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U.S. Military Ready to Attack Syria; Ripple Effects of Action in Syria; Measles Outbreak; U.S. Prepares Response to Syria; Arab League on Syria

Aired August 27, 2013 - 14:00   ET


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

First up, the world watches and waits as the U.S. gets ready for a possible strike on Syria. Now we know the U.S. will punish Syria for this, President Bashar al Assad accused of using chemical warfare on his own people. The next questions, exactly how and when?

Today, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC that the U.S. is "ready to go," if President Obama orders an attack on Syria.


CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, as I've said, and I think Prime Minister Cameron has said, I think President Hollande has said, our allies, our partners, leaders all over the world have said, let's get the facts, let's get the intelligence and then a decision will be made on whether action should be taken, if action should be taken, what action or no action.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But if the order comes, you're ready to go like that?

HAGEL: We are ready to go like that.


KEILAR: Months of speculation over Syria's use of chemical weapons came to a head as Secretary of State John Kerry took the podium at the State Department. Kerry saying he has little doubt that the man he himself sat down with for a meeting in 2009 is responsible for the, quote, "indiscriminate slaughter of civilians."


JOHN KERRY, 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.


KEILAR: Our Fred Pleitgen is in Syria. But first, let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence.

Chris, this all leaves one big question here, and that is, what might an attack on Syria look like?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that depends really, Brianna, on which option the president chooses. I know from speaking with officials here in the Pentagon, one of the options, probably the most limited option really involves the cruise missile option. And that is the four Navy destroyers that are off the coast in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea launching cruise missiles into land targets on Syria.

Now, the official told me that this could be a very short mission, over within two to three days. There would be some initial strikes and then, depending on the number of targets and where they were located, you would have an assessment phase to see what was hit, what damage was done, then perhaps more strikes to compensate for anything that wasn't hit and needed to be hit to complete the mission.

KEILAR: Now, Chris, stand by for just a moment. We're going to bring in Fred Pleitgen. He's the only western TV journalist inside of Syria. He is live in Damascus.

And, Fred, you just heard what the expectation is there. There's also a possibility of a strike from the air when you're talking logistically the U.S. could do it. But Syria has pretty strong air defense. What do you think the expectations are there on the ground?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think the Syrians are starting to understand just how serious the United States is about all of this. They just came out of an interview with the information minister of this country. He is quite a powerful figure here on the ground. And he kept saying that the Syrians will defend themselves. That the Syrian military is capable of defending themselves. But he also said that he wishes that the United States would wait for the U.N. weapons inspectors, who are on the ground here, to finish their work.

The Syrians clearly know that there is basically no way that they could defend against the United States airstrikes, even though they say that they could. So the one thing that they're saying right now is, please give the weapons inspectors a little more time to do their work. But the rhetoric has certainly toned down from what I've heard a couple of days ago when the Syrians were still saying, if at any point they would be attacked, they would have no trouble defending themselves.

It looks very different than it does right now. I think they're really starting to understand just how serious the administration is about all this. And every time I put to the information minister that it seems as though it's not about if the United States and its allies are going to strike, it's when and how, he said that he still hopes that there is some way to avoid that. And he kept talking about the United States not having a U.N. mandate. So it really has - there really is a change here that you're noticing among the Syrian administration, at least from the official that I'm talking to, Brianna.

KEILAR: You know, that is fascinating because it really does, as you say, Fred, seem to be a matter of when and not if. Fred Pleitgen there in Syria. The only western journalist there. And thanks, as well, to Chris Lawrence for his report.

Now in 2005, CNN's Christiane Amanpour traveled into Syria. She actually sat down with President Assad and asked him about accusations that the country was a safe haven for terrorists. But I want you to listen to what he says about retaliation for a U.S. air strike.


PRES. BASHAR Al-ASSAD, SYRIA: We don't know what they want. I think they don't know what they want.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's lots of talk about potentially the U.S. bombing safe havens and insurgent strongholds inside Syria. Has that happened?

Al-ASSAD: Never.

AMANPOUR: If it does happen, would you consider that a hostile act? Would you retaliate?

Al-ASSAD (through translator): We will deal with every situation if and when it happens. I cannot really go into hypothesis at this point. However, there is no such safe haven or camp of the kind to be bombed.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, you know the rhetoric of regime change is headed towards you from the United States. They are actively looking for a new Syrian leader. They're granting visas and visits to Syrian opposition politicians. They're talking about isolating you diplomatically and perhaps a coup d'etat or your regime crumbling. What are you thinking about that?

AL-ASSAD (on camera): I feel very confident for one reason, because I was made in Syria, I wasn't made in the United States, so I'm not worried. This is Syrian decision should be made by the Syrians.


KEILAR: Fascinating, right? Well, joining me now, chief national correspondent John King, as well as retired Army General Mark Kimmitt.

General, first to you. We're talking a lot about what we would expect a military operation to look like. What would you expect?

GENERAL MARK T. KIMMITT, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, first of all, I think many of the options that were pointed out by Chris Lawrence are right, but I think we've got to be very careful to understand that that's probably the easiest part of this entire operation. The tough part is getting to the point where the president has to make the decision to take military actions. And, quite frankly, the even tougher part is what happens after those military operations have been accomplished. What is the post war, post military operations look like? What are we going to be doing after the dust has settled?

KEILAR: And, John, you have the latest poll numbers here. There's a majority of Americans who don't like the idea of Syrian intervention but when you talk to sources in the administration, they also say, you know what, this mass chemical weapons attack sort of makes the decision a lot easier for us.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I wouldn't say a lot easier, but they would say a moral imperative. It's a difficult decision any time the commander-in-chief takes this risk because even if it starts with cruise missiles, you've got, you know, personnel on those ships. You're going to have planes in the air. And there's no knowing, even if you start saying we're just going to launch cruise missiles, that you're going to end with that.

But you looked at those public opinion polls. Three (ph) - part of that public opinion in the United States is because this president, since he started running for president in 2007, has said elect me and I will get us out of the Middle East. Elect me and I will end Iraq, I will end Afghanistan, we will come home and we will not be off on military interventions, you know, far away in the world. So, he defined himself nationally and politically by that and now he's facing a very tough choice, not only to have a military intervention in a region he wanted to pull out from in terms of military action, but also doing it without the blessing of the United Nations. Something he was very quick to criticize George W. Bush for.

Being president is much more difficult than running for president. It's the loneliest job in the world. And the general knows this better than I. And the president knows, even if the plan he's going to sign off on is just cruise missiles number one, he knows, as commander-in- chief, that when he starts to sign those papers, he doesn't know -- he might know how it begins, but you never know how it ends.

KEILAR: No, that's a very good point. And he's made this decision on Libya and it appears he may be poised to make it on Syria as well.

General, before I let you guys go, I want to talk about a column that was in "The Wall Street Journal" today. It suggested that the U.S. just go right to the source, take out Assad. But, of course, none of our sources are suggesting that's the goal here, even though the president considers that, you know, Assad has to go, that he's lost all legitimacy. Why not?

KIMMITT: Well, what I read from that same article in "The Wall Street Journal" was that the half measures wouldn't work. And, in fact, they'd be counterproductive. By simply trying to isolate this as an attack on Syria as, number one, punishment for the chemical attack and, number two, to potentially deter any future adversary from using chemical weapons without understanding there will be a response, it leaves the entire rest of the story unfulfilled.

OK, so once the attacks have been done, once the booms have been dropped, you still have Assad in power, what's next? What you end up with is a region that doesn't believe the Americans are serious, a president in Syria who still remains in power and people still getting slaughtered on the ground. So what that article was saying, and I fully subscribe to it is, we need to make sure that if we're going to take the first step, we need to be ready to go all the way to the last step as well.

KEILAR: That's right, how will Syria react, how will its allies react. The U.S. doesn't exactly know. John King and General Mark Kimmitt, thank you so much.

Now, any military action in Syria, it can certainly have ripple effects. That's the concern you just heard General Kimmitt talk about that. Well, Wall Street has been jittery this week. Our Christine Romans looks at how an intensified crisis in Syria could affect financial markets.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS ANCHOR: In market speak, Brianna, it's called geopolitical concerns. The growing fear of U.S. military action in Syria has rattled world markets.

Here's how the Syria fears play out. Investors rush out of stocks around the world into the perceived safety of government bonds and gold. Oil prices also rise.

Now, Syria is not a major oil producer, but its location makes it important for oil transport. A U.S. military strike could flame an already tense region and conflict increases the chances of collateral damage through reprisals. Higher oil prices would hurt the world economy. It would raise gas prices, hitting consumers who are already showing signs of pulling back.

The U.S. economy is in a delicate place right now. Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve are planning to slow down their stimulus and tapering their bond buying program. Many companies say their customers are being very cautious here. If you add a military strike in Syria, you could see weaker corporate earnings, and that would certainly be bad news for the stock market.


KEILAR: Thank you, Christine Romans.

And coming up, a televangelist tells his congregation to be skeptical of vaccinations. But now a measles outbreak has hit the church. Find out how the pastor is responding to critics.

Plus --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They shot my baby in the head and I had to watch him die. I want that boy to die.


KEILAR: A mom gets ready to take the stand in the trial of a teenager accused of killing her baby as he sat in his stroller, but the defense is trying to put blame on her. We will take you inside the courtroom.


KEILAR: Leaders of a Texas mega church have experienced a different kind of epiphany, not about the spirit, but the body. The Eagle Mountain International Church, north of Fort Worth, is now backing measles vaccinations after an outbreak of measles hit the congregation. This is church video of a sermon asking people to go ahead and get the shot. The local health department reports so far 16 cases are linked to Eagle Mountain, which became exposed after a visitor, who had been overseas, attended a service. Eagle Mountain is led by televangelist Kenneth Copeland, who reportedly once cast doubt over immunizations.


KENNETH COPELAND, TELEVANGELIST: Immunity, vaccination, spiritual induced immunity from sickness and disease.


KEILAR: Well, the Fort Worth "Star Telegram" reports that Copeland, as recently as four years ago, prepared, quote, "that parents should be skeptical and don't take the word of the guy who's giving the shot." Now, even during a recent service, when advising church members to get vaccinated, Kenneth Copeland's daughter quoted Dr. Don Coburn (ph), a medical advisor to Copeland on Copeland's program "Believers Voice of Victory."


TERRI COPELAND PEARSONS: I believe it's wrong to be against vaccinations. The concerns we have had are primarily with very young children who have family history of autism and with bundling too many at one time. There's no indication that the autism connection with vaccinations in older children.


KEILAR: So joining me now to talk about this, senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.

And so, Elizabeth, you're listening to these concerns, autism, vaccinating the very young, the bundling of the shots. Is any of that valid?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: (INAUDIBLE) every respected authority says vaccinate your children. You are not causing autism or any other kind of harm. Vaccinate your children.

And you're doing it for two reasons. You're doing it to protect your child and you're also doing it to protect other children because, of course, children give each other these diseases. So, I'm going to be a little bit harsh here. If you decide not to vaccinate your child, I guess that's your choice, right? You want to put your child at risk for dying, that's your choice. But you know what, you're hurting other children, too, and it's just selfish.


KEILAR: And measles is obviously very serious. I mean the U.S. has nearly eradicated it, so most of us have never even seen a case. What are we talking about here?

COHEN: That's right. I think sometimes when people think of measles they think, oh, you get some red dots on your face, you know, whatever.

KEILAR: Chicken pox.

COHEN: You're right. Exactly. It's not such a big deal. It's a huge deal. And before we had routine vaccination in the world, people would die. I mean 2.6 million people would die every year from measles worldwide because there wasn't vaccination. So we - you know, we don't want to go back to that. We don't want 2.6 million people dying from a disease that's preventable.

KEILAR: Exactly. Elizabeth Cohen, thanks so much for that.

COHEN: Thanks.

KEILAR: Now, coming up next, take a look at this. A truck slams into a store in Massachusetts and drives down the aisles. Everything was caught on surveillance video, but it was what he did next that you won't believe. That's right ahead.


KEILAR: Some very tense moments for a window watcher in Clayton, Missouri. Can you even imagine this? Part of his equipment failed and it left him just dangling outside the 24th floor of an apartment building. Now, fire crews quickly pulled him up and over the ledge to safety. And investigators are trying to figure out why his equipment failed. But very scary stuff as they were able to help him inch up to safety there.

Now, look out. A truck comes barreling through the front door of a Massachusetts convenience store. And one shopper came within inches of that out of control truck. You see the driver trying to back out. Here's how one man described the scene.


DAMON MCCAARON, WITNESS: Heard a loud crash and some squealing tires and I knew something was amiss. So I ran out into my front yard to see a pickup truck entering and exiting the building.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No a single bottle broken here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. We lucked out big time. The alcohol fairy was with us today.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KEILAR: The alcohol fairy. Well, police eventually tracked down the driver of the truck. He is facing a number of charges, as you can imagine. And that customer is expected to be OK.

Coming up next, the Rim Fire in California has burned more than 160,000 acres. And now it threatens San Francisco's water supply. And is the pressure surrounding the conflict in Syria intensifies, a warning from Russia as President Obama gets ready to make a trip there. We have that next.


KEILAR: A massive wildfire is threatening the water and power supply for San Francisco. Walls of flame rage close to Yosemite's national park - Yosemite National Park, near the edge of it. The Rim Fire has grown. It's devoured more than 160,000 acres at this point and it now threatens hydroelectric generators which have been shut down. It also threatens the reservoir that supplies San Francisco's water. That's also nearby there. Now, gray smoke has been choking the air for miles around the fire as about 3,700 firefighters battle the flames. The fire service says the main goal at this point is just to keep people safe.


VICKIE WRIGHT (ph): It is astounding to see the power of what I witnessed earlier. So our main objectives right now, structure protection, just making sure that we keep everyone safe and we protect that park at all costs.


KEILAR: Dry conditions and steep terrain are making this fire pretty hard to get a handle on. And California officials say the fire is now one of the largest in the state's history.

Let's get back now to the escalating crisis in Syria. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today that the U.S. military is ready to go if called upon by the president to respond to the mass deaths last week from that alleged attack with chemical weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry cited video, some of this video of the victims in his extraordinary condemnation.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass. What is before us today is real and it is compelling.


KEILAR: Now that could also be taken as a swipe, I think it's fair to say it was, at Syria's backer, Russia, which says the U.S. has no evidence that the Assad regime was behind the attack. The Russians contend that a military response could prove catastrophic. And Phil Black has the very latest on this from Moscow.

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, more tough talk from Russia, with one deputy prime minister here saying the United States is behaving like a monkey with a grenade. And the Russian foreign ministry has warned against what it sees as the latest attempts to bypass the United Nation's Security Council by creating artificial and groundless executions for military intervention. And it warns that that could create fresh suffering for Syria and have what it says would be catastrophic consequences for countries across the region.

These latest statement were triggered by the U.S. decision to postpone talks between U.S. and Russian officials in the Dutch city of The Hague. These talks were designed to come up with a proposal or an conference that would seek to solve the Syrian conflict diplomatically. That the U.S. has canceled or postponed those talks because it says it is working out just how to respond to this alleged chemical weapons incident. Russia says that's a bad idea because it believes that this sort of coordinated, diplomatic effort is what is need now more than ever as the situation in Syria becomes increasingly tense.

But Russia has little choice at the moment but to issue these strongly worded statements and try to argue its case against military intervention because its most effective resource for protecting the Syrian government from outside pressure and military action has always been its veto in the United Nations Security Council. But now as the United States and its allies contemplate the possibility of launching a military strike against Syria, they are not talking about going to the U.N. Security Council to get permission there.


KEILAR: Phil Black in Moscow, thank you.

And now to Cairo, where today members of the Arab League met in emergency session and accused the Assad government of committing a, quote, "heinous crime." For its part, Syria still says no, it did not use chemical weapons. Here's the foreign minister speaking from Damascus.


WALID AL-MOALLEM, SYRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): They say the Syrian forces are the ones who used this weapon and I categorically denied this matter. I said there's no country in the world use weapons of mass destruction against its people.


KEILAR: Meantime, CNN's Nic Robertson is in Amman, Jordan, which hosted a military meeting on the Syria crisis. Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey was there.

So, Nic, what is the sense that you get from where you are? We heard Fred Pleitgen in Syria and he said the information minister there was expressing some hope that military action could be averted. But are you getting the sense that folks realize it is a matter of when and not if?

NIC ROBERTSON, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, sure. I mean the sense here is that there is strike - there is the real potential for strikes and they could come fairly soon. The reason and rationale is quite simple. I talked to a regional diplomat here today and he said, look, unless there is some kind of reaction to the chemical strike, and pretty much they hold accountable Bashar al Assad, that unless there is some reaction to that, then the Geneva Peace Talks that have been talked about so much will either be dead in the water or stillborn, he said.

It doesn't necessarily have to be a military attack, but really he implied that is the great expectation at the moment. And the reason they say that the