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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Syria Options; Historic NFL Settlement; Interview with Florida Congressman Alan Grayson; Consequences of Striking Syria; Feds Won't Block Pot Laws; Yosemite Rim Fire 30 Percent Contained

Aired August 29, 2013 - 16:00   ET

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


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The next few hours are crucial if the Obama administration really plans to strike Syria.

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

The world lead. After complaining that they're getting left in the dark, some lawmakers will soon hear what the administration has on Syria. Can the skeptics be won over? We are going to talk to a lawmaker in the president's own party who is dead set against intervention.

And would a strike on the Syrian regime put us on the same side as al Qaeda? Would it trigger retaliation against U.S. ally Israel? The consequences of getting involved in another Middle East conflict.

And the sports lead. They were once gods of gridiron who say the NFL profited off the trauma to their brains. Now the league is paying up, but is it enough for the thousands of players who say they will never be the same again?

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

And we begin with the world lead and breaking news. Just what does the U.S. have on Assad? Was he personally behind a chemical attack? Two hours from now, senior officials in the Obama administration will brief congressional leaders on the situation in Syria. The administration has repeatedly claimed that it is certain that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on its on people.

Again, congressional leaders get that information in two hours, but our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, has been working her sources and has something of a preview now.

Barbara, just what have you learned?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, let's unlock that intelligence dossier just a little bit here.

First up, what we now know is that the U.S. has intercepts after the attack of Syrian generals talking amongst themselves about the use of chemicals in this attack that happened last week. That's a very strong piece of evidence that underscores the administration's conclusion that the regime was behind it. But was Bashar al-Assad's hand really on the button? Did he give the order? That is less clear, we are told. Officials won't say whether Assad had his finger on the button. They say, if they talked about that, it would give up too much of the classified intelligence. But Congressman Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in an upcoming interview in "THE SITUATION ROOM WITH WOLF BLITZER" tells Wolf that at least the sense of it is Assad may have given his generals permission to use chemical weapons in a broad sense and this was the case in which they decided to use them.

So you begin to see the shape taking place of what may have happened here -- John.

BERMAN: All right, key information. Thank you so much, Barbara Starr, at the Pentagon. We appreciate it.

As we mentioned, two hours from now, some congressional leaders will pick up their phones from wherever they are spending their summer recesses right now and finally get some answers that they have been demanding on Syria from some of the heaviest hitters in the Obama administration.

The administration sounds so certain that chemical weapons were used, yet the president told PBS last night that he is still pondering action.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, first of all, I have not made a decision. I have gotten options from our military, had extension discussions with my national security team.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: All we have heard from his proxies in recent days is, they did it, we know they did it and they should be punished for doing it now. Three full days ago now, Secretary of State John Kerry gave the very strong impression that a U.S. strike on Syria was imminent.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: A moral obscenity. You could practically hear the drumbeat underneath the secretary's words.

But a number of developments have slowed the administration's roll since then. Russia today called a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which is debating a resolution to allow military action on Syria. Russia and China, Syria's allies, would almost certainly veto that.

Russia also now sending two warships to the Eastern Mediterranean. That's according to Reuters. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon yesterday pleaded for time to allow inspectors to finish their investigation in Syria. By the way, they're not leaving until Saturday. U.S. ally Great Britain is also pumping the brakes on joining a strike now. Prime Minister David Cameron today got an earful when he went before Parliament there. He now says the U.K. will not act until the U.N. gives its report and his Parliament votes on it.

And then here back in the U.S., more than a hundred members of the house, mostly Republicans, but some Democrats, too, sent the president a letter demanding that he consult with Congress before ordering any action.

So one lawmaker who outright opposes intervention at all is Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Florida. He's a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman Grayson, thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: Thank you.

BERMAN: You were not invited to join this conference call in a few hours, but is there anything the administration could say at this point to convince you to support an airstrike?

GRAYSON: The administration would have to explain why this affects some vital American interest.

I haven't heard any discussion of that at all. I think the only people who really want in to happen are the military industrial complex. I just don't understand how this involves us, Americans. The British had estimated the strike will cost Americans billions of dollars, with a B. And at a time when the budgets are so tight, and we're cutting veterans' benefits and we're cutting education and we're cutting health care, why are we spending billions of dollars?

I don't know where we got this odd notion that every time we see something bad happen in the world, we should bomb it.

BERMAN: You bring up the issue of national interests here, vital national interests. The president on PBS was talking about the U.S. interests here. I think we have some sound of exactly what the president said. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: You are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency, but you're also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected. And that needs to stop.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BERMAN: So, in your opinion, Congressman, is the president wrong, that a chemical attack on the people in Syria does not threaten U.S. national interests?

GRAYSON: If that's what he's saying -- and it's not clear to me that that is what that meant -- but if that's what he's saying, yes, he's wrong.

I don't see how this tragedy, it's a tragedy, affects U.S. national interests. And, by the way, the greatest norm, the highest norm in international law is that you don't attack another country unilaterally without the authorization of the United Nations. That's the United Nations charter. It's a fundamental principle.

We can't simply go in and bomb people whenever we feel like it, particularly when one man is arrogating to himself that decision.

BERMAN: A hundred thousand people dead in the Syrian conflict, by some reports at least 350 killed in what the administration says was a chemical weapons attack. Is standing by and doing nothing really an option?

GRAYSON: Frankly, you have overstated and the secretary certainly overstated the evidence that this was a deliberate decision made by the high command in Syria.

There is all sorts of ambiguity regarding that particular point. The secretary said it was undeniable. It's been denied. And in fact the Syrian government has said, A., they didn't do it, B., they would never do it, C., they never will do it and, D., they have invited U.N. inspectors to prove that. To say that it's undeniable is flatly false.

In any case, even if we had undeniable evidence, the fact is it's simply not our responsibility. Sometimes, everyone needs to learn the principle mind your own business.

BERMAN: No, to be clear, it's the administration that is saying the evidence is undeniable of a chemical attack.

Based on what you have seen I guess in the media right now and anything else you may have seen in your congressional office, you are not convinced that the Syrian regime was behind the chemical attack in Syria?

GRAYSON: First of all, it's not even clear it was a chemical attack.

If it was a chemical attack, then the residue that was left on the clothing of victims would have poisoned other people. That hasn't happened. Secondly, it could easily have been the rebels who did it or some disaffected parts of the Syrian military.

Third, even if it was a chemical attack and even if it was the military doing it, there's no evidence that it was a deliberate decision on the part of the leadership in Syria. And I don't like sitting here and sounding like I'm some kind of apologist for a dictator, but the fact is that if you're going to go ahead and say it's undeniable that there's clear evidence, that's the way it ought to be. The British actually have put out a report saying that it's not undeniable and the evidence is quite unclear.

BERMAN: But you are unsatisfied then, it is safe to say, with what you been given or what it is being laid by President Obama's administration, a Democrat, by the way?

GRAYSON: I think the administration is giving only one side of the story.

BERMAN: And if the U.N. -- it's a hypothetical. But if the U.N. inspectors do come back, and we should learn by Saturday what information they found, if they come back and say that it was a chemical attack in this town and they think it is tied to the Assad administration, would that satisfy you?

GRAYSON: By ourselves? No.

We are not the world's policemen. That is not our responsibility. If the United Nations decides to authorize members including the United States to do something about that, then that is a bridge we can cross at that point. But just because the United Nations inspectors would come and say chemical weapons were used, without even identifying whether it was a high command decision on that subject or even who did it, no, that doesn't satisfy me at all.

BERMAN: Congressman Alan Grayson, Democrat from Florida, thank you so much for joining us. We really do appreciate it.

GRAYSON: Thank you.

BERMAN: Coming up next on THE LEAD, they have promised retaliation, but will Iran and Russia follow through on their threats? The implications of U.S. military action in Syria.

Plus, is former President George W. Bush trying to rewrite history? Why some are furious over a new Hurricane Katrina exhibit at the Bush Library.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

Continuing with our world lead now, the looming threat of U.S. action against Syria. If those U.S. ships in the Mediterranean start lobbing bombs at Syrian target,s the ripples could reach across countries and reach across years. There are really so many variables here. How would Syria respond? What about our frenemies Russia and China, who are Syria's side and given the rebels keep, can the U.S. afford to support them?

Want to bring in now our own Tom Foreman to try to answer some of these what-ifs.

And, Tom, you have a special guest there with you. TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, General Spider Marks is here as well.

And we have talking so much about the idea from the White House that this would a surgical, limited strike, like they could bring these ships in the Mediterranean, start lobbing these missiles into Syria and that would be it, the message would be sent. But there are many variables here which can change that equation. The very first one you have to talk about of course is the reaction.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, what Syria itself will do, it's very clear Syria will respond militarily and very strongly diplomatically.

But I think, Tom, what's most important is that Syria has three very strong allies in the form of Russia, China and Iran. They provide support to Syria and have for quite some time. We would anticipate that that support would continue and at the end of this strike, Syria may come out stronger than it is before the strike.

FOREMAN: They could actually bolster their support, even more weapons, more support, more everything.

MARKS: Absolutely.

FOREMAN: And they'd have the pretext to do so, saying you were just attacked by a superpower. Of course, we can send you more things.

MARKS: Absolutely correct. Without the implementation of the no-fly zone, that could occur.

FOREMAN: That would be an astonishing development that would be nothing that the United States would want, obviously.

Let's get rid of that now and talk a little bit more about the country itself right now. We know that all these insurgent groups are there right now. They are fractured. They're from many different places. This is another question. What happens with the insurgent reaction if, in fact, an attack takes place? What are the possibilities there?

MARKS: I think it's fair to assume that Assad is not going to capitulate. He's not going to give up.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN ANCHOR: That would be nothing the United States would want. Let's get rid of that and talk a little more about the country itself right now. We know that all these insurgent groups are there right now. They are fractured. They're from many different places.

What happens with the insurgent reaction if, in fact, an attack takes place? What are the possibilities?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think it's fair to assume Assad is not going to capitulate. He's not going to give up. What we can also assume is that al Qaeda and Hezbollah making up the insurgents in Syria will increase in strength, will gain some momentum.

And again, the sad irony of this is the United States may contribute to the insurgent success in Syria as a result of this strike.

FOREMAN: And not just insurgents that we might have something in common with but in truth what we're talk about here, if Assad were to fall, which is not the goal right now, even though it may be the long term goal -- yes, the United States military could help put terrorist groups in charge of an entire nation. That's one of the real concerns here.

And then let's talk about one last area here, General, which I think is very important and that is the question of the unknowns. You go into any battle, you launch anything like this, and simply there are going to be things that go wrong, whether or not it's technological or in an intelligence sense.

Explain that.

MARKS: Well, Tom, the sad part is, is that as a career intelligence officer, the intelligence sometimes can be wrong. So, the United States and its coalition partners, assuming there's coalition partners, might strike a target that isn't what it was supposed to be. There might be women and children inside a facility that is now being taken out. And the downside of that would be horrible and the United States would then be accused of contributing to this humanitarian disaster.

FOREMAN: Or there could be diplomats from China or from Russia, we could hit them and widen the whole conflict.

MARKS: And we unfortunately have experience in that as well, Belgrade, in 1999, in Operation Allied Force.

FOREMAN: You had great description for this earlier. You said, when it comes to matters like this, you do get to start them --

MARKS: You don't get to finish them. The "on" button belongs to you when you begin. You transfer possession of the off button to your opponent once you begin this fight.

FOREMAN: Because that's where all the unknowns come kicking in, John. That's one of the calculations that has to be made internationally and in the White House as these hours tick by and we consider whether or not it, in fact, will lead to armed conflict.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: No question. Not a lot of easy answers. Tom Foreman, General Spider Marks, thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate that report.

And coming up next, as firefighters continue to battle the flames, photographers are capturing some breathtaking images of that massive wildfire in Yosemite National Park -- the Rim Fire really like you've never seen it before.

And, they've been smoking weed legally for weeks. Now, pot smokers out west have another reason to celebrate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

The national lead -- they're popping open bags of Doritos like bottles of Cristal in Colorado and Washington today, and after the feds announced they will not go after states for legalizing marijuana. That means federal laws banning pot smoking will not supersede the state laws that make it OK to smoke pot out there. The Justice Department can still step in down the line if states fail to follow certain federal guidelines like keeping weed out of the hands of minors.

As firefighters make head way in their efforts to contain that ferocious fire in Yosemite National Park, we're getting really a breathtaking and frightening look at the blaze, as it slowly consumed part of that national treasure.

This is time-lapse video released this week. It shows different angles of the Rim Fire, which has scorched more than 192,000 acres of land. Look at that. Firefighters say it is now 30 percent contained and they expect to gain more ground in the coming weeks. Stunning images.

It was eight years ago today that a monster named Katrina unleashed fury on New Orleans and the people of the Gulf Coast. Well, some of the regions are using the anniversary to commemorate lives lost and forever changed by the disaster.

Others are launching a campaign to fight what they call rewriting of history. They say that a George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Texas glosses over the administration's role in the failed response to Katrina. Groups like levees.org and The Bridge Project are pushing for changes to the museum's Katrina exhibit, which they say present as watered version of the federal response.

You may recall, thousands were left stranded in New Orleans days after the storm, surrounded by rising floodwaters and the federal government took days to send in rescue crews.

We reached out to the Bush Library for comment and we received a statement, which reads in part, "The area of Bush museum exhibit dedicated to hurricane Katrina is located within a section pertaining to crisis management, all told from the level of presidential decision-making, before, during and after the storm. In addition, hurricane Katrina is one of the four scenarios visitors can choose in the museum's decision-point theaters. Visitors are given the opportunity to fully explore the many issues related to the response to Katrina, and as with the other exhibit elements, criticism of the federal and state responses is acknowledged."

An update on a story we told you about earlier this month regarding the sex scandal that brought down a former CIA director, Dave Petraeus. Jill Kelley, the Tampa socialite who helped blow the lid off the whole thing, filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration for leaks that she says ruined her husband's and her reputation. Well, now, a U.S. district court has granted the administration a 20- day extension to respond to the suit.

Last year, the Kelleys reached out to the FBI to complain about harassing e-mails. We now know that those emails came from Paula Broadwell, the woman having an affair with the then-CIA director, David Petraeus. Kelley says that following Petraeus resignation, various, anonymous law enforcement and government officials dragged the Kelleys names through the mud. The Obama administration now has until September 24th to respond.

The Kelleys' attorney said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, quote, "Government officials investigating a high level sex scandal engaged in willful and intentional violations of confidentiality and privacy requirements -- with the effect and arguable intention to divert public focus and diffuse political pressure."

The Obama administration has declined to comment given the pending litigation.

Coming up next on THE LEAD: terrorists waiting in the wings. Could al Qaeda benefit from a U.S. strike on Syria?

Plus, does the original boy band have a new album in the works? How some online sleuths reveal hints of a new Beatles record?

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