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Will U.S. Strike Syria?; Yosemite On Fire; 150,000-Acre Fire Burning in California; Congress to Pres.: Consult us on Syria

Aired August 26, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Is a U.S. strike on Syria now a forgone conclusion?

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

The world lead, undeniable, that's the word that Secretary of State John Kerry just used to describe the suspected chemical attack in Syria. The question now, is the president going to act?

The national lead, 150,000 acres and growing fast, a massive wildfire burning through one of our natural wonders, imposing a serious threat to life back here in civilization.

And the sports lead, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie getting his Howard Stern on, taking over the airwaves and hosting a sports radio show. Did the governor miss his real calling as a shock jock?

I'm John Berman, filling in for Jake Tapper, who is off today. Good afternoon, everyone.

We begin with the world lead and breaking news. With four U.S. navy warships parked in striking distance of Syria, the U.S. is now sending its most aggressive message yet to that regime. Inspectors from the United Nations are in the country trying to determine whether chemical weapons were used in an attack last week.

Plus, from the way Secretary of State John Kerry is talking, it seems the U.S. has already come to its own conclusion about what happened.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. But any standard, it is inexcusable, and despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.


BERMAN: Undeniable and a moral obscenity. On August 20, 2012, President Obama said that the use of -- quote -- "a whole bunch of chemical weapons in Syria" would be a red line. Now almost exactly a year later, tens of thousands of lives have been lost.

Secretary Kerry now says the president is talking with members of Congress and key allies to make an informed decision on a response. Meanwhile, half of Americans can't even find the country on a map. That is not an exaggeration.

Recent polls show overwhelmingly that Americans simply do not want to get involved in Syria. It should be noted also that Secretary Kerry's tough language came before inspectors from the United Nations could return any findings from Syria. Those inspectors ran into some danger of their own while examining one of alleged sites of this latest chemical attack.

Our own Frederik Pleitgen is covering all of this for us in the capital of Syria, Damascus -- Fred.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, it was a pretty tough day for the U.N. weapons inspectors but they said also quite a productive day.

Their car came under fire right after they left from the hotel they were staying at. They said all of this happened in the buffer zone between the area that is controlled by the government and the area that is controlled by the rebels.

It's hard to say who exactly could have been behind that sniper attack. The government, of course, blames the rebels, saying it was -- quote, unquote -- "terrorists who did this," whereas the rebels issued a statement saying they believe it was a government sniper who was behind all this.

Now, after getting a new car when their first car was disabled, they then managed to get on the ground to that Mouadamiya district, which is in the southwest of Damascus. And there they were able to visit a field hospital. And the video showed them gathering samples. It's not exactly clear what was inside those plastic bags, but we could see them gathering samples.

And they also said they were able to speak to some of the victims of the alleged gas attack and find out from them what exactly happened and also what that gas did to them, what it did to their bodies, what the effects of all of this were.

Now, the U.N. says it was a very productive day, that they gathered a lot of very valuable evidence. The Assad regime, for its part, still continues to deny that its forces used chemical gases on the front lines. Bashar al-Assad himself gave an interview to a Russian newspaper, saying it would be ludicrous for his forces to use such gases on the front line when is his own soldiers were there as well.

However, of course, we know the U.S. is not buying it. John Kerry came out with a very, very powerful speech earlier where he said he was absolutely disgusted by the videos he's been seeing on social media, that he was moved as a father seeing those dead children and especially seeing one image of a father holding his dead child into the camera and breaking down in tears.

He said -- quote -- that the attack was "undeniable," so some very strong statements coming from the U.S. The Syrian government, for their part, again, continues to stick by its line that it wasn't them and warned the U.S. of an intervention, saying Syria will fight back, but they haven't said how exactly they would do that, John.

BERMAN: All right, Frederik Pleitgen in Damascus. Our thanks to Fred for that.

I want to bring in Richard Haass. He's the president on the Council on Foreign Relations, also the author of "Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order."

Richard, let me ask you this. Based on the tone of Secretary Kerry's statement which he made just an hour ago, which was a tone we frankly have not heard before, the strength of that tone, very powerful words on Syria, is it safe to say it would be shocking if the U.S. did not take some form of military action?

RICHARD HAASS, PRESIDENT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Secretary Kerry went far out on a limb, both in the content and, as you say, John, the tone.

So, sure, I would frankly be surprised and then some if the United States now did not probably together with a few other countries take some military action.

BERMAN: What kind of action would you advise? You have written that a cruise missile attack you think would be the way to go.

HAASS: Yes, something that did not put American aircraft within range of the fairly extensive Syrian air defense system.

You're probably looking at sea launch cruise missile, probably some airborne cruise missiles, but something along those lines I think would be the most natural sort of response for the United States to launch at this point.

BERMAN: And we have doubled our capability in the region with four warships, as opposed to two now near Syria.

A senior official tells CNN that any strike that the U.S. might conduct is not meant to topple Assad, simply because the opposition wouldn't be ready to take over. So the question here is, why bother? Is some kind of attack, even with these cruise missiles, as you suggest, really anything more than a therapeutic bombing?

HAASS: Well, actually I think it's quite important for two reasons. One is chemical weapons have been used.

It is important to underscore the principle, the norm, the taboo that these weapons ought to have, that no one, Syria or anybody else, now and forever more should be able to use such weapons, much less biological or nuclear weapons, with impunity.

Secondly, the United States said that any use of such weapons would constitute a game changer, would cross a red line. Any time you throw down a diplomatic gauntlet, your words have repercussions, not simply for the immediate situation, but in this case in Iran and North Korea and around the world.

So I think it's essential that the United States act. That said, I don't think we ought to be getting involved centrally in the Syrian civil war. I don't think the United States should become a protagonist in that situation. If we want to help the opposition, the best way to do it is through considerable arming of those elements of the opposition with agendas we can support.

So I think there's an important distinction between what we need to do to signal our unhappiness over the use of chemical weapons, but also to put a ceiling on what we're doing so we don't get enmeshed in what I think could become a quagmire.

BERMAN: We -- you talked about the tone of the statement from Secretary Kerry, the language he used, undeniable. He called it a moral outrage. He also said that to deny that a chemical attack took place would be cynical and amount to a cover-up.

There is one powerful nation that is saying it sees no evidence of a chemical attack. That is Russia. So, the question is, what message is the secretary of state now sending to Russia with his words and could this even further damage U.S./Russia relations, I suppose if that's even possible?

HAASS: Well, relations are, shall we say, in the deep freeze. What I think the secretary of state was signaling to Moscow is that we're simply going to bypass the United Nations Security Council.

And the United States will find potentially other organizations, be it NATO, be it the Arab League, or will simply put together an informal grouping of nation, a so-called coalition of the willing that will support this effort both diplomatically and militarily.

So, essentially, if Russia wants to stick to what the secretary of state properly called essentially an outrageous position, it will find itself diplomatically isolated and on the sidelines.

BERMAN: That was a model the U.S. used before when it attacked in the Kosovo conflict in the late '90s.

HAASS: Absolutely.

BERMAN: Richard Haass, thanks so much. Great to have you here.

Appreciate it.

HAASS: Any time.

BERMAN: Coming up on THE LEAD: It is one of the largest wildfires in California history, a fire the size of Chicago and this thing is getting bigger by the minute. Now residents of San Francisco, which is two hours away, have real reason to worry. All about the Rim fire. We will explain.

Plus, a costly mistake -- why the federal government had to destroy $30 million. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

The national lead. If you're one of the four million people who visit Yosemite National Park every year, you have seen the stunning massive beauty with your own eyes. Those same words, stunning and massive, could describe the Rim fire burning inside Yosemite right now.

Imagine the whole city of Chicago on fire. That's how big this is, the size of Chicago, nearly 150,000 acres. This is one of the largest fires in California history. The whole area is like a strike-anywhere match, dry and highly flammable. This Rim fire is so massive that it can be seen from space, quite literally.

NASA released this picture showing a wide canopy of smoke over the whole area. Look at that. This has destroyed at least 12,000 acres in the northwest part of the park. But it's not in the Yosemite Valley right now, which is where the tourists flock, so it's not really keeping people away yet.

The fire also creeping close to the reservoir that supplies fresh water to San Francisco so a threat to that city as well.

Let's go now to Lee Bentley. He's a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service who is on the ground just outside of Yosemite National Park.

Mr. Bentley, how much of the Rim fire is contained at this point?


BERMAN: Fifteen percent. That still leaves a very large fire now raging. How is the battle going as we head into the afternoon?

Well, it's pretty intense. About this time of the day every day, this fire, the inversion layer lifts that we have had and the fire comes just boiling out of the -- of where it's been laying. It's very intense. We have had columns up to 40,000 feet, even 43,000. It's creating its own weather. It's just spitting this fire out every which direction.

BERMAN: How are the firefighters holding out? What is the biggest threat to them at this point?

BENTLEY: Well, we want to make sure they keep well hydrated. Heat exhaustion would be a real big threat, but these are all pros out here, well-trained, and they're up for the task.

BERMAN: Millions of us have been to Yosemite, visited those majestic areas inside the park. How much of the area where tourist goes has been affected at this point?

BENTLEY: Not that much.

At the north entrance, I would say a little bit, but beyond that so far they're not going to see a whole lot of black. Coming toward back toward on 120, toward Groveland, they're going to see a whole lot of black, where it's been burnt.

BERMAN: At this point, do you feel like you have enough resources on the ground? What further help do you need?

BENTLEY: Well, we're just under 3,700 people fighting this fire. We're also fighting out of two areas, so we're set up in Tuolumne City with a group. And we're over here in Tuolumne Meadows. So we're split somewhat.

We probably have 2,000 of that group, and they have another 1,600 or over so in Tuolumne City.

BERMAN: Well, Lee Bentley --

BENTLEY: So, we're fighting the fire from three sides, two fronts.

BERMAN: We -- we wish you the best of luck. Lee Bentley with the U.S. Forest Service, thank you so much. We appreciate the work you're doing out there.

BENTLEY: You're welcome, sir.

BERMAN: That Yosemite Fire is threatening thousands of homes and residents out there are really on edge. The situation is especially tricky for the owners of a horse ranch in the sierra foothills. They had to move all 15 of their horses about 30 miles from the fire zone, and right now, they're worried about what could happen to the property that they've really dedicated their lives to if these winds keep shifting.

Joining us now by phone is Cheri Bunney. She's the owner of the Slide Mountain Guest Ranch in Tuolumne, California.

Cheri, when did you make the call to evacuate?

CHERI BUNNEY, RANCH OWNER (via telephone): They advised us Friday that, you know, it's an advisory evacuation. We take it seriously because it takes several trips to get the live stock out so we started hauling them out of here on Friday. So, they've been gone since Friday.

BERMAN: Did the horses behave differently? Could they tell there was danger?

BUNNEY: I think they have an instinct when they smell fire. But they seemed OK. We did unfortunately lost our oldest and most favorite horse the morning of the evacuation so that was a little sad for us. But I guess it was his time, you know?

BERMAN: What's the latest word you've received from firefighters right now about the threat coming your way?

BUNNEY: Well, I feel like they've worked really hard on this side of the fire. They were flying over Friday with a huge borate plane and they dropped a line to protect the city and then they came in with the bulldozers and the firefighters were telling my husband they did four runs, you know, to make a wide path there. So I feel like they're just really doing a great job in protecting the city and this 108 area. But they moved a borate station in here and as we're speaking, these huge helicopters are flying over and they're getting the borate right here in Tuolumne, which makes it a lot closer for them to fight the fire.

BERMAN: This has been going on for days. How are you doing? Are your own resources, both emotional and physical being strained at this point?

BUNNEY: Yes. It starts to. Well, at first, you tell yourself, we've lived here 30 years and we went through the complex fire, which was also very large. But you tell yourself not to panic but you know you have to take it very seriously as well. So you have to try to keep up.

But, yes, it's starting to put a strain on us after four days. I'm sure the firefighters are feeling the same way.

BERMAN: They are. Cheri Bunney, we're sorry for the loss of your one horse. We're glad you got the other horses out. We wish you and your family the best of luck. Thanks so much for being with us.

BUNNEY: Thank you.

BERMAN: Coming up next on the sports lead, he's the former heavyweight champion of the world. Now, Mike Tyson says he's close to dying. Learn the secret he says he's been hiding for years.

And you did it, Miley Cyrus. We no longer remember you as that sweet, adorable Hannah Montana. The performance that has everyone talking and asking should this even be allowed. Let alone on TV, how about earth?


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

The sports lead -- she made history in London, becoming the first African-American woman to win the all-around gymnastic competition. But now, Gabby Douglas is cutting ties with the coach that helped her get to the top, and she's heading for Hollywood.

According to "The Des Moines Register", Douglas split with her long- time coach in Iowa and is reportedly planning a move to L.A. She'll not only be closer to her family but it could make it easier for her to keep up with her demanding schedule of celebrity appearances. The Olympic champ has said in the past that she intends to compete in 2016 Games in Brazil. But so far, no announcement on who will be her in your trainer or exactly when that training would begin. That is a very hard sport to repeat in.

All right. He went from a frightening ear-eating ex-con to a Phil Collins singing Broadway star. Few people have been able to repair or improve their public image quite like Iron Mike Tyson, but the baddest on the planet is still in there, according to Tyson himself. Tyson opened up about his ongoing struggle with addiction during his successful as a boxing promoter on Friday night.


MIKE TYSON, FORMER BOXING CHAMP: I'm on a verge of dying because I'm a vicious alcoholic. I haven't drank or took drugs in six days, and for me that's a miracle. I've been lying to everybody telling them I'm sober but I'm not. This is my sixth day. I'm never going to use again.



BERMAN: Jarring words from Tyson there. And continuing that difficult path towards redemption, Tyson made amends with his former trainer, now ESPN analyst, Teddy Atlas, who said he once pulled a gun on Tyson after he acted inappropriately with one of his relatives.

He's got a tough, gruff, no-nonsense style that would make him the perfect candidate to jaw with New York sports fans on the radio. This morning, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was a guest host on WFAN in New York. His co-host presented Christie, who is a long suffering New York Mets fan, with a thank you gift for filling in. This gift may already be on eBay.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Someone sent to me a jersey with your name on the back.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Let me just say this -- no chance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And a certain year, 2016.


CHRISTIE: Now there's two reasons there's no chance.


BERMAN: Not wearing a Yankees shirt. That could burn your skin. Well done, Governor Christie.

Let's check in with the green room and out political panel -- Marc Thiessen and Gloria Borger and Hilary Rosen.

Hilary, Governor Christie said he wasn't going to pull a Hillary Clinton and ditch his beloved Dallas Cowboys just because he's the government of New Jersey. Does a comment like that deserve a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct?


ROSEN: You know, this is his problem. He can't just do a guy sportsy thing. He's got to pick on the girl.

BERMAN: All right. We'll let your --


GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Why should he be different from anyone else?

BERMAN: We will talk football, politics and much more when we come back.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman.

The politics lead -- his own secretary of state said it is now undeniable. Secretary Kerry said there is very little doubt. So, with all this near certainty that Syria used chemical weapons, what is President Obama prepared to do about it?

The money lead -- the Treasury tries to stay a few steps ahead of counterfeiters were some disastrous results. A big bag of C-notes may not be worth any more than Monopoly money. So, what will the government do with it now?

And the pop lead, the performance everyone is talking about. Miley Cyrus giving a giant foam finger to her Hannah Montana past. Did the former Disney star accomplish exactly what she wanted?


BERMAN: All right. Our politics lead now. While President Obama weighs his military options in Syria, Congress is still on vacation, mind you, wants to make sure they are not left out of the conversation.


SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I hope the president, as soon as we get back to Washington, will ask for authorization from Congress to do something in a very surgical and proportional way.

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: Under the War Powers Act, they have to notify Congress immediately of a significant use of American forces. So there will be consultations. There has to be consultation.