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White House Briefing; Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons; Wildfire Growing in Yosemite National Forest; Kids Head Back to School in Newtown

Aired August 27, 2013 - 13:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN LIVE FEED)

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: OK. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here, as ever. I have no announcements to make at the top of this briefing, so I will go straight to Julie Pace.

QUESTION: Thank you. Has the president made any decisions in the last 24 hours or so on what the U.S. response to Syrian chemical weapons...

(CROSSTALK)

CARNEY: The president continues to work with his national security team, reviewing the options available to him. And when he has made a decision and has an announcement to make, he'll make it. So that process continues.

QUESTION: So he has not made a decision at this point?

CARNEY: Correct.

QUESTION: And there's a lot of speculation that this intelligence report that presumably would link Assad directly to the chemical weapons attack might be released today. Can you give us an update on the timing?

CARNEY: Well, what I would say is that yesterday I made clear that the intelligence community is working on an assessment and that once we have that assessment, we would provide information to the public about it in the coming days, and that remains true. I think that that fed speculation that it would come today rather than some other day. But it will come, and I think you can expect it this week.

Let me also say -- and I think that both Secretary Kerry and I attempted to make clear yesterday that there is no doubt here that chemical weapons were used on a massive scale on August 21st outside of Damascus. There is also very little doubt -- and should be no doubt for anyone who approaches this logically -- that the Syrian regime is responsible for the use of chemical weapons on August 21st outside of Damascus.

We have established with a high degree of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons already in this conflict. We have made clear that it is our firm assessment that the Syrian regime has maintained control of the stockpile of chemical weapons in Syria throughout this conflict. It is also the case that the Syrian regime has the rocket capacity to deliver the chemical weapons as they were delivered with repugnant results on August 21st outside of Damascus.

So the deliberations that are taking place now and the options that are being considered by the president and his national security team are not around the question of whether or not chemical weapons were used in Syria on a significant scale, causing mass death and injury to innocent civilians, to women and children. It is not around the question of whether or not the Syrian regime is responsible. It's around the question of, what is the appropriate response to this clear violation of international norms?

QUESTION: But (inaudible) expectations the intel report (inaudible) that it will provide some type of evidence that clearly shows beyond sort of taking all of these pieces that we know and inferring that this must be the Assad regime. Will this be tangible evidence that...

(CROSSTALK)

CARNEY: There will be more information provided with what we can give to you in an unclassified manner to the public from the intelligence community. But this is not just an inference. This is not just the U.S. government asserting it.

This is -- I think you saw the statement from the Arab League. I think you've seen multiple eyewitness accounts, video accounts. You've seen statements from independent organizations working in Syria, like Doctors without Borders. Some of your colleagues, who are risking their lives to cover this story in Syria have provided substantial confirmation of what occurred on August 21st.

So what the president is engaged in is a process of deciding, as he consults with international allies and as his administration consults with Congress, about what the appropriate response to this flagrant violation of international norms should be.

QUESTION: And then finally...

CARNEY: And there must be a response.

QUESTION: ... British Prime Minister David Cameron is recalling parliament this week. There's going to be a motion put forward on Thursday, a vote on authorizing the British response. Is it fair to say that President Obama is not going to recall Congress to seek some type of similar measure before proceeding?

CARNEY: Well, first of all, I don't want to engage in speculation about a course of action that has not been decided upon. When the president has an announcement to make, he'll make it.

As this process is undertaken, we are consulting directly with House and Senate leaders in Congress. We are consulting directly with the leadership of the relevant committees, as well as with other members of Congress who have a keen interest in this matter. I think you've seen that documented by some members who have spoken to it. And that process will continue. We think it's very important that the consultation process take place in a matter like this with such gravity.

We are also, as we've made clear, engaging with our international partners. There's a substantial list of communications that the secretary of state has had, the president himself, as we've read out to you, has had consultations with Canadian Prime Minister Harper today and in recent days with British Prime Minister Cameron, French President Hollande, and Australian Prime Minister Rudd.

QUESTION: But (OFF-MIKE)

CARNEY: And I would anticipate that the president will continue to make calls to his counterparts throughout the week. When it comes to processes, I think which goes to your question, I'm not going to -- it presupposes a course of action that hasn't been decided upon.

QUESTION: But the fact that Cameron is in a position to recall his parliament, saying he's going to put forward a motion and have a vote on Thursday...

CARNEY: Well, let me just make...

(CROSSTALK)

CARNEY: ... a broad statement. Let me just make -- obviously, this is a different country with a different form of government. There is...

QUESTION: I'm just talking whether something's been decided. I mean, the fact that he's in the position to take this step on Thursday seems to indicate something's been decided.

CARNEY: We are -- we are -- well, no, nothing has been decided, as I said in response to your first question. We are in direct contact with Prime Minister Cameron and his government, and -- and the president himself has spoken with the prime minister, as he has with other foreign leaders, and those consultations will continue.

And we share the views of the British government about the appalling nature of the transgression that occurred in Syria and are consulting with the British and other allies and partners about the appropriate response.

Yes?

QUESTION: Jay, you were -- you were very firm in saying just now that there's little doubt that the Syrian regime was, in fact, responsible for this chemical attack. So, in that context, what is the purpose of this -- of this report? Is it to legitimize, to get rid of any remaining doubt and, therefore, legitimize a response in the eyes of the international community?

CARNEY: I'm not aware of any doubt that exists. I think that maybe if you take Bashar al-Assad seriously on these matters, you might have some doubt, but there's no evidence to suggest that he has any credibility when it comes to his statements about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The actions taken by his regime in response to and the immediate aftermath of this heinous attack demonstrate his lack of credibility.

And we believe that a careful review of the facts leads to the conclusion that the regime was behind this. Again, it's undeniable that chemical weapons were used on a large scale. We know that the regime maintains custody of the chemical weapons in Syria and uses the types of rockets that were used to deliver chemical weapons on August 21st. The opposition does not.

We also know that the opposition does not have the capabilities that the Syrian regime has. And as I mentioned earlier, we have already had an assessment by the intelligence community with a high degree of confidence that the Syrian regime has used on a smaller scale chemical weapons in this conflict already. So suggestions that there's any doubt about who's responsible for this are as preposterous as suggestions that the attack itself didn't occur.

QUESTION: Secretary Hagel said -- I guess it was yesterday -- that if any action was taken, it would be concert with the international community and within the framework of legal justification. Is any legal justification lacking prior to any action by the United States on this? And does the international community need any further convincing?

CARNEY: Well, I'm not going to, you know, make legal justifications for actions that haven't been decided upon. When the president makes a decision about what the appropriate response for the United States is, we will and he will provide ample context for the decision that he makes.

But prior to that, you know, I'm not going to speculate about what that context will be, because an announcement has not been made and a decision is pending as the president and his team review the options available to them.

QUESTION: And, finally, the United States yesterday postponed with Russia talks in The Hague. Russia calls that regrettable. What is the United States trying to say or communicate to Russia about Syria that it should accept a response -- a military response that should not stand in the way or object? What are we trying to communicate to Russia?

CARNEY: Well, the meeting that you mentioned has been postponed, not canceled. We are very engaged in the process of pursuing a political resolution to this conflict. We have stated it for a long time, that there is no military solution available here, that the way to bring about a better future in Syria is through negotiation and a political resolution. And -- and it is our firm belief that Bashar al-Assad has long since forsaken any legitimacy that he might have to lead and that Syria's future must be one that is without Assad in power. But that is a process that has to take place through negotiation. We will continue to engage in all the many ways that we have in an effort to bring about that reconciliation or that process, that settlement.

(END LIVE FEED)

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: I want to bring in our Wolf Blitzer as well as Jill Dougherty. They are both covering the White House briefing. And I want to start off with you first, Wolf, because we heard Jay Carney say a number of things. First of all, he said that there was no doubt that chemical weapons had been used on August 21st outside of Damascus. Then he said there was little doubt that the Syrian regime was responsible for that and that they had the capability to actually deliver those chemical weapons. So, essentially, what are we waiting for when it comes to this intelligence report that we don't already know?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": I think the intelligence, they've basically complete it. He did say that the intelligence report, the declassified version would be released. He said it will come this week. He didn't say it would come today. He didn't say it would come tomorrow. He said it would come this week which, obviously, it could mean it still could come today. It could come tomorrow. It could come Thursday, whenever but he did say this week. I think they're going through it. They're scrubbing it. They want to make sure that everything is right. They don't want any blunders in there, no embarrassments that maybe some of the intelligence is inaccurate based on quality information or whatever. So, they're going through that.

I think they want to get all their diplomatic ducks in a row to make sure the NATO allies are on board, the regional allies, whether Turkey, those that are in the Arab league are on board. Whoever is going to support the U.S. in whatever it does if it's a limited cruise missile strike, let's say, for a day or two. They want to make sure that everybody is ready to go. So, they're just -- they're just working through the process. And you heard Jay Carney say repeatedly that the president is still consulting with his top national security advisors, with world leaders. No final decision has yet been made.

MALVEAUX: And, Jill, I want to bring you into this as well. You're covering the White House today, but you also covered the State Department for many, many years. Explain to us the importance here of those phone calls that the president has made to the leaders of the Canada, to Britain, to France. Is this something that the United States feels it can do without the approval of the U.N. Security Council?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Certainly without the approval of the U.N. Security Council, yes, because they're not going to be get it because of Russia and China. But they do need other countries, as many as possible, to sign onto this, to endorse it and potentially to help. And that's one of the things they're trying to do right now. They have support from the number of countries, as you might expect, France, the U.K., Canada, Katara, Saudi Arabia, some of the other countries in the Arab world as well. But what they want to do here, and I think Wolf is making that point very well. They want to make sure that they have the information correct. And, you know, when you give intelligence information, there's a chance that you can say how you got it. Where did that information come from? And this information came obviously from U.S. sources but also from international sources which have been kind of unnamed. So, they want to make sure that they don't say too much but they would like to say enough to convince people that they have it definitively that the regime used those chemical weapons. That said, you heard it from Carney several times, they have no doubt. In fact, he said it would be --

MALVEAUX: Right.

DOUGHERTY: -- preposterous to think that they don't.

MALVEAUX: And, Wolf, I want do you button this up for us here because obviously there is a protocol that's involved when there is a potential military strike when we engage in this type -- this type of action here. I imagine the president, he has a very short window here. He's going to be giving a speech for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, but he's also leaving town early next week here. Do we expect that within that window perhaps of five days that we might see the president come out and make a statement and that military action might actually move forward?

BLITZER: I suspect that we will see exactly that, Suzanne. Tomorrow, he's giving the major speech on the 50th anniversary, the exact 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Eye of a Dream speech. That will certainly preoccupy him tomorrow even though he's having all these national security meetings in the White House situation room at the same time and he's on the phone with all of these world leaders. He'll deliver that speech tomorrow. I wouldn't be surprised if later in the week, Thursday or Friday, we hear directly from the president. He tells us he's consulted with the leadership of the House and Senate, he's consulted with NATO allies, he's consulted with regional leaders and the U.S. is going to go forward with some sort of limited strike. It should last probably a day or two.

Then, as I pointed out, it will be awkward when he goes off to St. Petersburg, Russia at the end of next week for the G20 Summit. He's supposedly going to be meeting with Russian -- with the Russian leader, Putin, who's going to be in St. Petersburg, Russia. It will be an awkward moment but I guess that's what happens. Unless he decides, and I have no reason to believe that he will, unless he decides that, you know, what? I'm not going to St. Petersburg, I'll send the vice president instead.

I have no reason to believe he'll do that. But this could get pretty testy in this U.S.-Russian relationship right now, Suzanne, as you well know. This is -- this is not going to be easy for the U.S. or the Russians, given their very, very different stance on what has happened.

MALVEAUX: Yes, certainly awkward, to say the least. Wolf, thank you. Really appreciate it, as well as Jill Dougherty, outside of the White House.

I want you to join us tomorrow for AROUND THE WORLD special. This is on Syria. We're going to have Christiane Amanpour, Peter Bergen, retired General James "Spider" Marks, CNN anchors/reporters in the region, around-the-world contributors to discuss the possible U.S. military action in Syria; how it's impacting countries around the world; and what it means for us here at home. Join us, 12:00 Eastern tomorrow.

We'll be right back after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: In California, that massive wildfire in Yosemite National Park is now growing even bigger. Firefighters, thousands of them, are making headway; still have a long way to go.

Here's what we are seeing right now. More than 160,000 acres have burned, mostly around the western edge of the park. Warm, dry conditions are fueling the flames and could be around for days to come. The fire only about 20 percent contained. But that is up from roughly 7 percent yesterday.

There are 3,700 firefighters with boots on the ground, battling those flames on the front lines. They're getting help from more than 20 aircraft, including water bombers and helicopters.

One of the biggest threats right now is to San Francisco. Well, you see it there. It's about 200 miles away. But much of the city's water supply lies in the path of that fire.

Nick Valencia, he is near the front lines of the fire and shows us what it looks like on the ground.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, the sun has come out, and it's given us a new perspective of exactly what firefighters and residents are dealing with.

All that behind me, that's not fog; that's not smog. That's smoke coming from the fire about 10 to 15 miles that way. That's the direction of Yosemite National Park.

And on a normal week, this road would be lined with tourists. Right now the only cars that are coming through here are credentialed media and those that are fighting the fire.

We're in an area that's just off the vista. It's called the Rim of the World. And this is what's left after the fire tore through here. Scorched earth. Most of these trees, the U.S. Forest Service tells us, will not survive.

And fire officials continue to worry as this fire has grown tens of thousands of acres since it started. They're hoping that it doesn't further encroach on the Yosemite National Park -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks. Here's also what we're working on for this hour. Today is the first day of school for survivors of last year's massacre in Newtown. We're going to take a look at the extraordinary measures in place to help them feel safe.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: The body of a young man who apparently developed an obsession with the movie "Into the Wild" has turned up in rural Oregon. It's a very sad story.

Police say that they are investigating Jonathan Croom's death as a suicide. Croom's father says that over the last six months the 18- year-old had shown this growing interest in this movie. And the movie was based on the true story of a young man who leaves society to go off and live in the land -- live off the land, rather, in Alaska and then dies of starvation. Croom was supposed to be heading to college in Arizona, and his father got worried when he didn't show up for a week.

And today is the first day of school for children in Newtown, Connecticut. The town has spent months trying to recover from the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. That happened just last December.

Well, since then, the school system, they've heightened their security, but psychologically, you can imagine what the parents and some of these kids are dealing with. Still a lot of pain.

Pamela Brown, she spoke to the parents of two of the kids who returned to school today without their youngest brother. He was killed on that tragic day.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JACKIE BARDEN, DANIEL BARDEN'S MOTHER: It's still day-to-day. And we have better days than others.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As Mark and Jackie Barden and their two children, 11-year-old Natalie and 13-year-old James back to school in Newtown, Connecticut, it's yet another painful reminder of what's missing.

MARK BARDEN, DANIEL BARDEN'S FATHER: This will be our first time back to school without Daniel.

BROWN: Daniel was one of 20 children and six educators killed during the horrific shooting spree inside Sandy Hook Elementary last December. The Bardens still struggling with what were once joyous occasions.

M. BARDEN: We don't know how we're going to deal with Thanksgiving this year and then, of course, all of December. All of that is just coming, and I'm not even wanting to think about it.

BROWN (on camera): And of course, one of those big milestones is back to school.

M. BARDEN: Right.

J. BARDEN: Imagining him going to second grade.

BROWN (voice-over): As the Newtown school system welcomes back more than 5,000 kids today, the school board says it's doing everything it can to put families at ease in the wake of Newtown and the recent school shooting scare in Georgia.

(on camera): This is no normal back to school on Tuesday.

DEBBIE LEIDLEIN, CHAIRWOMAN, BOARD OF EDUCATION: No. It's not a normal back to school. We're trying to put the resources in place.

BROWN (voice-over): Resources like better locks on doors, real-time monitoring systems, and more armed guards at every school.

LEIDLEIN: Parents will definitely see armed security at each school, and there will be additional guards at multiple schools.

BROWN: The Bardens say they want to see changes like more kindness toward others to make sure the tragedy that took their son's life never happens again.

M. BARDEN: We have to try to do the good work that he was supposed to do here. We're going to -- we're going to try our best to do it for him.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Well, Sandy Hook Elementary is being torn down, and kids that were supposed to go there are heading to another elementary school instead.

And more safety changes are expected to take place in Newtown schools over the course of the year, but officials couldn't elaborate on what exactly that will entail.

And it's not just Newtown. School districts across the country are adding more armed security guards to their schools, especially in elementary schools. And at least three states have recently passed laws allowing teachers to be able to carry handguns on school grounds -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Pam.

Just ahead in THE NEWSROOM, 50 years ago, it was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation's capital. It was the March on Washington. Ahead, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, he was there, of course, and he shares his memories of that historic day.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)