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Obama Honors Dr. King's Legacy; Boehner Seeks Answers From Obama On Syria; Fifty Years Since "I Have A Dream"

Aired August 28, 2013 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, the U.S. weighing options for a military strike on Syria, even as the Obama administration continues scrambling for support.

Hackers loyal to the Syrian regime take down the "New York Times" Web site. A "Times" correspondent is here with the paper's latest reporting on Syria.

Plus, the emotional 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the historic speech that galvanized the civil rights movement.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin with an historic moment here in the United States -- the country's first African-American president, President Barack Obama, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the legacy of a man who stood in that very same spot 50 years ago today and delivering an iconic speech that paved the way for what we saw just a little while ago.

The celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy, a champion of non- violence, comes amid some of the highest stakes for the Obama presidency, as the president weighs imminent military action against Syria for an apparent poison gas attack.

CNN's senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is over at the White House with the very latest.

What's going on --Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama did not touch on the situation in Syria during his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, although he did address some domestic political issues.

It was a brief diversion for a president who is facing one of the biggest foreign policy challenges of his second term, if only he can overcome some major diplomatic hurdles.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): As the U.S. moved closer to military action, President Obama interrupted his deliberations over Syria to mark an historic milestone, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: His words belonged to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.

ACOSTA: The speech was one of only a few public appearances this week for the president, who has little time to spend away from the White House.

Any decision to strike Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons is growing more complicated by the day. Over at the U.N., Syria's ambassador sounded the alarm and accused rebels in his country of launching their own gas attacks.

BASHAR JAAFARI, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: We are in a state of war right now, preparing ourselves for the worst scenario.

ACOSTA: A State Department spokeswoman argued Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is responsible for his stockpiles and accused Russia of blocking U.N. action.

MARIE HARF, DEPUTY STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: We cannot be held up in responding by Russia's intransigence -- continued intransigence at the United Nations.

ACOSTA: But in another potential delay, the British may require the U.N. to present its evidence.

WILLIAM HAGUE, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: It is understandable that people want to see what the U.N. inspectors say.

ACOSTA: A White House official says the president is spending a lot of time on the decision, calling allies while his national security staff weighs legal justifications for a strike and both military and non-military options. One potential concern, cyber attacks, after hackers based in Syria claimed responsibility for shutting down the "New York Times" online.

Up on Capitol Hill, more than 100 House members have signed a letter calling for Congressional authorization before a strike. GOP Senator Rand Paul said, "We should have an open debate in Congress over whether the situation warrants U.S. involvement."

To satisfy so many demands, the U.S. and its allies could wait to attack until after President Obama's trip next week to the G20 in Russia.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: In many ways, there all right going to be unintended consequences if we do attack. And they may be even worse if we don't.

ACOSTA: But first, defense analyst, Anthony Cordesman, says the administration has to make sure it's soon to be released intelligence report on the chemical weapons attack has global credibility.

CORDESMAN: If it simply comes across as a piece of propaganda, it is going to do far more harm than good. (END VIDEO TAPE)

ACOSTA: Now administration officials say all of this diplomatic maneuvering is not going to impact the decision on whether to strike Syria, a response the White House has said over and over again is coming. But delays are another question. And the United Kingdom, Wolf, the Brits, they are one of those indispensable allies that the United States cannot do without. I talked to a former Obama administration official about this hiccup earlier this afternoon. And that official said this does, indeed, complicate things.

On another front here at home, House Speaker John Boehner has just put out a statement, a letter to President Obama, calling for more answers, asking him to explain to the American people what is at stake in Syria and why the United States should commit military resources there.

Wolf, there are questions on both sides of the Atlantic for this president this evening -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, this debate intensifying on both sides of the Atlantic, especially here in the nation's capital.

Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Let's bring in our political panel right now.

Joining us, our chief national correspondent, John King, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, and the host of the new "CROSSFIRE," Van Jones, a former special adviser to President Obama.

It's very interesting that when the president was a senator and he was dealing with these kinds of issues, this is what he said back in 2007 about using -- about Congressional authorization being required. "The president does not have power, under "The Constitution"" -- this is Senator Barack Obama -- "to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

That was then.

Vice President Joe Biden, when he was a senator back in 2007, in a different context, going to war against Iran, said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM DECEMBER 18, 2007, COURTESY YOUTUBE/CLIFFORD DAY)

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I want I want to make it clear -- and I made it clear to the president -- that if he takes the nation to war in Iran without Congressional approval, I will make it my business to impeach him. (APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: And that's a fact. That is a fact.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: "That is a fact," he said, "that is a fact." If he goes to war against Iran without Congressional approval, I will call for his impeachment -- you know, John, Iran is a major supporter of Syria -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And the Iranians say they will retaliate if the U.S. were to launch these strikes.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's one of the strategic calculations about how to do the military operation. And one of the great skepticism you get in Congress, you talk to retired diplomats, you talk to retired generals, is that can you deliver that blunt force on Syria, as the president is planning, without causing a domino effect?

Look at a map. There's Lebanon. There's Israel. Iran not that far away. The whole, you know, the Gulf Region right there.

The administration is trying to come up with a military plan that punishes Syria without having a ripple effect outside of Syria.

Wolf, you know the neighborhood very well. That's incredibly small.

As for those comments you just played, welcome to the political debate back home. There's a lot of hangover, legacy of the Iraq War debate, in the debate now, whether it's about -- skepticism about the intelligence. The president publicly saying this is not about regime change. That's Saddam Hussein reverberating years later.

So the president has got some tough calls to make.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: There's a big hangover, obviously --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

BORGER: -- from the question of Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction. And the letter from the House speaker that Jim Acosta just spoke about is so interesting to me, because what he specifically -- he asked a whole bunch of questions. One of his questions is, what result is the administration seeking from its response?

So what -- in other words, what he's saying is, what's your mission statement here?

Tell me what you want to do, because you --

BLITZER: Van, you worked --

BORGER: -- haven't consulted me.

BLITZER: You worked for the president.

VAN JONES, CNN CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: Yes.

BLITZER: If this were Bush in the White House, and he were still a senator and Bush was about to launch missile strikes against Syria, wouldn't that Senator Barack Obama want Congressional authorization at first?

JONES: Well, welcome to checks and balances. Yes, of course. When you're on the legislative part, you want to make sure that you have the role there.

But I think the president is very clear. He's trying to do something that's tough to do. He's threading a needle here. He has to react. We can't have a week go by while we talk and while -- and then more people get gassed. If we're sitting here a week from now and more Syrian people get gassed --

BLITZER: One hundred thousand have already been killed --

JONES: And if they (INAUDIBLE) --

BLITZER: -- through conventional weapons.

JONES: That is terrible. But we cannot have a new normal in the world where --

BORGER: But it happened in the spring.

JONES: -- chemical weapons -- well --

BORGER: But it happened last spring, too.

JONES: Sure. But there was -- there was dispute and there was discussion about whether it was them, whether it was the rebels. This is now -- we know for sure, according to the U.S. government, that this is -- this is innocent civilians, men, women, children and babies being gassed. This is an emergency. He's got to respond.

But he can't tip us over into a situation where we get sucked into a real war. So he's got to try and, send a message, but not topple the regime, create a --

BORGER: But the law of unintended consequences says --

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: -- And that's what John Boehner is asking and that's what other members of Congress are asking, which is, OK, what does Assad do?

We don't know what his response is.

Do we get drawn into some kind of a quagmire here that we're not willing to pay for --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

BORGER: -- or that we're not willing to pay for in money, in blood or treasure, right?

KING: And, again that's the hangover from Iraq.

BORGER: Right.

KING: We would be greeted as liberators. It would be a short war. It would be over very quickly --

BLITZER: That's what they said.

KING: -- it wouldn't cost that much. The Iraqi oil would pay for it.

None of that happened.

And so have a more assertive --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: -- Congress now.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: But if the tide --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: -- were turned -- if the tide were turned and we had a Republican president --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: There's a letter circulating now --

BLITZER: The difference between --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: The Republicans --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: -- the difference then -- between then and now --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: -- 2003 --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: -- and now, is there was Congressional authorization to go after Saddam Hussein.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: The House passed it and the Senate passed it --

JONES: Wolf --

BLITZER: And the president had that authorization. You don't expect, in the next few days, Congress, which isn't even in session now, to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria?

JONES: I don't. But let me tell you what -- what I think the steps are. I think the president needs to respond to deter further action, respond to degrade the capacity for more innocent men, women and children to be gassed. We cannot have a new normal where that begins to happen.

And to your point, since we didn't do it in March, I think that's not an argument not to (INAUDIBLE) --

BLITZER: So you want --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I want to move on.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I want to move on.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I want to move on. But I just want to be clear.

JONES: Yes?

BLITZER: So you support -- if the president were to --

JONES: A limited strike.

BLITZER: -- do this, even though there's no Congressional authorization, no NATO vote, no United Nations Security Council vote, no Arab League vote, that he is basically going in with a few allies, you say it's OK for the United States to do that?

JONES: I say it's OK for a limited retaliatory strike this week to send a message that you can't keep doing this. Then he's got to stop --

BLITZER: For humanitarians reasons.

JONES: For humanitarian reasons to send --

BLITZER: Because U.S. interests -- U.S. national security is not in danger.

JONES: The U.S. has a national security interest in not having a new normal on the world stage where innocent children can be gassed by dictators. That is true. And then you stop after that retaliatory strike and you've got to talk to Congress.

BORGER: But there's no guarantees. That's the problem.

JONES: Fair enough.

BORGER: Because if Assad loses command and control -- JONES: But there's (INAUDIBLE) --

BORGER: -- could it -- of chemical weapons --

JONES: There is more risk now --

BORGER: -- could it go into the wrong hands?

JONES: I agree with you. But there is more risk now for not acting than for acting.

BLITZER: You know, we heard a lot about Dr. Martin Luther King, appropriately, today. A lot of people don't remember -- I remember, and I'm sure all of you remember -- after that speech 50 years ago, before he was assassinated a few years later, he became one of the principal opponents of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Let me play you a clip of what he said in opposing that kind of warfare.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: The world now demands a (INAUDIBLE) of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our intervention in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways in order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam. We should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. in 1967.

A quick question.

If he were alive today -- I wish he were alive today -- if he were alive today, would he support military operations in Syria?

JONES: I'm sure that Dr. King would not. And it's interesting. I actually was born in '68, so I was born the year that he was killed. I'm sure --

BORGER: Don't rub it in.

(LAUGHTER)

JONES: This is a true story, a true story.

(CROSSTALK)

JONES: So I was born the year that he killed -- that he was killed and Bobby Kennedy was killed.

Certainly that generation, the Vietnam generation, in my generation, the Iraq War generation has learned that you do not go into and put troops on the ground recklessly.

But this is not what the president is proposing. He's basically saying we're going to do a brush back, tell this guy you can't keep doing this.

And then he should come to Congress and we should discuss what's going forward. And we also should build a coalition of forces to move forward here.

BLITZER: All right, guys, we'll continue this conversation, but a good start to our program here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Thanks very much.

Up next, the new times -- the "New York Times," I should say, knocked offline, apparently Syrian hackers. We've invited the paper's national security correspondent to deliver their latest reporting on Syria right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Stand by for Mark Mazzetti.

Plus, Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama all speaking at this very emotional 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right. We just received the text of the letter that the House speaker, John Boehner, has sent to the president of the United States with a whole host of question, very serious questions about a supposedly imminent U.S. military strike against targets in Syria.

Our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is joining us on the phone right now. Dana, I've got through this letter. I know you have as well. He's raising all sorts of questions, the speaker.

VOICE OF DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: All sorts of questions, very specific questions about not just what kind of military action might the administration use, but more specifically, what kind of information would they be basing this on with regard to chemical weapons.

What's really interesting about this letter is a couple things, first of all, the speaker makes pretty clear that he agrees with the administration that Syria is a very important area in national security wise, and that he supports being aggressive with regard to potential for chemical weapons. But he also says this, and I'll read you a part of the letter.

He says, "I respectfully request that you as our country's commander in chief personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American's national security interest." And he goes on to say "preserve America's credibility and deter the future use of chemical weapons."

Look, what he's trying to do here is kind of be the voice of not just Republicans, but also some Democrats who are raising a lot of questions. This is a very odd time, because Congress has been gone from Washington for weeks. They're not coming back for two weeks. So, he is -- he's doing this to try to get -- to try to sort of jolt the president to not just being more aggressive and consulting with Congress, which then has some concerns he hasn't done enough of but also making the case to the American people, because members of Congress know that (INAUDIBLE), people out there are very war-weary, and even though chemical weapons is a big deal, they're not sure that this is the right thing to do.

BLITZER: They've been in recess now for weeks, not coming back for several more days. Any chance that the House of the Senate, Dana could come back, reconvene to deal with this crisis in Syria?

BASH: Well, the president hasn't asked for it, and it's hard to see him doing that. My sense just in covering Congress, Wolf, and watching the way that it's playing out, so far, is that at this point, it's probably unlikely. And maybe the best reason for that is because if the speaker, for example, calls back the House and he does it to have a vote, if at this point, probably not likely to pass.

And that would be hugely problematic and embarrassing for the president and for the U.S. at a time when this is very critical, very delicate, and either the president is trying to get partners on the world stage to have that kind of embarrassing vote would not be a good thing. And as you see, going through this letter, again, the speaker is being very pointed in his questions that also making clear he supports it generally the idea of taking care of -- he just wants to have answered.

Very reminiscent, also, I should say, of the way the speaker dealt with the president on Libya. He sent him a series of very, very similar questions, asking him for answers, not necessarily for a Congressional vote or authorization, but to make clear that he wants his constituents, members of Congress' constituents, and the American people to know exactly what the U.S. is getting into.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much.

Let's bring back our panel, John King, Gloria Borger, and Van Jones. You know, John, he can't get a vote. Dana correctly says, he may lose that vote in the House of Representatives. So, that's, my sense, is he's going to act very quickly. He has no vote in the U.N. Security Council because of Russia and China, they'll veto it.

No vote among the NATO allies, no vote among the Arab league, even the friends of the United States, and clearly, no vote in the House or Senate. I think he's just going to have to go ahead and do it if he wants to retain that credibility, but what's your sense?

KING: His credibility at stake in the Middle East and around the world now that they have laid this out there, now that Secretary Kerry has been so clear that the United States will act. The White House has signaled it will act. But if he did not act now, Wolf, it would not just be Bashar al-Assad who would get a big moral victory out of this.

Look at the region and the things that would happen. The United States would be viewed as a hollow leadership in the region. But here at home, to your point about the president, we're talking about Republicans here, and there's a growing number of Republicans, some libertarian, non-interventionist, but also a few with the neocons again after the Bush administration -- Republicans don't want to intervene.

What about the president's own Democratic Party if you had that vote? The Democrats have muted a lot of their criticism out of loyalty, but a lot of democrats either just oppose this flatly because it's a military action or have huge skepticism that you can pull this off. So, yes, one other caveat, though, the British prime minister says he needs to go through the United Nations.

So, that's going to take a few days at least right there until they realize Russia or China will veto it and they pull out. That runs the clock.

BORGER: Democrats do have -- there is some skepticism on the Democratic side, but it's also clear to me that if you're Democrats who believe in international law, you talk about they're opposed to torture, that there is a convention in 1993 against the use of chemical weapons.

BLITZER: Syria is not a signatory to that.

BORGER: That's right. That's right, but --

KING: -- national norms.

BORGER: Right. That -- and if there is a coalition and if it includes Britain, then I think more Democrats than not could be convinced. The Democrats I talked to in theory say, well, like Van, say if you keep it narrow, if you keep it targeted, so they're kind of tiptoeing up to it, but they also understand that there could be --

BLITZER: And there are unintended consequences. You know, you can start with a very narrow objective and you get sucked into something for 10 or 12 years you don't want to be sucked into.

JONES: Let me just say three things. First of all, I think Boehner's letter is constructive. I actually welcome Boehner's letter. I think it's actually constructive. I think he's actually speaking for the American people in a good way, but he's not saying, Mr. President we're not going to let you go forward, number one.

Number two, there's a difference between legality and legitimacy. The president to be legal in doing this, he's got to go to the U.N. But we know China and Russia will not let the U.N. act. So, the question is, I'm going to do something that's not legal, but can it be legitimate? It gets legitimate in two ways.

BORGER: Like Kosovo.

JONES: Just like Kosovo. You get a real coalition. You got to include Jordan, you got to include Turkey. Get a real coalition to act. After the strike, then a real coalition to act, and you've got to go to Congress. And so, I think that we have -- we're in an emergency situation right now. The president's got to respond, but he's got to be limited and narrow and he's going to come back to the American people.

BORGER: Or could Jordan and Turkey ask you to act?

JONES: That would be even better.

BLITZER: Yes. Don't hold your breath for Jordan.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: And Turkey's got its own issues right now as well. And remember, the big concern that the Obama administration has and is one of their concerns, a lot of members of Congress has, you don't know who these opposition guys you are helping are. They could be worse than some of them, al-Nusra. These are al Qaeda oriented Islamist. It could be worse than Bashar al-Assad.

JONES: I would say he's got to deter and degrade, but not decapitate, because we don't know who can replace Assad. He's got to deter them. He's got to degrade the capacity, but not decapitate.

BORGER: Is it worth it?

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Is it too late?

BLITZER: A lot of people are concluding it's not necessarily worth it, but we'll see what the president of the United States decides. And I think we'll know fairly soon which way he's moving. All right. Guys, thanks very much.

Coming up, CNN is live in the Syrian capital with new exclusive and very chilling video showing the aftermath of that suspected chemical attack.

Plus, moving remarks by three presidents as this nation marks 50 years since the march on Washington.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER (voice-over): Syria now warns the world it's now in a state of war as the United States gets potentially closer to launching imminent military strike. Just ahead, we're going live to Damascus where CNN has one of the only western journalists recording live from inside the country.

And 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech. Two former presidents and the country's first African- American president, they come together here in Washington to pay tribute to his legacy.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER (on-camera): The German chancellor and the British prime minister speaking by phone just a little while ago about the crisis in Syria. A German government spokesman saying the two leaders agree there is sufficient proof that Bashar al-Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own citizens. They also agree that international reaction is now inevitable.

The British parliament will take it up tomorrow, while some U.S. lawmakers are calling for more details as the White House weighs all of its options. CNNs Fred Pleitgen is in the Syrian capital of Damascus with exclusive video showing the aftermath of the attack. Fred is joining us now live. What are you seeing, Fred, and hearing in the Syrian capital?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, the video that we've gotten is from the Zamalka District which is the district that was hardest hit by that alleged chemical attacks. Up to 400 people were killed there. It's also the district that the weapons inspector visited today to try and get new evidence. However, we had a crew there before and have a look at some of the gruesome things that they saw.

What's been going on throughout the better part of the day is that the outskirts of Damascus where, of course, all of these chemical weapons attacks are alleged to have taken place have impounded with artillery. The U.S., for its part, believes that the Syrian government might be doing that to cover up possible evidence in those places before the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors manage to get down there.

However, the Syrian government says that the only reason why it's continuing its war unabated is it's trying to keep rebels who are in those areas at bay. The weapons inspectors for their part were not able to go out to an area where they wanted to inspect a second cite today. They were citing security concerns saying that they wanted to be sure that things were actually safe for them to travel down there.

However, we managed to get video from a filmer (ph). This is CNN exclusive of the place called Zamalka. This is the outskirts of Damascus, the Damascus suburbs, and what that filmer brought us back was some very interesting video of the days after that chemical weapons attack happened. It shows a mass grave where a lot of people have been buried. There's very little space still in that mass grave.

It also shows a lot of dead bodies that are still there and that are unidentified, and therefore, can't be buried. Those bodies show no outward signs of any sort of wounds, and therefore, it seems as though they might have inhaled something that would have killed them, but there were also miraculous tales of survival.

There was one man who showed the filmer a makeshift gas mask that he himself built out of a plastic cup, some cotton and some coal (ph) to make a filter. And he says that appears to have been enough to save him.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Fred is joining us once again live from Damascus. Fred, are people in the Syrian capital preparing themselves for a possible U.S.- led military strike? In other words, are they getting into bunkers? Are they supplying food, holing up some water? Do you get any sense that there's a sense of imminent danger that they're feeling from the United States?

PLEITGEN: That's a really interesting question, Wolf because there was some talk early today by the opposition of there allegedly being a mass exodus here from Damascus. That certainly isn't the case. And if you look at Damascus, at least the government-controlled part, it seems absolutely normal like any other day. But then when you talk to people, you realize they are very concerned about all of this.

They're not concerned they might get hit by American missiles, but they are concerned this might change the balance in the battlefield and that the balance could come closer to central Damascus. There's people I have spoken to who say they are stocking up on food. They're stocking up on canned food, on dry food, and a lot of them are just very uncertain to what all of this means. They're really waiting to see how big and how expansive the American military operation is going to be.

Of course, on the face of it, they will all tell you they support the regime and that they believe that God will protect them from anything. But certainly people here are very, very concerned. It certainly is the talk of the town, this possible military intervention. Wolf?

BLITZER: I'm sure it is. All right, don't go too far away. We're coming back to you soon. Fred Pleitgen, our man in Damascus.

The Obama administration clearly weighing options for a military retaliation against Syria for that apparent chemical weapons attack. Targeted missile strikes seem most likely. You don't have to look back very far for examples of the pros and cons.

Let's get some analysis now from the former CENTCOM commander, the retired U.S. Marine Corps general, Anthony Zinni. General, thanks very much for joining us. You have unique perspective on what's going on right now behind the scenes, especially at the U.S. military central command, which is responsible for this entire region. Give us a little flavor about the decision-making process, the ramping up, if you will, to a military strike that could last a few days, if not longer, against various targets in Syria.

GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI, FORMER CENTCOM COMMANDER, U.S. MARINES (RET.): Well, I'm sure all the planning has been done and everything is in position. I think the key thing here is the long-term strategy. Any military commander wants to know how his military actions fit in terms of the political objectives and in terms of the end state. If there is a strike and they are continuing unacceptable acts, where does this lead us to? What is the next stage? The next step? And how far down do we go? We may want to limit it, but the actions of the enemy may require that we start changing midstream.

And I would say if you look back at Iraq, before the Iraq war in the containment era, there was international support, there was a strategy of containment. And as we retaliated against unacceptable act, there was a strategy to the attacks. For example, to degrade his air defense system and to eliminate some of its other capabilities incrementally.

I think what's important here, this can't be a one and done. There has to be a long-term strategy. And I think our military commanders want to know, how does the military fit and what military actions do you want to achieve those political objectives? And where do we go in the long term if he continues down this path of unacceptable acts?

BLITZER: And you've raised the possibility that the U.S. could get sucked into a long-term military experience adventure in Syria. I want to get that.

Stand by for a moment, General Zinni. We have a lot more to discuss as we continue our in-depth coverage of this crisis in Syria.

Also ahead, three American presidents remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're continuing our special coverage of the crisis in Syria. Let's get some more now from the former U.S. military central commander, retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni.

You've suggested, General Zinni, that unintentionally, with the best of intentions, the U.S. right now could get sucked into a long-term military crisis inside Syria. What's your concern?

ZINNI: Well, my concern is this is not simply a matter of regime removal. We thought that in Iraq, and we thought once we popped the top on Saddam, it would be a liberation, and it wasn't. We went into Somalia with all the best intentions, pure humanitarian intentions, and got bogged down.

This is a mess. There's a religious war underneath this, and you're going to take a side in a religious war. There's ethnic and tribal differences. And wherever you come down, you will make an enemy. And if this were just about regime removal and assuming the population could then take control and there would be some degree of order that can be created, that is wishful thinking.

And if we attack now -- and I think there's good humanitarian reasons for a response -- but we have to be prepared to follow up. There may be more unacceptable acts. They may not just be the ones we might expect, like use of chemical weapons again. There might be terrorist attacks, cyber attacks, attacks on allies like Israel, all sorts of things could lead us down the road.

And I go back to my point. You need a strategy. You need to be prepared to do this. A military commander plans against enemy capabilities, not against assumptions. We should have learned that from the last Iraq war.

BLITZER: I've been speaking to a lot of generals over the past few days, General. Your former colleagues in the U.S. military. If you listen publicly to what General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs, has told Congress, there's no great love, no great desire on the part of the U.S. military to get involved in Syria right now. One of the deep concerns is you don't know, a, how the Syrian regime will respond, b, how their supporters, the Iranians and Hezbollah in Lebanon will respond. But you have to assume a worst-case scenario that they will take action against the United States.

ZINNI: Absolutely. Like I said, a military commander, if he's prudent, plans against all possible capabilities. Sometimes our political masters want to assume away a problem and don't let the military commanders' voice be heard on these issues. It's important that everybody understands what the sticker price for this could be down the road. Have to understand the "and then what" issues if something else happens.

This is not going to be confined to Syria. This is a regional conflict, and it looks more and more like it's going to explode. We have a lot of work to do to build international and regional cooperation and support for this. I don't see it there now. There's a few selective allies, the tried and true that are with us. But we need to be sure they're going to pony up and share the burden and be there at the pointy end when we do something and be able to support us. It's not there now. And that concerns me greatly.

BLITZER: And it concerns a lot of military officers. And as I say, I've spoken with several of them over the past few days, and they are deeply, deeply concerned that even with the best of intentions, simply trying to punish the regime in Damascus for killing all these people with the use of chemical warfare, the U.S. could get, in your words, sucked into a whole new adventure, something the U.S. clearly doesn't want to do. And certain the American public has no stomach another Iraq or Afghanistan right now.

All right, General, we'll continue this conversation down the road. Anthony Zinni's the former CENTCOM commander.

We'll have much more, by the way, on the crisis in Syria coming up at the top of the hour. Our special report, "Crisis In Syria" will begin right at the top of the hour.

Coming up next, though, an emotional and inspirational day as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

But first, CNN's new CROSSFIRE debuts September 16th. Here's a CROSSFIRE classic.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STEPHANIE CUTTER, CNN CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: CROSSFIRE doesn't shy away from controversial guests, and those guests don't get a free ride, either. In 1984, Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan confronted activist and Communist party candidate Angela Davis. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANGELA DAVIS, COMMUNIST PARTY CADIDATE: Of course I'm a member of the Communist party of the United States of America. There is, of course, a relationship between all Communist parties throughout the world, including the Communist party of the Soviet Union.

But of course, I think the effort to portray the Soviet Union as a country where repression reigns as an effort to divert people's attention away from the real accomplishments of the Soviet Union. Not to say --

(CROSSTALK)

TOM BRADEN, FORMER CROSSFIRE HOST: Yes, (INAUDIBLE) you would agree that repression reigns in the Soviet Union.

DAVIS: I certainly would agree that repression reigns in the United States of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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BLITZER: Let's take a quick look at some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

A military jury recommending the death penalty for the convicted Ft. Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hasan. There was no reaction from the Army psychiatrist who represented himself and did not participate in the dramatic closing arguments. Hasan could become the first American soldier executed in more than half a century.

Pro-Syrian hackers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are claiming responsibility for an attack that has crippled "New York Times" Web site. The Syrian Electronic Army says it's responsible for the online assault that led to a 20-hour outage of the paper's online home.

It's the latest in a series of similar online attacks the group says it's carried out against major U.S. and U.K. news organization.

The United States is hopeful a special envoy to North Korea will secure the release of American prisoner Kenneth Bae. But a source tells CNN there's, quote, "no guarantee." U.S. Ambassador Robert King and a small delegation will fly to Pyongyang this weekend with the sole purpose of trying to free Bae who's been held since last year for supposedly committing hostile acts against North Korea.

When we come back, a rousing tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years after his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech. Oprah, two American -- two former American presidents as well as the current president of the United States. They commemorate this historic day.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Fifty years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his history-changing "I Have A Dream" speech and prominent leaders returned today to pay tribute.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OPRAH WINFREY, OWN NETWORK: And as we, the people, continue to honor the dream of a man and a movement, a man who in his short life saw suffering and injustice and refused to look the other way, we can be inspired and we too can be courageous by continuing to walk in the footsteps of the path that he forged. He's the one who reminded us that we will never walk alone.

REP. JOHN LEWIS, ORIGINAL MARCH ON WASHINGTON SPEAKER: On that day, Martin Luther King, Jr. made a speech built he also delivered a sermon. He transformed these marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a modern-day pulpit. He changed us forever. We didn't go to jail. But we got the Civil Rights Act. We got the Voting Rights Act. We got our Fair Housing Act. But we must continue to push. We must continue to work.

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT: Well, I'm greatly honored to be here and I realize that most people know that it's highly unlikely that any of us three over to my right would have served in the White House or be on this platform had it not been for Martin Luther King, Jr. and his movement, his crusade for civil rights.

He gazed at the great wall of segregation so that the power of love can bring it down. He made our nation stronger because he made it better.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT: What a debt we owe to those people who came here 50 years ago.

(APPLAUSE)

The martyrs played it all for a dream. So how are we going to repay the debt? Dr. King's dream of interdependence, his prescription of wholehearted cooperation across racial lines, they ring true today as they did 50 years ago.

We cannot be discouraged by a Supreme Court decision that said we don't need this critical provision of the Voting Rights Act because look at the states that made it harder for African-Americans and Hispanics and students. And the elderly and the infirmed and poor working folks to vote.

What do you know? They showed up, stood in line for hours and voted anyway, so obviously we don't need any kind of law.

(APPLAUSE)

But a great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon.

(APPLAUSE) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Through setbacks and heartbreaks and gnawing doubt, that flame of justice flickered. It never died. And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, a voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else's laundry or shining somebody else's shoes.

(APPLAUSE)

Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.

(APPLAUSE)

And that's the lesson of our past. That's the promise of tomorrow. And in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Powerful day here in Washington, D.C., indeed from the Lincoln Memorial the president went back to the White House presumably once again focusing in on this crisis in Syria.

And coming up at the top of the hour we'll have a special SITUATION ROOM report, the "Crisis in Syria." That begins in a few minutes.

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