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Syria and Chemical Weapons; Wildfire in Yosemite

Aired August 26, 2013 - 15:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So there he is, a powerful statement from the secretary of state, John Kerry, making it clear the Obama administration has absolutely no doubt that the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad did, in fact, use chemical weapons, chemical warfare against its own people, killing hundreds of them, injuring, wounding many, many more, in the thousands right now, the secretary of state saying, "This should shock the conscience of the world. This is a moral obscenity," insisting the president and himself, they were consulting others around the world right now on what to do next.

The president would be making decisions. But he certainly has a series of options in front of him right now. It was interesting that we also learned that the secretary of state, John Kerry, phoned the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, and spoke with him on the phone, issuing some tough warnings to the Syrian regime, the first direct contact, I suspect, between the highest levels of the U.S. government and the Syrian government in some time.

We have much to dissect right now.

Let's go to Chris Lawrence, our Pentagon correspondent.

Chris, I know that the Pentagon, the secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, they have put all sorts of military options in front of the president and his top national security team. But they're getting ready. They have contingencies in the Eastern Mediterranean right now. Right?


They have three U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean. Now they have four. Late last week, they added a fourth. That was a decision by the Sixth Fleet commander to keep more assets in the region. And those ships have now moved farther east, closer to Syria.

That's interesting because they present the option, each arm, with up to 100 Tomahawk missiles. These are long-range missiles that are designed to hit targets on land from the sea. And probably most importantly, they would not involve putting American or allied pilots anywhere near Syrian airspace.

BLITZER: Let's get some military analysis from Colonel Peter Mansoor, retired U.S. Army colonel.

Colonel, thanks for joining us. If the U.S. were to do in Syria, let's say, what the U.S. and NATO allies did in Libya a couple years ago, launch these Tomahawk cruise missiles, launch airstrikes, what would be presumably achieved beyond expressing the deep condemnation of what the Syrian regime is now alleged to have done?

COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, a one-time strike would just be a punitive measure to tell the Syrian government that its actions were morally reprehensible and that the international community won't put up with them.

As far as having a military impact, the question is, what are they going to target? Syrian air force? Syrian ground forces? Chemical weapon storage sites? Or regime targets? Maybe go after Bashar al- Assad himself. That's all the things the administration needs to sort out right now.

BLITZER: What would the legal authority be, assuming the United Nations Security Council does not approve a resolution authorizing the use of military force because of a Russian veto at the Security Council? What would the legal authority be?

MANSOOR: Well, I think it would be a Russian and maybe even a Chinese veto as well. So the administration will have to cobble together some sort of coalition of the willing and then present it in the form of a responsibility to protect or an RTP issue, that this was a humanitarian crisis foisted on the Syrian people by its government and that the international community therefore has a moral obligation to intervene.

BLITZER: And is that -- that was something that the that Bill Clinton administration used in Bosnia back in the late 1990s. There was no U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed then, because once again of a Russian veto. Presumably the same kind of legal argument that was used in Bosnia, launching NATO airstrikes that you well remember, presumably that same legal argument could be used by President Obama now if he decides to use military force?

MANSOOR: That same legal argument, and back in Bosnia, of course, they had NATO's backing as well. So it's an open question whether they would try to go that route.

Certainly, they're going to need Turkey's support to do whatever they're going to do, unless it's just launching cruise missiles from ships in the Mediterranean. But if they want to have a deep and lasting impact, they need to have a wider-based coalition.

BLITZER: Stand by, Colonel.

Elise Labott is our foreign affairs reporter. She covers the State Department.

Elise, it was interesting to me, at least, that the secretary of state said he phoned Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, to make the U.S. position clear about what was going on. I suspect since the U.S. pulled out its ambassador from Damascus a long time ago, this is probably the highest-level direct contact between the Obama administration and the regime of president Bashar al-Assad. ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Secretary Kerry used to be Senator Kerry. He was one of the senators on the Hill who was in touch with the regime. But Ambassador Ford really was the top official dealing with the regime, even since he left Syria earlier this year.

However, really, there's no contact with the regime. What Secretary Kerry wanted the foreign minister to know was that the U.S. expected those inspectors to get on the ground, even as they said that it was too late, that they would never be able to really get an accurate reading, and let them know that there are going to be consequences.

I think what you need to think about now, Wolf, is what would any type of U.S. response, international response, what is the goal, what would it accomplish? Now, my sources are telling me they are kind of three- fold here. It's as the general said to punish the regime for use of chemical weapons, make sure he's not -- the regime is not able to use those chemical weapons again, and degrade them in the sense of the opposition, change the balance of military balance on the ground, but not too much, Wolf.

I don't think anybody thinks right now that this is an effort to topple Bashar al-Assad or the regime. I think one of the main concerns is that there really is no viable alternative. We have heard a lot about how the opposition is not organized, it is not ready to take over leadership of the country. There's a lot of concern that Islamists could step in. So I think what you might see in terms of an international response is something that would damage Bashar al-Assad, but would leave him in a weakened state and hopefully make sure that he doesn't use anything of this type of nature again.

BLITZER: Maybe designed to deter the use of chemical weapons down the road. That would be the objective, presumably, in addition to expressing the U.S. condemnation, if the U.S. were to launch some sort of military strike against targets in Syria.

Elise, stand by for a moment.

Nick Paton Walsh is in New York. But he's been to Syria on several occasions, based in Beirut, knows the situation well.

How is this strong statement from the secretary of state likely to be received by the regime in Damascus, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you have met the secretary as well. He's normally a very mild-mannered, measured man. And you can actually sense, I think, personal anger in many ways in what he was saying.

He referred to how he'd watched one more time the gut-wrenching video. Also quite clear that the use of chemical weapons by the regime was undeniable, so really laying out, I think, a personal case there, a man of some global diplomatic stature perhaps putting his brand, his stamp on the U.S. claim going forwards.

And I think that will make it clear in the region the U.S. is going to harness global opinion or that of its allies in the days ahead. One interesting thing he pointed out, and one thing he didn't point out, they didn't go into specifics about how they were so sure these weapons had been used. He did say that additional information that they have would be provided in the days ahead.

It's clear we're going to see more information from the U.S. forthcoming. Whether that would involve some kind of pressure at the U.N. or elsewhere, it's not clear. He referred to the Syrian foreign minister as just simply Muallem, I think very clear that there's no love lost there at all.

I think what we have just seen there really is a he secretary of state personally, I think, angry at this and desirous of making that sense of drive, which pretty much embodies now the Obama administration's position on this, felt globally, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the secretary of state making it clear that as far as the Obama administration is concerned, the U.S. intelligence community, they have absolutely no doubt that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad deliberately used chemical warfare, killing hundreds and injuring thousands of its own people not far from the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Let me play a clip. Once again, here's the secretary of state.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear.

The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.


BLITZER: Undeniable from the secretary of state.

Gloria Borger is our chief political analyst.

Gloria, you know, when the secretary of state makes a powerful statement like that, it almost requires the U.S. to go beyond more condemnations, more words, and do something tangibly to underscore that deep anger that is felt here in Washington and elsewhere. It almost sets the scene for direct military action.


BLITZER: At least in some measured way.

BORGER: It does, Wolf. I mean, this is the opposite of diplo-speak. This was direct and it was very compelling. And there was no mistaking the secretary of state's words when he called the evidence real and compelling and when he said that he knows the Syrian regime maintains the custody of these weapons and he said if they had nothing to hide, then their response should have been immediate transparency.

Instead, there was shelling for days and evidence was apparently destroyed. But he said in any case that the United States knows for a fact that there were chemical weapons used. He also gave a heads-up and said, look, the president is going to be making an informed decision about how to respond. He did not give a timeline on this.

I mean, we know, Wolf, that the president is headed to a summit in Russia next week. So the window here seems to be getting smaller and smaller. But he did not lay out a timetable, and nor should we expect him to, I might add. But he did make it very clear that the president, as he said, believes there must be accountability. And, as he said, the president is giving this very serious scrutiny.

BLITZER: The next few days will be critical as far as the U.S. military response together, presumably, at least, with some of the NATO allies. We will see what unfolds. Gloria, thanks very much.

We're obviously going to have a lot more coming up later today in "THE SITUATION ROOM," 5:00 p.m. Eastern. I will be back for that.

In the meantime, we will take a quick break. All the day's other news with Brianna Keilar right after this.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar, in for Brooke Baldwin.

And we are following breaking news as the U.S. government weighs its response to what Secretary of State John Kerry just called a moral obscenity, the use of chemical weapons in Syria against civilians. We will continue to follow that story this hour.

But we're going to bring you some other headlines. In the meantime, we're going to begin in California, where a monster wildfire is creeping farther into the iconic Yosemite National Park. The Rim fire has scorched an area about the size of Chicago, swallowing up really everything in its path.

Some good news today, though. Containment is now up to 15 percent. The city of San Francisco, some 150 miles away, is keeping a close eye on this fire. That's because the city gets much of its water supply from a reservoir that's sitting right in the fire's path.

CNN's Nick Valencia is just outside the park in Groveland, California.

Nick, you have been out on the fire lines really for days now. What are crews doing to get the upper hand here?


Fire officials I have spoken to earlier this morning are very concerned. They're concerned because this fire continues to grow. Just in the last few days, since we have been here, it's grown more than 30,000 acres, bringing that acreage up to 149,000-plus acreage.

As you mentioned, yes, there is some positive sides to this. The containment is up from 7 percent to 15 percent. But there have been some very critical losses. Yesterday afternoon, according to the U.S. Forest Service, Berkeley campground was lost. Why is that important? It's about two to three miles from the north entrance of Yosemite Park.

And that fire continues its steady march easterly towards Hetch Hetchy, which is also an important resource for the city of San Francisco. San Francisco gets the majority of its municipal power, things that run the airports, streetcars, cable cars, streetlights, a majority of its water from this reservoir here in Hetch Hetchy.

Fire officials are very concerned. They're trying to do their best to keep this fire from further encroaching on that western boundary of Yosemite National Park. We should mention, though, that this fire is still very far away, about 30 or 40 miles away from the more iconic part of Yosemite National Park, the Yosemite Valley.

But we're coming up on some very critical hours here, Brianna, these afternoon hours with the sun up. And it starts to -- the wind starts to pick up. The fire creates its own weather system. That wind starts picking up these hot spots and spreading them. I'm not sure if you can see behind me. But there's some hot spots still smoldering. Inside the ring of fire here around Stanislaus National Forest, fire officials tell us those hot spots could stay smoldering until the snow falls - Brianna.

KEILAR: My goodness. Unbelievable. Nick Valencia, thanks for your report.

Now, it is back to school time in a lot of places. That includes Chicago, where thousands of children are going to new schools with fewer teachers. There are also hundreds of adults hired by the city to make sure children crossing into gang-infested neighborhoods make it to school alive.

Our George Howell joins us now from Chicago.

George, Chicago has seen drastic budget cuts we have been paying attention to and a high number of gang-related killings. It was a violent weekend. Can you tell us what happened?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, absolutely. These safe zones in the neighborhoods, they are considered to be safe areas, even when workers are not on the job protecting kids. But as you mentioned, it was a violent weekend, starting on Saturday when we know that the 14-year-old boy was shot and killed just a block away from a safe passage route.

And then on Sunday, a 28-year-old man, police say, was shot in the neck. We understand that he is in guarded condition, but he was on a safe passage route. And then consider what happened just a week ago. We understand that five people were shot in front of a church. One of the victims died from that shooting. But, again, that happened on a safe passage route.

Now, Chicago public officials with the school district, they do point out this important distinction, that none of these shootings happened during school hours. And they say that the Safe Passage program itself is a successful program because, again, no child has been injured or killed since that program was started, Brianna, back in 2009.

KEILAR: So, George, it's really just an issue of it's a safe passage area, but only during school hours, then?

HOWELL: Well, and that's what some parents are saying. They say, look, what if my child has an after-school event to go to? What happens then?

One parent that I spoke to said she didn't like the route that was designated in her neighborhood. So she made her own safe passage back through the neighborhood. You find some parents finding their own way around this, because, again, there are some 12,000 students who are now affected by this, 12,000 students who are moved to different schools after layoffs and school closures. And now many of them are looking at different routes to get to school.

KEILAR: Wow. George Howell, thank you so much.

And next, police say an 8-year-old intentionally shot and killed his caregiver after playing a violent video game. But do studies show a connection that so many people are drawing from this case? The gaming industry is responding to critics, next.


KEILAR: Louisiana deputies say an 8-year-old boy shot and killed his 87-year-old baby-sitter, not by accident, as the boy first explained it, but with intent.

And the victim, according to our affiliate WBRZ, is the boy's grandmother. The shooting happened Thursday. The sheriff in East Feliciana Parish says the boy intentionally shot the woman in the back of the head as she sat in her living room. Still, he won't be charged because the state law exempts kids younger than 10 from criminal responsibility.

Well, the motive here, deputies don't know, but sheriff's officials say the boy was playing this at the time.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stop shooting people, you maniac.


KEILAR: He was playing that just minutes before he fired the gun. "Grand Theft Auto 4" is rated mature, meaning it's for players who are 17 years and older.

And so I'm going to turn now to clinical psychologist David Swanson.

David, this is drawing a lot of speculation that there is a connection here. Do you think it's possible for the video game to have caused or contributed to the boy shooting his caregiver? Because sheriff's officials say the two had a loving relationship.

DAVID SWANSON, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST: Well, I do think that there's a possibility connection here. And, you know, look, the biggest part of research we know so far because of all the shootings we have is that there's no clear-cut connection between violent video games and actual acting out.

However, kids this young, when they see episodes of television, when they see video games, they are likely to go ahead and model after what they see on these video games and television.

Why an 8-year-old was playing a game like you're seeing on your television screen right now is beyond me. This is clearly also a lack of supervision.

KEILAR: You're saying that there could be an issue here of modeling. And, obviously, as you can imagine, Take-Two Interactive, which is the maker of this video game, "Grand Theft Auto 4," released a statement.

It says: "Ascribing a connection to entertainment, a theory that has been proven or disproven repeatedly by multiple independent studies, both minimizes this moment and sidesteps the real issues at hand."

What do you think about that reaction, and especially when we are talking about this game that is supposed to be played by kids who are 17 years and older?

SWANSON: Yes. Look, a video game industry is going to protect the product that they put out there. They're right. There's no conclusive evidence. But the more that we look into this, there's emerging evidence that suggests that younger kids become desensitized to violence.

They start to act out violently in terms of what they see on television. Look, I have got three kids. I coach them in basketball. We even had a kid come up to a basketball practice and show me a move that he told me afterwards, I saw that on a video game. There's no doubt in my mind as a psychologist with a practice with over 20 years experience that for children, we're going to see that this evidence starts to shift and change,that they do model what they see and that in this case there's likely a connection.

KEILAR: So you say likely a connection. And also there could be other issues here. Lack of supervision, you said, might be one of them. And I assume there are some others as well that we will be exploring in the days to come. David Swanson, thank you.

SWANSON: Thank you. KEILAR: Now, next, more on our breaking news from Secretary of State John Kerry. Just moments ago, he said it is undeniable that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons in Syria against civilians. And he said the president believes the Syrian government should be held accountable. So what does this mean for the U.S. and its allies? We will have that next.

Plus, police threaten to arrest members of a church group. What were they doing? Feeding the homeless, just like they have done for the past six years. We will tell you why officers are saying the church is breaking the law.