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Al Qaeda Affiliate Group Part Of Syrian Rebels; Selling A Strike On Syria; Republicans Messaging Mixed On Syria; NFL Settles In Concussion Lawsuit; Victory For Same Sex Couples; New Beatles Album Coming?

Aired August 29, 2013 - 16:30   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman.

Coming back to our world lead right now -- the crisis in Syria today spawned a fascinating and sometimes faltering global game of chess with diplomatic gymnastics, dangerous weapons and potentially deadly consequences.

We saw political and military maneuvering, everywhere from London, to Moscow, to Paris, to Washington, to Tehran, to Jerusalem and beyond.

The White House told reporters that President Obama spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel today, the latest in the growing list of world leaders that the has reached to on Syria.

One of the people on the president's speed dial, British Prime Minister David Cameron. He spent his day in parliament there trying to ease the political anxiety over intervention in Syria.


DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: The question before the House today is how to respond to one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century. I am deeply mindful of the lessons of previous conflicts, and in particular, the deep concerns in the country caused by what went wrong with the Iraq conflict in 2003.

But this is not like Iraq. What we are seeing in Syria is fundamentally different.


BERMAN: He had a tough day, faced a lot of grilling. It is not just President Obama who is fighting concerns from home.

So, the question is -- what is the political and military landscape worldwide? Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and an expert on al Qaeda. And Bobby Ghosh is the international editor for "TIME" magazine, whose cover story this week addresses President Obama's foreign policy challenges in Syria and really across the Middle East.

Bobby, I want to start with you. Break it down for me. When we're talking about the world here and the nations of the world, what are the different sides and how strong really are those sides, especially given that Britain, one of America's fiercest and strongest allies seems to be, to quote a former British prime minister, "going a little bit wobbly."

BOBBY GHOSH, TIME INTERNATIONAL EDITOR: Well, we know for -- we know, John, who is completely opposed to any kind of action in Syria, that is the Russians, that is the Iranians and it would appear that is also the Chinese. So, that's -- that part we're particularly clear on.

As the president tries to pull together a coalition of the willing, that's a little more complicated. As you mentioned, in Britain, the government seems ready to go, the opposition not so much. The French government seems ready to go. We believe that the Turks and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are also willing it go, but we haven't quite heard from them.

The Arab League, which signed off on the Libyan operation, for instance, a couple of years ago, is not so clear at this point. They would like something to be done about Bashar Al-Assad, they are not his friends, they have kicked him out of the league, but at the same time they're not sure that a military operation against him is the way to go. This is a particularly difficult challenge for the president, much more difficult, for instance, than two years ago when there was a coalition of the willing that went against Libya.

BERMAN: So that's the landscape around the world.

Another place that's interesting to look is inside Syria. Peter, you've covered Al Newsra, one of the most effective fighting forces, actually the single most effective fighting force inside Syria right fighting against the government. If they're not an al Qaeda affiliate, they're at least al Qaeda sympathizers right now. How will they try to capitalize on a U.S. air strike if it does come?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Their goal is to overthrow Assad and install a Taliban regime in Syria. In fact, in April this year, they actually identified themselves as a fully part of al Qaeda. They have been accepted by al Qaeda central. We might as well call them al Qaeda. So the United States is in an interesting position. They don't want al Qaeda to take over the country. On the other hand, they do want to punish Assad to some degree. So calibrating the strike so it doesn't actually overthrow his regime tomorrow, but at the same time isn't a slap on the wrist is what they're trying to create.

BERMAN: Does an air strike help al Qaeda, even the strange situation of --

BERGEN: Well, yes, the short answer is sometimes you get in these very difficult operations. I mean, being a policymaker is choosing the least bad decision --

BERMAN: You said very difficult situations there. Bobby, the cover story again of "Time" magazine this week notes one of the goals of any administration is to avoid in foreign policy avoid unwinnable situations. Now, from the beginning President Obama was a trying to differentiate his foreign policy from his predecessors. How might his differentiation contribute to the unwinnable situation that he faces right now?

GHOSH: It's not so much as differentiation that's led to the situation. At the beginning when he first became president, he reached out to the world, as he said, with an open hand hoping that the world in return, particularly in some of these more difficult countries, that there would not be a clenched fist against him.

Unfortunately, the people with whom he was communicating that message don't believe in the power of words, they believe in the power of action and they have no compulsion about killing their own people in large numbers, as we are seeing in Syria. But the problem the trap the president set almost for himself if you look is one, Bashar Al Assad has to go and, two, there's a red line with chemical weapons.

That eventually politically meant a commitment that he painted himself into a corner and now we find out if he doesn't respond, Assad has not gone, he still remains, he's killed over 100,000 of his people and he's used chemical weapons, it would appear, in a fairly large quantity most recently. So now the president finds himself in this position. It's not so much the difference between him and George Bush that's led to this. It's the, if you like, impolitic use of language, which is ironic considering that this is a president whose one of his greatest think is the use of language.

BERMAN: There are critics right now saying one of the problems the Obama administration is using this week is they're using a whole lot of language and talking too much. Peter, I want to read a quote right now from former Commander Admiral William Fallon. He says I have no earthly idea why they're talking so much. He's talking about the White House right now. It's not leaking out. It's coming out a hose. They've been talking for four days about an air strike. Doesn't that temper whatever affected this, the air strike might eventually have?

BERGEN: Well, to some degree, but we also live in an open society and the British have to go to parliament to actually vote on military action. We in the United States are supposed to consult with Congress before we take military action. I mean, that's the price of living in an open society.

BERMAN: Peter Bergen, Bobby Ghosh, thanks so much for joining us. Great discussion, appreciate it.

Coming up in our Politics Lead, will he or won't he, as President Obama considers launching a military attack in Syria, is he having trouble selling his plan? And just how much is enough? The NFL finally puts a number on what it owes to ex-players who suffered concussions. We'll tell you just how much the league is paying.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. The Politics Lead, if you're not sure what the president's position is on Syria, there could be a reason. Listen to what Jay Carney told reporters at Tuesday's White House briefing.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The credibility of the Assad regime here is obviously close to zero. It is our firm conviction that Syria's future cannot include Assad in power.


BERMAN: It sounds like Assad must go, right? Well, not so fast, my friends. Carney just minutes earlier said this.


CARNEY: I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change.


BERMAN: Joining us to talk about the administration's messaging challenges, CNN political contributor and former adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, Kevin Madden, former White House communications director, Anita Dunn, and CNN senior political analyst David Gergen, who has been to Syria with two different administrations. Guys, thanks so much for being here.

David, we'll start with you. How would you grade the president's selling of his administration's plan in Syria right now? How's he doing?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's totally incomplete at the moment. You have to give him a C minus at the moment. I do think when he acts as he will. He'll address the nation in primetime and then that's the proper time to make a real assessment. The question is how well he can sell it in that speech --

BERMAN: Has there been too long, though? Secretary Kerry spoke on Monday. Vice President Biden spoke on Tuesday but no real, solid, firm words from the president.

GERGEN: I think it would have been better had he been taking the lead from the start. You even have to ask should he have drawn the red line way back when. Would he have been doing this if he had not drawn that red line in an off-handed comment?

BERMAN: Anita, the cover of "Time" magazine, we showed it before, but I want to show it again right here. It shows the president as "The Unhappy Warrior," suggesting that he's not at all pleased about what he's being force to do or the decisions he is being left with right now. Is he being dragged into something that he doesn't want to deal with?

ANITA DUNN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, John, I don't think there's any president who would be happy faced with the idea to use military force. It's not happy time. And it's one that this president, as is the case with presidents before him, takes very seriously. That was the case with the tough decision he made in 2009 to send more troops to Afghanistan in order to be able to bring them home. It's been the case with every time he's had to use military force.

But this is a president who approaches these issues deliberately with a steady approach to these things that are thoughtful and he wants to look at all options and he is not going to rush into this things. That's the approach he's had throughout his term. That's the approach you've seen here. There's no reason to rush, but there is every reason in the world to look at how we exercise our obligations as a world leader.

BERMAN: Is being thoughtful in opposition to being decisive, though?

DUNN: OK, so, John, thoughtful means looking at everything thoughtful, means looking at the options and thinking them through before you act. I think we've seen reckless in the past. I think thoughtful as an approach to a region that is extraordinarily volatile, a region that's complex, issues that are complex. This isn't just about Syria. You've been talking about this, everyone's talked about this.

It's about a critically important region that's very volatile, that's very complicated, very complex. I think that you would want the president to think this through and, you know, talk to world leaders, meet with his team, look at all the options before moving.

BERMAN: Kevin, where are the Republicans here? You know, there have been Republicans like Senator John McCain, Lindsay Graham and others who have been calling for action for years, literally right now, who really aren't jumping to the president's side and defending the policies or actions they're considering of taking right now.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think folks up on Capitol Hill have been very reluctant and careful about saying whether or not the president -- what the president should or should not do. I think it's really important that the president speak for the country when it comes to dictating foreign policy. I think the problem here is not so much about rushing in.

I think the problem here for the president, particularly from a communication standpoint is the lack clarity and lack of confidence. We learn on campaigns and we learn in all different sectors that every organization is essentially a reflection of its principal. If you look at what the White House -- there is a lack of clarity about what they're saying about the options are on the table. I think that's hard when he trying to sell that on Capitol Hill and even harder when he's trying to sell this policy to the American public.

GERGEN: Let me come back to what Anita said. I think she's absolutely right about the importance and we should be thankful to have a president who is deliberative, who is careful. The danger is the more reluctant and deliberate you are, the danger is you can start looking weak and your own opponent will start taking advantage of you. We're being tested by Assad now. The Iranians are watching us very closely, if he doesn't respond more decisively, he's got a setback with Iran. This doesn't seem to be gelling as an endeavour, as an initiative by a group of nations.

BERMAN: Neither domestically nor internationally.

GERGEN: Exactly. Then you got a situation now where the vote in Britain may not take place until Tuesday. It might even go the wrong way, but it might take place on Tuesday. The president is supposed to get on a plane Tuesday night and go to Europe and go to Russia, and be in Russia. Is he really going to take action on Tuesday just before? Does he have to wait for another week? I think those are hard decisions.

BERMAN: How uncomfortable that meeting will be next week with the G20?

DUNN: They probably have had warmer ones.

BERMAN: The understatement of the century. Anita Dunn, Kevin Madden and David Gergen, great to have you here. Really appreciate it, guys.

Coming up next, in the Sports Lead, the NFL is ready to pay. Does a settlement mean the league is acknowledging a link between football and head injuries? And the internet normally ruins everything. But find out internet discovery have fans of one fab foursome excited.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman. In our Sports Lead, they clashed every Sunday in front of packed stadiums, screaming fans and billionaire owners, many before the NFL began to experiment with new rules and modern ways to protect their brains. Today the NFL reached a settlement with 4,500 former players over a concussion lawsuit. Any agreement would still need to be approved by a judge. The NFL will pay $765 million for compensation exams and a medical research program for retired players and their families, plus they will pay litigation fees as well.

An NFL spokesman told CNN the judge has requested no comment beyond what is in the written documents since the settlement has not been approved. Now, I want to tell you this, $765 million sounds like a lot of money until you look at this chart, $9.5 billion, that's how much the NFL brought in just in 2012. That's more than NASCAR, the NBA and America's pastime, baseball.

The question is who really won in this settlement and does it mean anything when it comes to the impact of concussions in football? I want to bring in a man that any football fan knows very, very well. Peter King, senior writer for "Sports Illustrated" and editor of the Peter, thanks so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.


BERMAN: First of all, help us understand this settlement. For a couple years now people have been saying the NFL faced an existential problem, concussions could literally end the game. So how big a deal is this for pro football? KING: Well, this was the storm cloud that was over every decision the NFL made, it was over every season the last few seasons because everyone knew that this -- there was going to come a day of reckoning. And the reason why this is such a big win for the National Football League in my opinion is that even though, including the attorneys fees, it's going to cost every NFL team, every NFL owner about $30 million, this is $30 million payable over a 20-year period.

The owners are going to have to pay basically about $12 million over the first three years per team to fund this concussion fund settlement. But beyond that, they're going to have a long period of time to basically stretch out the payments that they're going to owe and they're almost certainly going to be able to eliminate any future lawsuit from former players about head injuries. So I think it's a very big win for the NFL.

BERMAN: Why the players, then, make the deal? There are probably some pretty sad reasons, I imagine.

KING: Clearly what happened, John, is that guys like -- I mean, Kevin Turner, who is a former NFL fullback, who now has ALS. He was very strident this week when people said this lawsuit could stretch on for six, eight, ten years. He said, look, I don't have ten years. I'm probably not going to make it that long. I need money now. I need funding now. The average player in that lawsuit might only get $100,000 to $200,000, but for the average player, that's going to help him pay the medical bills that he desperately needs that money for.

BERMAN: It is so sad. They need the money now because they don't know if they'll be alive long enough if they had dragged the lawsuit out for longer. Does the NFL have to acknowledge in any way what they knew about the link between concussions and brain injuries? That was one of the big issues here. That the NFL would have to open up their books and show what they knew. But now what happens?

KING: Not only does the NFL not have to acknowledge any culpability involved in the whole head trauma issue, in the concussion issue, but the NFL also doesn't have to go through what I believe would have been a very painful discovery process, where team doctors would have got I don't know -- gotten on the stand, who maybe were doctors 15 years ago on the sidelines and got pressured by a head coach to send guys back into games.

So I think a lot of people the early analysis is that, yes, the players get the money now, they're going to be able to get the money now, but had they been able to be patient and taken the money maybe six, eight, ten years down the road, they could have done a lot better in this process. I got to tell you, John, nobody can litigate like the National Football League. They have a very long record of being able to stretch cases out. I think clearly that's one of the things that really made a lot of the players in this lawsuit and the attorneys fear a long case.

BERMAN: And just to be clear, you think that this means the players now and recently retired players, other players not part of the 4,500, they probably won't be able to sue later on? KING: They won't be able to sue later on, but the good thing is that any former NFL player, there's about 18,000, or 19,000 former NFL players who are currently alive. Any of those players can undergo baseline testing at no cost of their brain. And if they have abnormal brain activity in any way they will be able to appeal to the people who are going to run this fund to be able to get some money out of this for treatment for their head injury.

BERMAN: The important thing is that players who need treatment can get the treatment and the important thing is that these injuries and the NFL and really society does what they can to reduce the injuries. Peter King, really a pleasure to have you. Thank you so much for coming in.

KING: My pleasure. Thank you.

BERMAN: So the kids in "The Breakfast Club" were in detention longer. The NCAA is punishing Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel by making him sit out the entire first half of Saturday's season opener against Rice, 30 full minutes. Punishing him for what? Well, no one really knows for sure, not even the NCAA.

In a statement about the suspension, it said there was no evidence that Manziel was paid for signing autographs, which would be against NCAA regulations, but they basically put him on the bench just in case someone somewhere sold something with his name on it. We sure hope he can shake off all the rust for missing that 30 minutes against Rice.

Coming up next in the Buried Lead, it's the birds and the bees on a cosmic level. How life may have started on Mars before it came to earth. Details of a new study that says we're all aliens, really. Next.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. Now the Buried Lead, as weird as it sounds, there a ton of people who are actually happy with the IRS today. That's because the Internal Revenue and Treasury Department agreed to give married same-sex couples the same federal tax benefits as straight couples. Same-sex couples can now file jointly and they're eligible for federal benefits in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage. That means the federal government will recognize marriages in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages. That will apply to all federal taxes, includes estate taxes and even retirement accounts as well.

After years of rumors and speculations surrounding the "Fab Four," the secret is finally out. It looks like the Beatles have a new record coming out this year. According to Mashable, someone dug up a post on MCA's music Facebook page that mentions the upcoming release of the Beatle's "Live at the BBC Volume II." Volume I came out almost 20 years ago and featured never released recordings of the group. MCA is owned by Universal Records, which currently owns the rights of the Beatles catalogue.

And there are aliens among us. In fact, you might be one of them. A new study says that there's evidence that life originated on Mars and was brought to this planet aboard a meteorite. These are the findings of a biochemist from the West Heimer Institute for Science and Technology in Florida who says 3 billion years ago, Mars was a much more livable place than earth. It had oxygen and the building blocks for life that somehow made their way here at some point. So that's good news for all of us who thought we are weird already.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm John Berman sitting in for Jake Tapper today. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."