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No Decision Yet On Syria; Handling The U.S. Crisis; Lawmakers Demand A Say On Syria; Fire Burns Yosemite National Park; Fast-Food Workers Walk Out; White House Answers Questions about Syria

Aired August 29, 2013 - 13:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: The British prime minister says the world must stop Syria's use of chemical weapons and the U.S. agrees. So where does it go from here?

Plus -

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do want?

CROWD: (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When do we want it?

CROWD: Now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: This is happening in 50 cities across to country today. Fast food workers are calling for better wages. We're going to have a live report.

And Victoria Duval is riding high after her amazing performance at the U.S. Open. She's only 17. And she sat down with us to talk about what got her life -- about her life on and off the court.

This is CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

It is the biggest crisis facing the world right now. We are talking about Syria. We expect to hear from the White House any minute. You are taking a look at live pictures there from the press briefing room, reporters likely to push for answers on what is the administration's plan here to respond to the chemical weapons attack which President Obama blames squarely on the Syrian government?

Jill Dougherty is standing by at the White House. And, Jill, I want to ask you a couple of questions here. First of all, we heard from the president. He says, no doubt that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people here. He's going to be briefing members of Congress later in the evening. What do we expect to hear from the president today? JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, we may not hear anything specifically publicly. I mean, this -- they have presented, at least they have this intelligence estimate -- this, I should say, intelligence report that musters whatever evidence they have that the regime, as they would argue, did use chemical weapons. They are presenting that to the members of Congress. This would be presumably a classified report, then it is unclassified for the public. And we've been promised that that will come out this week. So, today is Thursday. One more day after this. Then they have to decide what to do.

And, Suzanne, that's where it gets more complicated because every minute they have to be -- if there is to be a military response, they have to be analyzing, what is going on in Syria? Where are the regime troops? What targets would they hit? Et cetera. And that can change as let's say chemical weapons or any other type of weapons are moved around. But it's supposed to be a limited strike and there is reason for that because of their legal justification which also we should hear something about that they have -- they would say because it is such a serious thing to use chemical weapons that they have to do this in order to prevent future attacks.

MALVEAUX: The big debate, of course, going on in the country whether or not this should even happen, whether or not there should be a military strike or the U.S. should get involved, whether or not, you know, you understand and believe the humanitarian crisis but could it be a quagmire if the U.S. gets involved?

I want to show you the latest polls here. If you take a look at this latest one, ask Americans if the U.S. military action would be justified if the Syrian government used chemical weapons? Back in May. 66 percent said, yes, military action would be justified while only 33 percent said, no. But there is a course of people, Jill, who are thinking that, look, you know, you could be getting into something that is really a larger regional conflict that the U.S. could not pull out of and could pull in, draw on Israel, one of our closest allies.

DOUGHERTY: Yes, there's no question. I mean, it is -- Syria is a very big country. It's very strategically located. And don't forget that, of course, overall all of this is the shadow of the Iraq War and the proof that the United States presented that turned out not to be correct. People were burned by that here and also in the U.K. and in other countries. They don't want to do it again. So, whatever they present has to be as tight as they can get it without revealing sources.

And then also, what could happen? Let's say that they do use military force. If they were to hit a chemical weapons storage place which could be a temporary one, --

MALVEAUX: Right.

DOUGHERTY: -- what happens in that case?

MALVEAUX: Right.

DOUGHERTY: You could cause more harm. What happens if Iran decides to retaliate? What is the rationale? What's the thinking --

MALVEAUX: Sure.

DOUGHERTY: -- of President Assad? What will he do?

MALVEAUX: OK. Jill, thank you. I want to bring in our Wolf Blitzer here out of Washington to talk a little bit more about the analysis. And, Wolf, I have to ask you here because you have a timetable. We talked about it earlier in the week. The president is scheduled to go to St. Petersburg, Russia for the G20 conference, that on Tuesday. You -- we've been watching the British parliament, the debate that's taking place, and they've got a couple of votes, a process to go through before they sign off on whether or not there will be a military strike. So, what is the president -- what is his timetable here? Is it even possible that that could be completely moved and at a later date after the G20 Summit?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He could do it whenever he wants obviously. He could do it without the British on board. He could do it before the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. He could wait until he gets back at the end -- very end of next week. But it's very interesting, Suzanne. The British prime minister, David Cameron, in parliament today, he said, before Britain were to go ahead with any military strikes, be involved in any such operation, --

MALVEAUX: Yes.

BLITZER: -- he wants to get the final report from the U.N. weapons inspectors who are still in Damascus. We don't expect them to leave until Saturday, give their report over the weekend to Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations Secretary General. Cameron says, after that, he wants one last shot to go back to the United Nations Security Council for a meeting. The Russians probably would veto any serious resolution, the Chinese as well. But he wants to give that U.N. Security Council one more shot. That could be Monday or Tuesday. Then as you point out, there's the G20 Summit.

Cameron also said, if there -- if there's no security console resolution, he still wants to go back to parliament one more time. So, it looks to me, assuming that the president doesn't want to do anything together -- do anything without the British on board, this could be delayed a week other 10 days if you assume that timeline of if he doesn't want to do it while in Russia, and he wants to wait to get the British on board. That could be at least a week if not 10 days.

MALVEAUX: All right. Wolf, thank you. I appreciate it. And the White House, of course, they're getting ready to brief the key members of Congress on the Syrian crisis. There is a conference call that's scheduled for 6:00 tonight and many lawmakers say, you know what? They don't even think -- they don't think that the briefing is enough. There's 116 members of the House. They've signed a letter calling on the president to get Congressional approval for any military action. They say anything else is unconstitutional.

There is also concern in the Senate as well. Here is what Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine had to say this morning on CNN.

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SEN. TIM KAINE (D), VIRGINIA: I definitely believe that there needs to be a vote. Whether or not the Congress needs to come back early, the inspectors are still on the ground in Syria. They are not scheduled to complete their report until over the weekend and then they'll issue the report. We are scheduled to come back in session a week from Monday. I think there is ample work that the president can do in consultation with the Congressional leadership about this until we're back. But I do think we are going to be back soon and it would be completely consistent with the president's prudence up to this point for him to continue to have that dialog.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: And just ahead, one vocal critic of possible U.S. military action in Syria says, there are eight really good reasons not to launch a strike. We're going to tell you what those are at the bottom of the hour.

And in one of the most beautiful parts of California, fire now has burned across more than 192,000 acres. Watch this.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE.)

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MALVEAUX: Just listen, hearing this fire just as powerful almost as seeing it. It has blackened thousands of acres inside one of America's natural treasures, Yosemite National Park.

For now, the tourist attractions, among them El Capitan, are now safe. Thousands of fire fighters, they are struggling just to keep it that way.

Now, this is a view from space, pretty cool view actually. We're going to fly you down to northern California about 200 miles east of San Francisco. This is into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is home to Yosemite. And Gary Tuchman actually takes us inside.

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GARY TUCKMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're standing in the northwestern portion of Yosemite National Park. This part of the park completely closed to the public and the reason is because of what's behind me. Tens of thousands of acres of Yosemite are now engulfed in flames and this is our very first look at the rim fire coming into this national park. You can see the huge cloud. It looks like a cumulus weather cloud but that is created by the fire that has spread into this park. You can see the brown and the orange. That is the fire. You can see the trees that are being fully engulfed by the smoke, 10s of thousands of acres of this beautiful park, one of the most beautiful places on earth, have now been destroyed. But that part is wilderness. The part of the park where the tourists go is still open, blue sky. The goal is to keep that fire which is rapidly approaching away from the rest of the park. So, this area where we're standing right now, backfires will soon be set here to try to keep the fire away from the rest of the park. You know, most of the news is good with this rim fire. The containment numbers are going up. The humidity is going up which is a good sign. The winds are down. Nobody has been killed. There have been no serious injuries. That is good news.

The negative news is what's happening here in the park because this fire continues to grow and it is very dangerous and there's an awful lot of concern about what's happening in this, one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

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MALVEAUX: It is happening right now across the country.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do we want?

CROWD: To be a union.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When do we want it?

CROWD: Now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: what do we want?

CROWD: To be a union.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Fast food workers, they are walking out. They want the $200 billion industry to pay up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: The first American-built Ford Fusion will roll off the line today. That is happening at the company's revamped plant in Flat Rock just outside of Detroit.

This is a big deal for Ford. The auto maker hired 1,400 more workers to build the Fusion. The company just couldn't keep up with the demand for the mid-sized sedan.

Until now, Ford built Fusions only in Mexico. Well, now, Ford completely transformed the Flat Rock plant to make Fusions and Mustangs on the same assembly line.

And fast-food workers across the country, they are on strike today. They are pushing to be made more, about $15 an hour. Most make about $9 an hour now. They also want the right to unionize without retaliation.

Alison Kosik has got the story. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHENITA SIMON: My name is Shenita Simon and I work at KFC in Brooklyn and I make $8 an hour.

PAMELA POWELL: My name is Pamela Powell. I work at (INAUDIBLE), and I make $9 an hour.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tale of two people but one story. Pamela and Shenita are just two of the 3 million workers living on a fast food wage.

POWELL: Should I pay my light bill or should I pay gas? Yes, I never could pay it all at once.

KOSIK: Pamela loves her job.

POWELL: Fries, fries, fries.

KOSIK: But says she has to prioritize.

POWELL: So, right now, the gas is off. You know, I have had lights to be cut off, too, but, you know, it's kind of hard to live without lights.

KOSIK (on camera): How do you make ends meet? Let's say you go to the grocery store. I mean, do you --

SIMON: We have to sacrifice. Either my husband eats today and I eat tomorrow or, you know, just make sure my kids eat.

KOSIK (voice-over): Pamela and Shenita both work less than 40 hours a week. Neither of them get benefits.

POWELL: Kind of hard to build a future if you don't know what it's going to bring you. Next week -- you don't know what's going on this week. It's kind of hard. And so, this is like a big struggle for me.

KOSIK: Because of that struggle, fast-food workers across the country are taking to the streets. In July, there were strikes in seven cities including Chicago, New York, and St. Louis and they're spreading.

SIMON: We don't want handouts. We don't want pity. We just want everyone to understand our reality.

KOSIK: The average fast food worker makes just under $19,000 a year. The government's poverty threshold for a family of four, $23,000. The National Restaurant Association tells us these jobs teach invaluable skills and a strong work ethic that are useful for workers throughout their professional careers. We welcome a debate on fair wages but it needs to be based on facts and the facts show that the majority of workers who earn the minimum wage in the United States are not employed in the restaurant industry.

As for Shenita and Pamela, they're hopeful. POWELL: I want to own my own business. Fast food business. I love food. And I like dealing with people, too.

SIMON: I'm not ever going to stop dreaming for my children. They want to be ballerinas and yes, we cannot pay for it right now, but we're going to give it to them one day.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: All right. Want to go directly to the White House briefing. Josh Earnest is taking questions. This first one about the intelligence report that would be handed over to Congress regarding the chemical weapons attack in Syria. Let's listen in.

JOSH EARNEST, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The reason for that is quite simple. As the president contemplates what kind of response is appropriate to the situation that we've seen in Syria, the president believes it's important for us to consult with Congress.

We've done that in a robust way. That has involved reading out some of the conversations that the president and others have had with our allies around the globe. That has involved the sharing of some intelligence, although that's difficult to do in this setting because, as I mentioned, the conference call is unclassified.

It also includes the conversation about some of the options that are available to the president in terms of a specific response to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons. So this call is something that we have been working to schedule for a number of days now. But it is just part of the ongoing robust consultation that this administration believes is important for us to have with Congress.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You get to dial this number?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are we going to see that same classified report? Is the public going to see the same unclassified report?

EARNEST: Well, we have -- separate from the conversation that they're having today, we have discussed our commitment to producing for you and for the American public to review an unclassified version of an intelligence assessment about the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons in Syria.

It's my understanding that that -- that that report has not been finalized as of this moment, but that we are still on track to produce that report before the end of the week.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Not today? I'm sure (INAUDIBLE).

EARNEST: I am not ruling out today.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: OK. Thank you. Can you also set some expectations for this intelligence? Several officials say that this is not going to be a slam dunk, that there's no sort of unimpeachable proof in the intelligence that the chemical weapons attack last week was carried out by Bashar al-Assad or his senior advisers, so what should the public be looking for? What should lawmakers be looking for if there isn't sort of a slam dunk guarantee in this intelligence?

EARNEST: Well, there are a few facts that we already know. We already know from a previous intelligence assessment that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. We know that the Assad regime maintains stock piles of chemical weapons in Syria and we've indicated from this podium and from other places over the course of the last two years that the Assad regime would be held accountable for the security of these chemical weapons and would be held accountable if these chemical weapons were used.

We also know that it is the regime alone that has the capability to use the chemical weapons that were used in the -- in the attacks that we saw on August 21st. We also know that the Assad regime was engaged in a military campaign targeting the specific regions where this chemical attack occurred.

So there are a lot of relevant important facts we already know and we know those facts for a number of reasons, previously intelligence assessments that we made public. We're also aware of some of the reporting that's been conducted by independent journalists on the ground in Syria that have documented the horrific nature of the attack.

We are aware of reports from non-governmental organizations that are on the ground in Syria trying to meet the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people. They have witnessed -- they have been a witness to those attacks and to the people who have borne the brunt of those attacks.

So there's a lot of publicly available information that we already know that is very convincing.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Everything you are referencing is largely circumstantial, and what I am wondering is, is that circumstantial evidence enough to have the president make a decision to go forward with military action or is there going to be something in the intelligence that we -- Congress will get later today or tomorrow that goes beyond circumstantial evidence, that is definitive proof that these attacks originated from high levels of Assad's regime?

EARNEST: Well, I think based on the facts that I just laid out there is a preponderance of publicly available evidence to that the Assad regime carried out chemical weapons attacks in Syria. That is what the president has said, the vice president said that, the secretary of state has said that. We've also seen our partners all around the globe say that. Everybody from senior officials in the U.K., in France, even the Arab League has put out a statement to this effect.

I also want to read for you one other piece of relevant information to this question that you're asking. Because there is a difference between what can be provided publicly and what classified intelligence assessment is available. That when we're producing a public intelligence document, we have to be conscious of protecting sources, methods, and other diplomatic sensitivities frankly.

We've talked about the intelligence sharing relationship that we have with a number of countries around the world and including some countries in the region. All of that information is combined to provide an assessment. But that assessment that is provided publicly has to necessarily be different that the assessment that's provided privately.

So that might lead to -- you to ask about the quality of the classified intelligence assessment. I'm of course not in a position to talk about it from here. But I have seen statements from two people who have seen those classified intelligence assessments.

The first is the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Feinstein. She said, "I've been briefed by the Intelligence Committee on last week's chemical weapons attack in Syria and I believe the intelligence points to an attack by the Assad government."

I would also direct you to a statement from the vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. This is a Republican senator named Saxby Chambliss, a gentleman who has not shied away from contradicting the president in public on a wide range of issues. However in this case his assessment is similar if not the same as the assessment that was reached by the president.

Senator Chambliss said, "Based on available intelligence there can be no doubt the Assad regime is responsible for using chemical weapons on the Syrian people."

Roberta.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So how does the intelligence maybe completed the classified version of its assessment?

EARNEST: I am not in a position to talk about classified intelligence assessment from here.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Whether it's been completed or not?

EARNEST: I am not in a position to talk about it from here.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How's your consultation with Congress be if Congress hasn't been provided with the classified details of the assessment?

EARNEST: Well, there are some classified details that have obviously been provided to Congress, at least if you believe what Senator Feinstein and Senator Chambliss say.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Right. The meetings --

(CROSSTALK)

EARNEST: And I would make the case to you that robust consultation with Congress involves more than just sharing intelligence. It involves some insight into the perspective of our diplomatic partners around the globe. It involves a reading out conversations that the president and others have had with our allies.

It involves a review of the option that are available to the president as he considers an appropriate response, so there is a pretty wide range of topics that should be covered in any robust consultation with Congress and that will be the case, as it relates to the conversation that they'll have today.

And it's constrained by the fact that that conversation will take place in an unclassified setting but there is information that can be shared and we are working to share that information.

I don't want to also -- I don't want to leave you with the impression that this conference call is the first or the last medium for consulting Congress. It's not. There have been a range of other conversations that senior administration officials have had with congressional leadership, with the leadership of the appropriate committees and with other members of Congress who demonstrated an interest in this topic, and there will be more conversations.

Some of those conversations are classified. Some of them were unclassified. Some of them covered intelligence issues. Some of them covered diplomatic issues. Some of them even included conversations about different capabilities, so there are -- there's a lot of consultation that's ongoing.

But this conference call at 6:00 p.m. this evening is certainly an important part of that robust consultation.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What is your reaction to what's happened in the U.K., the unexpected delay there in the British parliament deliberations and what are you going to be able to tell Congress or us about whether that hampers deliberations here?

EARNEST: Well, the -- I think a couple of things about that. I don't want to get involved in commenting on debate that are ongoing in the British parliament. I have my hands full commenting on debates in the U.S. Congress. That said, we certainly do appreciate the strong words that have come from senior leaders in the British government about what's taken place in Syria.

You've heard both the prime minister and the foreign secretary articulate their strong objection and condemnation of the use of chemical weapons. We have heard them talk about their desire to see the Assad regime be held accountable for its actions in carrying out this chemical weapons attack, and we have also seen an acknowledgment from the foreign secretary about the United States' right and ability to make our own foreign policy decisions that are in our national security interests.

Let me just read that brief segment of the foreign secretary statement. He said, "The United States are able to make their own decisions, of course. We will remain closely coordinated with them and in close touch with them as we are every day. I speak to my counterpart Secretary of Kerry every day and have done so this evening." Some of what he said yesterday. So of course, "They will be able to make their own decisions, but we will continue tore determined the world should reject the use of chemical weapons and that the United Kingdom has a role to play in that. We certainly welcome the role the United Kingdom has to play in that. OK? Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Josh, just to bounce off from Roberta's question, is there a concern about waiting too long that delays could make the mission more complicated? If you wait until after the G-20 visit, for example, you've given the Syrians plenty of time to position themselves for any kind of response that might come.

What about that concern?

EARNEST: You have heard the president talk about in other settings outside of the situation in Syria. Talking about the conduct of foreign policy and how that relates to our use of military authority. And how these are some of the most difficult decisions that he has to make as commander-in-chief. But he takes the requirement to make these decisions very seriously and he is carefully considering the circumstances before him.

And he is doing that in a reasoned, robust way and he's doing that in consultation with members of Congress. He's doing that in close consultation with our -- our allies around the globe. He is doing that in close consultation with his national security team. There is a role for a number of people to play here as they assess the situation.

And so the president is going about that in a very reasoned, orderly fashion. Now I would also point out that the president acknowledged in an interview with your network that was taped one week ago today where he acknowledged that there was a compressed time frame in which a decision needed to be made. And part of that is driven by the idea that there is an international norm against the use of chemical weapons.

And it is important for the Assad regime and other totalitarian dictators around the globe to understand that the international community will not tolerate the indiscriminate widespread use of chemical weapons, particularly against women and children as they're sleeping in their beds.

ACOSTA: Josh, to follow up on that, speaking of that interview, I appreciate the segue. He also said in that interview that there are questions in terms of whether international law would support a response and he was -- when he was talking about that, he was talking about whether or not he would have some sort of international partnership in taking some kind of action against Syria.

Would the United States at this point, given that there are some delays overseas on the other side of the Atlantic, go it alone?

EARNEST: I don't want to presuppose what kind of judgment the president reaches about the appropriate response in this circumstance. However, the president did acknowledge in that interview the role that international law would play as he assesses an appropriate response, and that is a factor that has been considered among all of these other things that have gone into making this decision.

We have also seen pretty clear statements from our allies around the globe, from the Arab League, and others who have said that the Assad regime needs to be held responsible. And the opinion of other world leaders in this situation matters.

ACOSTA: So absent a U.N. mandate, some sort of resolution at the United Nations, absent some sort of definitive word from our key allies in Great Britain, those I guess words of encouragement, those votes, those separate statements that have been made by the Arab League and others, might that be then sufficient, is that what are you saying?

EARNEST: What I am saying is that I am not in a position to offer up any sort of legal justification for a response that has not been decided upon. However, it is relevant that a wide range of other international leaders and international bodies have weighed in on this situation.