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Looming Action on Syria; March on Washington: 50th Anniversary; Interview With Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick; U.S. Strike on Syria All But Inevitable; Tennis has a New Sweetheart

Aired August 28, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN GUEST HOST: With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope, fifty years ago, this very day.

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

The national lead, from every hill and molehill, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

Half a century after he led the historic March on Washington, would Dr. King say his dream has come true?

The world lead. All but inevitable. The U.S. appears to be on the brink of military action in Syria. It looks like President Obama will move forward without U.N. approval. Would he do it without the approval of Congress too?

And also in national news, he made the jury's job easy, showing no remorse for slaughtering 13 people at Fort Hood. Now it appears Major Nidal Hasan will get what many say he wanted all along, a death sentence.

I'm John Berman, filling in for Jake Tapper today.

We begin with the national lead. Exactly 50 years ago today, they came from all over the country, by car, by train, by bus, 250,000 people packed into the National Mall here in Washington, D.C. The day was hot, they marched through the nation's capital. They were standing in the sun mopping sweat from their brows when the moment arrived, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.


BERMAN: It became clear that day, if it wasn't clear already, that change was coming.

This was the scene at the National Mall on that day, August 28, 1963. And this was the scene at the Mall today on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, 50 years since Dr. King took the podium with a vision of Abraham Lincoln looking on from his memorial perch. The King family rang a bell at the Mall in unison with bells at more than 300 sites across the country from Alabama to Alaska at the very hour that Dr. King implored the nation to let freedom ring.

In Washington today, it's a great drizzly late summer day, but there's no way that that would ever stop this crowd of thousands upon thousands from coming out. They listened as President Barack Obama whose presidency may never have been possible without the sacrifices of Dr. King and so many others, as President Obama reflected on the legacy of this day along with former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We rightly and best remember Dr. King's soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They opened minds, they melted hearts, and they moved millions, including a 17- year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas.

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was really grateful, when the King finally adopted me as their presidential candidate in 1976. Every handshake from Dr. King, from Daddy King, every hug from Coretta got me a million Yankee votes.


BERMAN: And she is not a president, but she is a queen to many Americans. Oprah Winfrey was also on hand today.


OPRAH WINFREY, HOST, "OPRAH'S NEXT CHAPTER": I remember when I was 9 years old and the march was occurring. And I asked my mama, can I go to the march? It took me 50 years, but I'm here.


BERMAN: It was a stirring day, but also a day to take stock of where race relations really are in this country today.

We are lucky this afternoon to be joined by the governor of the great state of Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick.

Governor Patrick, thank you so much for being with us.

GOV. DEVAL PATRICK (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Thank you for having me, John. It's a beautiful day.

BERMAN: And you just came from ringing a bell in Boston. You ringing as a bell as the only black governor in the United States, the first black governor in Massachusetts. And on this day 50 years ago, you were just 7 years old. What are your memories of that day? And what did that day mean to you?

PATRICK: Well, I have a vague memory of the black and white TV in my grandparents' living room that you had to warm up well before the program you wanted to watch was on, and those flickering images, and the power of that speech, and not fully appreciating all of the elements of it, certainly the rhetorical essence of it, but not all the messages, but understanding that something important was happening and that it was about me and people like me all over the South Side of Chicago, and all over the country, and more to the point that it was about the American dream, not just a call for racial healing, although it was certainly that, but about being true to fundamental American ideals that call to us over the ages, and still do today.

BERMAN: You were speaking about the American dream.

Your friend President Obama was speaking about that dream as well today. I'm wondering about your reaction to the president's speech. He said the March on Washington teaches us there are -- that we are not trapped in the mistakes of history -- we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, should I say.

What does that say to you?

PATRICK: And I think very well said.

You know, we -- the framers of our Constitution and the signers of the Declaration of Independence committed this country to certain civic ideals, and we're unique among nations in the sense that we're not organized the way other countries are organized. We're not organized around a common language or religion, or even a common culture, but around these civic ideals.

And we have defined them over time and through struggles, equality, opportunity, freedom and fair play. And it was Thomas Jefferson, I think, who coined the phrase that the price of that liberty will be eternal vigilance. And so from time to time through our history, whether it was at the Gettysburg Address that Abraham Lincoln delivered or Dr. King's speech 50 years ago on the Mall, we are called back to remember and to recommit ourselves to those ideals, and to closing the gap between our reality and our ideals.

BERMAN: And we were listening to the president today talk about the speech by Dr. Martin Luther King. He was also talking about race.

In that spirit, I want to play you something that the former Secretary of State Colin Powell said this week about what he would like to hear from the president.


COLIN POWELL, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Yes, I would like to see him be more passionate about race questions. We're not there yet. We're not there yet. And so we have got to keep working on it. And for the president to speak out on it is appropriate.


BERMAN: Do you think it's different for President Obama to speak about race? Is it challenging for him, as the first African-American president? You're friends with him. Is this something you spoke to him about?

PATRICK: Well, I think the president understands, as most Americans do, that we are in this equipoise between acknowledging the extraordinary progress that we have made, much of it in my lifetime and the president's lifetime, and also the progress that remains to be made.

The march in 1963 happened in the immediate aftermath of the short aftermath of poll taxes and Emmett Till. We commemorate that march 50 years later in the short aftermath of voter disenfranchisement initiatives in North Carolina and Texas and Trayvon Martin.

We -- and in between, it's not that we are stuck. It's not that that's a cause for despair. It's a reminder of that point that Thomas Jefferson made that I referenced a minute ago, that our freedom, all of our freedom as Americans depends on eternal vigilance and renewing our commitment to those...


BERMAN: The president talked about economics today. He talked about jobs. He talked about the fact that the black unemployment rate is disproportionately high to the white unemployment rate, same with the poverty level, and by any measurements there are still issues in this country facing African-Americans.

PATRICK: And it's enormously important that just as we point to the president's or my own political success, to the economic success of the numbers of black millionaires and other professionals who have moved forward, that we acknowledge that there are black people, brown people, poor white people still struggling in this country, still trying to get their toehold in the American dream, and that all of us have a stake in trying to make that dream real.

BERMAN: We currently have an African-attorney general, Eric Holder. There are people who say that he may not be staying on for the whole second term here. And there are people suggesting that perhaps you would be a selection the president would want to look to be the next attorney general.

If he called you and said, Governor Patrick, be my attorney general, what would you say?

PATRICK: Well, first of all, we have a great attorney general and I'm very, very proud of the work that Eric Holder is doing, particularly the initiatives he's spoken to in the last several months. I know he and the president have a very strong working relationship. And for me, I have the only job in politics I have wanted. I'm going to be in it for another year-and-a-half or so. And then, when I finish, I'm looking forward to returning to the private sector.

BERMAN: Governor Patrick, it's a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much for being with us this afternoon. Appreciate it.

PATRICK: Thank you, John. Be well. Thank you.

BERMAN: Coming up for us next: As U.N. investigators continue to gather evidence in Syria, the White House seems ready to move. Has the president already made up his mind on military action?

Plus, she pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament, but it's 17- year-old Vicky Duval's her life off the court that really is even more unbelievable.


BERMAN: Welcome back to the lead, everyone.

In the world lead, it appears we may already be past the point of no return on Syria. It's not really a question of whether the U.S. will strike anymore. It's a question of how many strikes it will take to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again. That's according to one U.S. official.

The American public hasn't actually seen proof that 1,300 people were in fact killed in a chemical attack in Syria last week, but the Obama administration has sounded increasingly hawkish in recent days, saying it has no doubt those weapons were used by President Assad against his own people.

The United Nations' inspectors in Syria right now are looking for evidence at this moment. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon today urged for patience while the inspectors do their jobs.


BAN KI-MOON, UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY-GENERAL: The team needs time to do its job. Here in the Peace Palace, let us say, give peace the chance. Give diplomacy a chance. Stop fighting and start talking.


BERMAN: But the time for talk appears to be nearing an end for the U.S. The State Department says too much time has passed for the U.N. investigation to be -- quote -- "to be credible."

Great Britain has taken a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council that would authorize necessary measures against Syria. There's really little chance of that passing because Syrian allies China and Russia have veto power on the council. But the State Department has indicated that this will not stop the U.S. from taking action. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARIE HARF, SPOKESWOMAN, STATE DEPARTMENT: We cannot be held up in responding by Russia's intransigence, continued intransigence at the United Nations, that, quite frankly, the situation is so serious, it demands a response.


BERMAN: A group of 37 lawmakers, mostly Republicans, with a handful of Democrats, sent President Obama a letter yesterday, demanding that he consult Congress before ordering a strike.

Right now, there are four U.S. warships in the region at the ready. And a U.S. official tells CNN that two submarines are now in the area as well.

But Americans, weary from a decade of war in the Middle East overwhelmingly want to stay out of Syria. That's according to recent polls.

Our own Frederik Pleitgen is the only Western reporter in the capital right now, Damascus -- Fred.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, the Syrian government is showing some new defiant. The prime minister came out earlier today and he said that he thinks that the U.S. is using, quote, "false evidence" to create a pretext to try to go to war.

Also, the information minister speaking to me says he believes the U.S. doesn't have any sort of proof and that it should show proof before talking about strikes here.

Now, the Syrian government also says it feels that the weapons inspectors, the U.N. weapons inspectors should be given more time to complete their mission, to gather evidence on the ground. They were on the ground again today. They were in a neighborhood that had one of the highest death tolls from that alleged attack that happened here on Wednesday. And they do say that they've gotten more valuable evidence.

However, of course, people here in Damascus, and the government as well realize it's probably not a matter of if the United States will strike, but rather a matter of when.

I went around Damascus today and I talked to ordinary people, and being in the government-controlled part of Damascus, of course, a lot of them are sympathetic, and a lot had been able to lead quite a normal life even through this conflict. They see the artillery being fired on the rebel-controlled area. They see the plumes of smoke rising up, but their lives haven't been affected that much, at least physically, just economically so far.

But now they say that they are getting worried. We know that some people are stocking up on dried foods, on canned food, because they're afraid all of this could change the balance on the battlefield. They don't fear that rockets are going to hurt them or anything, but they fear that perhaps the Assad regime could start losing territory and the fight could come here to Damascus -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Frederik Pleitgen -- our Frederik Pleitgen in Damascus, again, the only Western television reporter currently there. We are lucky to have him there.

Meanwhile, our own Dana Bash reports that the intelligence's report on Syria was delivered to key members of Congress yesterday, but we are still waiting for its public release. So, the question is, how close is the U.S. at taking military action in Syria, and how will Syrian President Bashar al-Assad respond?

Let's bring in Andrew Tabler, who is an expert on Syria and an expert on the Assad family. He's a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.

And in New York, Chris Harmer. He's the senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. He authored a study last month that said surgical strikes could degrade the Syrian air force at a relatively small cost. However, he says using these air strikes as a way to punish Assad is counterproductive.

Chris, I want to start with you. I want to read a quote from "Los Angeles Times" today. It says one U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity just muscular enough not to be mocked, but not so devastating that would have prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia. You're looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic, he said.

Just muscular enough -- what do you think these cruise missiles will do?

CHRISTOPHER HARMER, INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WAR: It's a pleasure to be with you. Thanks for having me.

My take on this is doing something very small like that is worse than doing nothing at all. We have the ability to significantly degrade the Syrian air force. We have the ability to significantly Bashar Assad's military. The question is, what strategic purpose does that serve?

What we have right now in Syria is literally millions of Syrian civilians who are not aligned, looking for some reason to believe that the U.S. is going to help them in their fight against Bashar Assad. If we don't help, it may be that the last best hope they have is to ally themselves with al Qaeda. I think that the presence of al Qaeda right now in Syria is extremely troubling, is extremely negative for our long-term strategic interests. If we don't intervene decisively, then we should not intervene at all.

I want to add one more thing to that. We tend to talk of these military options in sort of antiseptic terms. Let's keep in mind we're talking about 100,000 dead people, 2 million refugees, this is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. BERMAN: Chris, I just want to follow up. You know, President Obama made a famous statement. He was talking about the Iraq war. The president said he was -- he was running for office -- he said, "I'm not opposed to all wars, just dumb wars."


BERMAN: In your opinion, would just be sending in a cruise missile attack without following up, would that constitute a dumb war?

HARMER: I don't want to say it's dumb because let's also acknowledge another reality, the president faces some very bad options. He's got bad options. He's got worse options. He's got horrible options.

There is no clean option here. So, let's acknowledge we're dealing with a very different situation, a very complicated situation. I would say that doing something cosmetic would be worse than doing nothing at all. Right now, if we do something just cosmetic, Bashar Assad will know that he has relative immunity from us, that he can continue to do whatever he wants short of massive chemical attacks on civilians.

BERMAN: Let's talk about Bashar Assad right now. Andrew, you've been studying this regime for a long time and the Assad family, what's he thinking right now? Every day, he's hearing this saying an attack really appears imminent at this point. So, what does he do now?

ANDREW TABLER, SENIOR FELLOW, THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE: He's ordering the force toss evacuate the bases he thinks will be hit. He's also, in conjunction with his Russian allies and Iran, trying to come up with a plan exactly what happens after this, and what kind of response will there be.

This is going to be quite public. It's a going to be a hard, like a lot of Israeli attacks, which has taken place. It could be hard for him to shrug off. And so, we can expect, a lot of bluster. The question is, what does he do, you know, in terms of direct retaliation or indirect retaliation going forward?

BERMAN: I think that's exactly light. Israel has bombed before.

TABLER: Many times.

BERMAN: And there's no direct retaliation. He says there would be retaliation this time.

TABLER: Right.

BERMAN: But would this be something that Hezbollah in Lebanon will take on?

TABLER: He probably would say as Israel bombed, he reserves to respond at a time of his choosing, which appears tough, which was actually not, because the only real response asymmetrically, and it could come via Hezbollah, it could come via Hezbollah attacks on U.S. targets, on Israeli targets or both. But the fact of the matter is, Israel's northern front is locked and loaded. They're ready for this kind of attack. I don't think he's going to risk it.

BERMAN: And, Andrew, one more question to you here. What are the rebels thinking? They're seeing the U.S. talking about a military strike right now. Do they think it's enough to turn the tide? Are they cheering this on? Or are they begging for more?

TABLER: They want a stronger strike, especially those among the moderate groups. The more extremist groups, their leaderships are running for cover and they're dispersing throughout the country because they think the U.S. might hit their command and control, as well as the Assad regimes. So, a lot of ins and outs here, we'll have to watch their reactions as the strikes take place.

BERMAN: All right. Andrew Tabler, Christopher Harmer, thank you so much for joining us. An interesting discussion, one that will be going on I feel for a few days here.

Coming up next, in "The Sports Lead", he survived a kidnapping at gunpoint and almost lost her father in the Haiti earthquake. Now, Vickie Duval is celebrating her fist U.S. Open win. We'll look at the life of the 17-year-old tennis star, coming up next.

And he was the only man to speak on the march on Washington 50 years ago and returned to those steps today. Civil rights icon John Lewis reflects on half a century of progress. You'll want to stay with us for that.


REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: I want to thank Bernice King, the King family, and --



BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

The sports lead -- confronted with four U.S. Open round 1 match points, she showed the poise and tenacity of a seasoned veteran. It wasn't until she finally clutched victory, marking the biggest upset tournament thus far that you remember that Victoria Duval is just 17 years old. Duval went into the match ranked 296, having never beaten a top 20 opponent. But in just the second grand slam of her career, she defeated 2011 U.S. Open champ Samantha Stosur.

Now, while her moxie may have shocked the world, it hardly stuns those who know Duval and the personal she's had to overcome.

CNN's Rachel Nichols has more.


RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN SPORTS (voice-over): It took 17-year-old Vickie Duval nearly three hours and four match points former U.S. Open champ Samantha Stosur on Tuesday night. At times, it appeared the baby- faced American might give up. But Vickie Duval does not give up when things get tough. Not on the court and not off it.

Duval is of Haitian descent. When she was 7 years old, she and some cousins were kidnapped and held at gunpoint. Then, three years ago, when the devastating earthquake struck Port-a-Prince, her father, Jean Maurice, a physician, was trapped under jagged rubble.

VICKIE DUVAL, UPSET 2011 U.S. OPEN CHAMPION: We got a call from him. He was under the house. He was sort of, kind of giving us his last words. He said to my mom, tell the kids I love them and all that stuff. My mom just collapsed on the floor and she said, no, no, I was going to make it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was close so many times, close to death.

NADINE DUVAL, VICIE'S MOTHER: It was devastating. And Vickie also, she is very strong and resilient because I collapsed. I was a mess. And I couldn't take care of her. And instead of me being the adult at the moment, she was the one who hugged me and she said, mom, it's going to be OK, we're going to get through this.

NICHOLS: After 11 wrenching hours, Jean Maurice was finally freed. And while a punctured lung and several crushed bones required a long recovery, on Tuesday, he was at the U.S. Open, watching his steely little girl.

For CNN in New York, I'm Rachel Nichols.


BERMAN: Victoria Duval plays again tomorrow. Don't bet against her.

Coming up next for us, he survived one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, and risked his life to save the lives around him. So, how does former Army Sergeant Howard Ray (ph) feel about Nidal Hassan's death sentence? I'm going to ask him, next.