brutal Assad regime. We've been outraged by that. That's why we have provided more humanitarian aid than any other country in the world.

That's why we've continued to increase our aid and the kinds of aid we're providing. Those discussions will continue and certainly events on the ground are part of the discussion moving forward and what steps will be taken by the government.

GORANI: And what about Secretary Kerry? Having heard or seen, I'm sure, some of this video material that has come out, what has been the reaction of the secretary? And has this changed his plans in any way with regard to Syria?

PSAKI: Well, the secretary feels very strongly that these reports and any reports of chemical weapons use should be looked into and looked into as quickly as possible. The U.N. team is on the ground. There's no reason that they should have access -- they shouldn't be able to be doing the reporting that they need to do.

The secretary wakes up every day and is concerned and outraged by the brutality that has hit the Syrian people. That's why he's been so focused on this issue, working with his counterparts around the world. And this is something he will remained focused on in the days and weeks ahead.

GORANI: Jennifer Psaki, thank you very much for joining us on CNN.

PSAKI: Thank you. My pleasure.


GORANI: Now turning to Egypt, busy day. The world will always remember that day two years ago when Egyptians flooded Tahrir Square and toppled their long-time dictator, Hosni Mubarak. So imagine the surprise that Mubarak could soon be a free man. And I mean very soon.

The prosecution announced today it will not appeal a judge's order for release on corruption charges. So the ex-leader could be out by tomorrow or Thursday. Mubarak, though, still faces retrial for his connection to the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising against him. The order to release Mubarak comes as the military is ruling the country yet again after ousting the country's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsy, last month.

Many of the top leaders of Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood are detained right now, making it very hard to hear from them directly during this turbulent time.

Ahmed Kamal is a young member of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, who is able to talk to us tonight and he joins me now by phone from Cairo.

Thanks for being with us.

Will Morsy supporters continue to protest despite the fact that there's been so much violence?


Yes, let me first of all to express my condolences to all the martyrs of Egypt and I would like first of all to also explain that we are here suffering from a typical military coup that was while the way of like the strongest twig, how the counterrevolution has already succeeded in a way.

But it's not going to the (inaudible) control to regionally rate the previous regime of Mubarak. And this is one of the evidences that he's out again to the -- out of the jail.

GORANI: Right. But are you -- ?


KAMAL: (Inaudible) justice.

GORANI: I want to ask you about going forward, what this means for those who supported Mohammed Morsy and who were upset that he was removed from power.

Will they continue to demonstrate? Will they continue to protest, even though there's been so much violence over the last several weeks?

KAMAL: Well, definitely we have no other option but to stand against that brutal coup very strongly and that is going to be in a very peaceful way, as we have always been peaceful. I want to tell that we are following every peaceful way and we're escalating (ph) our demonstrations and our resistance start, first of all, that was by just the certain in Raba (ph) and (inaudible) Square and Dinuba (ph).

And after that, we started to go all over the streets by our march and demonstrations and now we're escalating as per the last statement of the national alliance for supporting (inaudible). And --


GORANI: So Ahmed, what -- Ahmed, if I can jump in -- yes.

KAMAL: (Inaudible) civil disobedience.

GORANI: I can civil (ph) --


GORANI: -- I just -- I get the point of civil disobedience. But many people have been watching with dismay, these churches being burned and attacked by people who identify themselves as supporters of Mohammed Morsy.

What's going on there? Why if they feel they are the victims of a government crackdown, are they attacking minority cups (ph) in Egypt and burning their places of worship?

What's happening there?

KAMAL: Well, let me tell you the truth of that, because they have been trying to fake the truth in a very bad way. We have the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party was a part of the National Alliance pretty much is a mistake (ph).

We do not accept any attack that is being subjected to any house of worship, whether that is for Muslims or for Christians, because we are all civilians and we have our own right to practice our religion inside our houses of worship.

What's happened in Egypt for the time being is exactly what was happening before the revolution.

That crime that has been done by Adly, who's the interior minister, previous interior minister of that crime, the regime, they bombed the church and fled the scene in Alexandria. And that is exactly the same things happening for the time being in order to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood and everyone who's against the coup of that.

GORANI: Wait, you're saying that others are attacking these churches and blaming it on Muslim Brotherhood supporters? You're saying this is --

KAMAL: Exactly. That is happening. Exactly. This is what's happening. We --

GORANI: OK, well, according to many accounts -- according to many accounts --

KAMAL: -- interior ministry of Egypt.

GORANI: -- and according to many accounts --

KAMAL: -- is hiring --

GORANI: -- including one from Nadal (ph) in Egypt, there were Islamists identifying themselves as supporters of the deposed president, torching churches, that this has happened in some cities and areas in Egypt, over the last several days.

KAMAL: Allow me to tell you that this is not true. The saying as that's all been said. And a state by the media, the national media in Egypt in order to say truthful and to make people believe that this is a true fight, begins to resonate in Egypt, which is not the case.

The saying so simply is the thugs of the interior minister and the thugs of the coup are being paid and being hired by that brutal regime and that bloody regime in order to kill and to eliminate anyone who's saying no to them. You know?


KAMAL: So this is why the massacres that you're talking about is to be added to the list of massacres has been -- have been -- have been done and subjected to that unarmed and peaceful people and peaceful demonstrations.


GORANI: Ahmed Kamal, thank you very much for your time today, and joining us here on CNN.

Ahmed Kamal of the Freedom and Justice Party, on the day's developments in Egypt. And we will be right back.




GORANI: Welcome back, I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

Revolutions about America's secret government surveillance programs are now taking on epic spy novel proportions. The editor of "The Guardian" newspaper says U.K. government officials demanded the destruction of hard drives containing sensitive material.

And tonight the question is, did orders for all of this come from the absolutely highest level of British government, from David Cameron himself?

Earlier I spoke directly with the paper's editor, Alan Rusbridger, about what he himself calls one of the most bizarre events in his paper's history.


GORANI: Alan Rusbridger, thank you for being with us today on CNN.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER, EDITOR, "THE GUARDIAN": I'm pleased to be here.

GORANI: Well, we've read over the last few days your account of what happened in the basement of "The Guardian" newspaper in London and the destruction of some of these hard drives that contain the material, some of the material, leaked by Edward Snowden.

Who called "The Guardian"? Who called you and said we would like to pay you a visit?

RUSBRIDGER: Well, we had a call in mid-June from a senior official. He's now been named as Sir Jeremy Hayward, the cabinet secretary. He said he was acting on behalf of the prime minister. And for a while, it was (inaudible) about a period of a month, it was a cordial conversation. But at some point, in mid-July, it became an explicit threat of legal action if we didn't either return the disks or destroy them.

GORANI: So why did you comply, then? Because people are saying, well, you should have protected this material because it came from your source and is used in your reporting, in your paper.

RUSBRIDGER: Well, the point which I explained to the British officials was that Glenn Greenwald, "The Guardian" reporter who lives in Brazil, he has a copy and we already have another copy in America.

So destroying a copy in London wasn't going to stop us from reporting and the other side of the -- of my calculation was that if I were to hand it over to the government, I would be returning the material or I could have waited for the legal action, in which case the courts would have taken control of the material.

So it was no skin off my nose; I would simply transfer my reporting to America, where there is better legal protection.

GORANI: And I wanted to move onto the arrest of or to the detention, I should say, at Heathrow of David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, who's been doing much of that reporting based on the leaks of Edward Snowden.

Do you think he was targeted because he is the partner, the spouse of Glenn Greenwald?

RUSBRIDGER: I don't know that, but I would strongly suspect that he was on some kind of watch list and it seems that various people were tipped off in advance that he was likely to be detained.

GORANI: I'm sure you've seen some of the billion (ph) pieces out there over the last several days, saying David Miranda essentially is not a journalist; he was carrying possibly some material that was secret government material and therefore why should he not expect to be detained and questioned about it?

RUSBRIDGER: Well, I think the disturbing thing is the use of the Terrorism Act. And there's a former Lord Chancellor, the most senior legal officer in Britain, writing in "The Guardian" today, saying that is not what the Terrorism Act is for. And I think there's a great danger if you start confusing terrorism with journalism.

GORANI: And do we know what he was carrying? Is there something that can be made public now?

RUSBRIDGER: Well I think he was carrying material to do with the Snowden story. I don't know exactly what that is and I don't think David Miranda himself knew what that was.

GORANI: So going forward, one of the questions there coming from the officials that are seizing the material, that are confiscating the laptops, that are keeping the cell phones is this is all compromising Western security. That is their argument.

Do you ever have a concern that possibly some of the material could do that?

RUSBRIDGER: Of course. This is sensitive material and in all our reporting, we've been conscious of that and, in fact, the British officials who came to see me said "The Guardian" had been very responsible in its reporting. So I don't think there's any anxiety on that cause.

But the bigger picture is how on Earth do you keep a public informed about the ability of the state and the intelligence services and large telecommunications companies, large I.T. companies, the picture that has emerged of millions and millions of people having their data kept, stored and analyzed, is one that people did not realize was going on.

And that is part of a very vigorous debate around the world. So I have no doubt about the public importance of being able to write about this.

GORANI: Right. And you hinted at the notion that reporting can be done from anywhere and if you destroy a hard drive in one place, it can exist somewhere else in the digital age.

So what are the implications for reporters, for journalists, for investigative journalists in countries like the U.K. and the U.S.? Is it safer for them to operate from outside those countries, do you think?

RUSBRIDGER: Well, what I like about the digital world is that you can harness your reporting to the highest and most permissive legal regimes. And in America, I know there are anxieties about whistleblowers and so on and so forth. But you do have a written First Amendment and you don't have the kind of prior restraint that the British government was threatening against us.

So with WikiLeaks, as with this, the ability to root yourself in the American First Amendment and enjoy the kind of protection that American journalists have, I think is one of the good things about the way digital information works these days.

GORANI: Alan Rusbridger, thanks so much for joining us today.

RUSBRIDGER: Thank you.


GORANI: And after a break, imagine the last pharaoh returning from the grave. No, it's not a tale from the crypt. It's the political carousel in Egypt, turning once again, when we come back.



GORANI: A final thought tonight, imagine a world where a freely elected president is overthrown and detained indefinitely while the military dictator he replaced is released from prison.

As we mentioned earlier, Egypt's revolving door of justice keeps spinning as Hosni Mubarak receives his get-out-of-jail card, at least for now.

Two years ago, the man once known as the last pharaoh was politically dead and buried in the euphoria of the revolution that drove him from power and into a prison hospital. But in a return from the grave worthy of the legendary King Tutankhamen, the 85-year-old Mubarak who ruled Egypt for 30 years still lives to haunt the political landscape.

And it's not the first time he's cheated death, literally or figuratively. In 1981, he was seated next to his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, when assassins struck. Sadat, of course, was killed; Mubarak became president.

Fourteen years later, he narrowly escaped assassins again while on a state visit to Ethiopia. And even though the crowds in Tahrir Square cheered his resignation back in 2011, loyalists continued to venerate his name and beat the drum for his return. The last pharaoh may never sit on the throne again, but like the ancient kings who came before him, he refuses to disappear into the desert.

That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us at our website, And you can follow me on Twitter @halagorani. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.