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Waiting for Proof; Strikes Would be Limited; Syria and the Threat of Cyberwar; NFL Settles Concussion Suit; Feds Loosen Marijuana Enforcement

Aired August 29, 2013 - 14:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Syria vows to defend itself should the U.S. attack. And as tensions rise, some experts say taking action could be a huge mistake. You'll hear why.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. The news is now.

Fears grow that Syrian hackers may target U.S. companies online in a cyber war.

Plus --




BALDWIN: -- fast-food workers across America demanding 15 bucks an hour.




BALDWIN: Will they get it?

And if you're texting someone who's behind the wheel, watch out, you could be in trouble with the law.

And the best part of coming home.

Hi there. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Great to be with you on this Thursday.

Today, the world waits with the U.S., ready to strike Syria. I know, a lot of questions here, like how, when that strike could happen as this drum beat for military action continues. I should tell you that the dissenting voices are growing louder. The question now, if the U.S. should strike at all.

Right now, U.N. chemical weapons inspectors are still inside Syria. You see this video? It shows them wearing gas masks. They're there collecting blood samples from victims of the most recent chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of the capital city of Damascus. And they're also talking to, they're interviewing the survivors of that attack. They have been there for a week, but they're not finished yet. The group expected to leave the country this Saturday and report its findings sometime after that.

And for Britain, that's reason enough for the U.K. and the world to wait.


ED MILIBAND, LABOUR LEADER: The weapons inspectors are in the midst of their work and will be reporting in the coming days. That is why today could not have been the day when the house was asked to decide on military action. For this -- for this house -- for this house -- for this house, it is surely a basic point. Evidence should precede decision, not decision preceded evidence.

DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: It is this house that will decide what steps we next take. If you agree to the motion I've set down, no action can be taken until we have heard from the U.N. weapons inspectors, until there's been further action at the United Nations, and another vote in this house.


BALDWIN: So that was today in the U.K. Back here in the U.S., White House officials are today briefing members of Congress. They'll be doing that in a couple of hours. But unlike what we saw in the U.K., their intentions, whatever they may be, are not up for debate. CNN's Dana Bash, our chief congressional correspondent, joins me now.

And when you look at history, Dana, it shows that presidents -- just a reminder, I know you know this, but presidents can launch military action without approval from Congress. I mean check my list. Grenada, '83. Panama, '89. Iraq, '91. Haiti, '94. Kosovo, '99. So, why the briefing in a couple of hours, Dana Bash?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, in short, politics. With members of Congress, even natural allies of the president with regard to Syria, have been demanding coordination and consultation. And as you said, tonight at 6:00 p.m. Eastern, the secretaries of state and defense and other Obama officials are going to hold a conference call with congressional leaders and key committee heads to discuss the administration's posture on Syria.

But, you know, what's interesting is that lawmakers are not here, they're still back in their states and their districts on congressional recess. So since they're all over the country, some will be on their cell phones, it is not going to be a secure line. Meaning it can't be classified. It's going to be an unclassified conversation. One source who's going to be on the call who I talked to kind of rolled his eyes and said, this means that there's only so much they can really tell us about their plans.

You know, as you said, look, there's a big debate about whether the president needs Congress's authorization legally. But politically, there's certainly a feeling among lawmakers in both parties that he's taking Congress for granted and it just would be in his best interest to get more members of Congress on board because they are inclined to do so, many of them.

BALDWIN: You know, so there's the politics side of this, which you just ran down, but there's also public support. It means when you look at the polls, right, and there are many, when you look at our poll back in May, Americans were asked if Assad used chemical weapons, does that justify military intervention? And you see back in May, that number, the yes is huge, 66 percent. But when you look at recent polls, you know, they indicate that Americans are opposed to intervention in Syria, saying it's just not in our best national interest.

So that said, in talking to these members of Congress, Dana, how important is how Americans feel? Is there even a debate there?

BASH: It's absolutely important because, at the end of the day, members of Congress are elected by their constituents and these voters who respond to these polls. And, you know, the fact that over 100 lawmakers signed a letter saying that there must be debate is fascinating.

But, you know, the reason I think -- one of the reasons we're not looking for a Britain-style emergency callback of parliament, or Congress in this case, to air things out, first of all, it's just because it's not the culture in the U.S., which the president is probably grateful for, but also because if Congress did come back and have a vote, at this point, because in part of the polls you just cited, it would be probably hard to have a yes vote on authorization. People are really war weary out there and people I talked to say that that would end up -- if they had an authorization vote and it failed, of course embarrassing the president, jeopardizing the U.S.'s ability to rally allies and ultimately hurt the U.S.'s credibility.

BALDWIN: You mentioned the letter. We'll be talking to Congresswoman Barbara Lee out of California, Democrat. She's one of those who says yes to debates. We'll hear from her at the top of next hour. Dana Bash, thank you very much, for us in Washington.

In Damascus today, here he is, Syrian leader Bashar al Assad appearing on state-run television. And he is smiling. He's gesturing. He said his country will defend itself against any and all aggression. And in a PBS interview, President Obama characterized any action he'd take as a targeted, limited shot across the bow. Just a short time ago, his spokesman, Josh Earnest, laid out the rationale for action.


JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: 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.


BALDWIN: So let's delve into this a little bit more, shall we? Joining me now from Washington, General James "Spider" Marks, U.S. Army retired. He is a CNN military analyst. And from New York, Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

So welcome to both of you.

And, General Marks, I just want to begin with you because, you know, we have witnessed more than 100,000 deaths in Syria, and thus far we are in, what, year three, pretty much stood on the sidelines. From your perspective as a military man, why would the use of chemical weapons suddenly tip the balance in the favor of intervention?

GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): Well, Brooke, what has been indicated is that clearly the use of chemical weapons violates international law. So that by itself should at least galvanize the administration and it has, as well as the international community, to do something. The problem that we have in Syria is that it's not isolated just to the use of chemical weapons. It's been in the midst of a three-year rebellion, as you've indicated. Yet up until this point, we've been satisfied with our position to simply diplomatically and vocally state our disapproval.

We're at a point now where the president has indicated that he needs to act. Sadly, what has been described as a potential course of action won't necessarily be the cure that gets at the disease. The disease certainly is the Assad regime and some legitimate transition of power. That's not going to take place based on what we know so far.

BALDWIN: And I want to get to that. But on the flip side, Ed Husain, I read your piece, the CNN opinion piece. Your lead line basically is, "Syria's civil war is not America's problem." So in contrast to President Obama, we just saw, you know, British Prime Minister David Cameron, you say this isn't the problem of the United States. Why is that?

ED HUSAIN, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Forgive me. The -- the voiceover isn't clear enough. You're asking why it's not the problem of the United States, right?

BALDWIN: Yes. Correct.

HUSAIN: Yes. Because this is not what we might be classifying as a war of necessity for the United States. I mean Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, makes a compelling case between the two types of wars, a war of choice versus war of necessity. And the United States, as for most countries, ought to go to war when it's a war of necessity.

The case in Syria is not a situation in which it demands U.S. blood and treasure to be sacrificed at this juncture. If, indeed, Assad did use chemical weapons, again, it's worth us being skeptical. The evidence is yet to emerge that it's 100 percent certain that it was, indeed, the regime. If it was indeed the regime that used them, then we have Israel in the region that can take action. We have Turkey. We have Egypt. At a stretch, we have the European Union and others around the world who can act without the United States getting involved yet again in another Muslim majority country, yet again another Arab country, stoking anti-American sentiment in the region and then risking greater blowback both here in the homeland and in the Middle East. America is overly stretched I think in the Middle East. At this juncture it's wiser to hold back and let others act.

BALDWIN: Right. Your point, the fact that, as we just saw on the map, those, you know, other countries with military might should, perhaps, give us pause if they are not acting.

But Spider Marks, what is the risk then in not acting or just doing too little here?

MARKS: Well, it appears like we're going to do too little, yet get ourselves potentially entangled in a fight in Syria. And I completely agree, you don't want to have -- this is not necessarily a war of choice. It should not be a war of choice. And, in fact, the president has described the possibility of an engagement that's very, very tactical in nature, but it won't achieve any end state that leads to a conclusion that the international community would agree is one that we would prefer. So, by standing back, we certainly run the risk of sending a very powerful message in the region to Iran that, you do what you want with weapons of mass destruction and we'll allow you to do that.

Engagement that's very, very tactical in nature. It won't achieve any end state that leads to a conclusion that the international community would agree is one that we would prefer. So by standing back, we certainly run the risk of sending a very powerful message in the region to Iran that you do what you want with weapons of mass destruction and we'll allow you to do that.

BALDWIN: Ed Husain, final word.

HUSAIN: I think by getting involved we exacerbate the risks. We will see -- we've already seen the Iranians threaten to take action against Israel. We may see risks of attacks from Hezbollah against Israel. We may see the Syrians responding and attacking both Israel, as well as Turkey. So by trying to contain the conflict, we run the risk of exaggerating it. By attacking chemical weapon stockpiles, which we can't do because we don't know where they are, we run the risk of toxins spreading again more widely into the population.

So whatever we do, we are damned if we do, damned if we don't. Therefore, at this point, I think it's wise to hold our hoses and allow the U.N. inspection now or at a later juncture play out and then reassess our options. But I suspect the drum beats of war are being played too loud and too quickly for us to take a step back. There's a lesson to be drawn, I think, from the European and British skepticism of what's going on in Syria at the moment.

BALDWIN: OK. Ed Husain and General Marks, my thanks to both of you.

And as we talk, you know, chemical weapons, there is this whole other factor here. You know, one of the biggest concerns, if the United States does launch this limited military strike against Syria, is that it might be answered by a wave of attacks on American companies' computers. Brian Todd has been looking into the possibility of a cyberwar.

Brian, what kind of companies would be at risk here?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, so far it's been mostly media companies in the U.S. that have been at risk. As we know now, this group, the Syrian Electronic Army, a group of young hackers that supports the Assad regime, essentially took down "The New York Times" website and Twitter's website a couple of days ago, shutting "The New York Times" website down for more than 20 hours. And, by the way, this morning, a lot of users still couldn't get on "The Times" website.

So mostly, Brooke, they have targeted media websites. And they've done a pretty effective job at doing that over the past couple years. This past spring, this group hacked into the Associated Press website and put out a fake message about explosions at the White House, that President Obama was injured. That caused a bit of a panic. It caused stocks to tumble. So they're very effective at doing that.

So far they have only hit at websites. And a U.S. official just told me, he described this group as a murky underground outfit that specializes in plastering pro-regime propaganda across some of the most popular websites. So that's the way they've kind of operated thus far, Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK, Brian Todd, thank you. We'll look for your reporting on "The Situation Room" with Wolf.

Coming up, if you send a text to someone who is driving, you could be in legal trouble. You realize that? My panel debates that.

Plus, huge breaking news out of the NFL. Late this afternoon here we are getting word that a settlement has been reached between the league and thousands of players over concussions. Wait until you hear what each player gets. That's next.


BALDWIN: Well, today, fast food workers are taking over not just their bosses' sidewalks, but their slogans. A tweet, "hold the burgers, hold the fries, make our wages supersize." So these workers in Detroit, they want $15 an hour. What they call a livable wage. And organizers say workers are striking there and in Boston , Atlanta, New York, Houston, Memphis -- you see them. Dozens of other cities today -- to ask places like McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, other names you know, to increase worker pay.

Now, the median wage for a fast food employee is now just over $9 an hour. You do the math. That's just about $18,500 a year. More than $4,000 below what the government says is the poverty line for a family of four. That's $23,000 a year.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) THOMAS MCGINNIS, DOMINO'S DELIVERY DRIVER: It's clear that the inequality of income in this country is just too far gone for too far -too long. That's why $15 an hour seems so high because it's gone unchecked and, you know, a lot of corporations are allowed to self- regulate nowadays and this is what happens.

ANGELO AMADOR, V.P. OF LABOR POLICY, NATL. RESTAURANT ASSN.: The number of workers making minimum wage in the restaurant industry is 5 percent. But, again, you know, the point is that, you know, we're creating opportunity, we're creating opportunity for everybody. And I think you cannot just pay wages based on a person's need. You've got to pay wages based on the -- what the economy is willing to bear and the business model.


BALDWIN: Organizers also say workers outside the food business joined the fight, including those at Sears, Macy's and CVS. Last year, McDonald's, Macy's and Yum Brands, which owns KFC and Taco Bell, each posted more than $1 billion in profits. One economist says, if forced to pay $15 an hour, these fast food giants would hire fewer people and find more automated ways to serve food.

Got some breaking news here into us at CNN. A historic move by the NFL. Not on the field, in the court. The National Football League has reached a $765 million settlement with 4,500 former players. So the players had sued the league, accusing the NFL of concealing the dangers of head traumas and concussions as they took hit after hit during their games. A judge still has to sign off on the deal, but here's how the money is supposed to be allocated. You have $75 million for medical exams, $675 million in compensation for concussion injuries, $10 million medical research, plus legal fees and other expenses all related to this huge lawsuit.

So joining me on the phone, former Atlanta Falcon Jamal Anderson, who was also part of this lawsuit.

So, Jamal, when we, you know, figure this out here, it comes out to about $170,000 a player. You were part of this. Does that sound fair to you?

JAMAL ANDERSON, FORMER PLAYER, PART OF LAWSUIT (via telephone): You know, Brooke, the thing that was most important to me and my - in fact, my involvement with the concussion litigation was to bring attention to the plight of thousands of former players and to the importance of head trauma and taking concussions and head trauma seriously. I was never - you know, what -- there was never a big deal to me what the end rainbow was going to look like for each player or anything like that, but just to - I love this game.

We love the game of football. There are thousands of players who love the game, that continue to watch the game, but felt like the things that are in place now could have been possibly put in place a number of years ago to assure better safety. Understanding that football is what it is and it's a dangerous sport. It's a physical sport. But to have things in place that can make the game as safe as we possibly can, as safe as our knowledge - to our knowledge has allowed us to be. That was the thing that was of critical importance. And it's very nice to see the NFL do something to move forward and to try to take care of the guys who played this game and who put the game in the position that it is to be as profitable as it is.

BALDWIN: Yes. And I hear you. You know, you say this isn't about the money, this is about raising awareness. You and I have talked. I know you love this game. But when you think about this settlement, that means that the NFL, they don't have to admit to any liability. And my next question, concern, has to do with the present players. What does this -- what message does this settlement send to guys currently on the field?

ANDERSON: Well, I think - I think, number one, it's going to send a message that, you know, there's a big conversation about the care, concern and the health of players who play this game for a number of years and things that they've been going through. I think if you're a current player, you can look at this and see that -- that this matters to the NFL. That there is somebody somewhere who thinks that it's important to take care of guys who are dealing with things that happen to them while they played the game of football and they're going through certain difficulties in their life physically or certain ailments that were brought about by concussions.

And the symptoms that we've been seeing with thousands of players, I think if you look at - you know, you're a current player and you go, well, it matters. This is something that matters. Yes, they're not - they're not accepting any responsibility for some of the things that were involved in the lawsuit, but at least they've put the proper foot forward to say, hey, these players, the legacy of the guys who played the game before the current players actually matter. And taking care of our players and doing the best that we can to see to it that our former players are in the best health possible -

BALDWIN: Are taken care of.

ANDERSON: That we can see to it. I think that guys that are playing right now have to be pleased with that and have to know that at least from right now, the NFL looks like they're putting the right foot forward and everybody's pleased about it.

BALDWIN: OK. Jamal Anderson, thanks for calling in. We appreciate it.

And got more breaking news for you, this one pertaining to marijuana. The Obama administration has just revealed whether it will try and block states from legalizing it. This is a huge, huge deal on this decision. That's next.


BALDWIN: Now to that key ruling in the trial of accused Colorado theater shooter James Holmes. A judge citing Colorado's constitution has ruled that every single victim of that shooting has the right to be present at every critical stage of the proceeding. Holmes' lawyer had called for witnesses to be excluded, saying they wanted to be certain that the testimony would not be clouded, influenced by the testimony of others. Holmes faces 166 charges for allegedly killing those 12 people and wounding 70 others at a Batman movie screening last year. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

And this just in to us here from the Department of Justice. For now, the feds are not going to overturn these new recreational marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington state. And, in fact, the Department of Justice won't try to block new state laws that legalize marijuana.

Remember this? Just about 10 months ago, voters in Colorado and Washington state approved legalization of recreational marijuana. And since then, you've had lawmakers from both states, they've been asking the Justice Department for guidance. How would this work? Federal law, as you know, bans all possession of marijuana.

So what happens when state marijuana laws clash with federal laws? Justice reporter Evan Perez is on this from Washington.

So, big news, Evan, from the federal government.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Right. This has been anticipated for several months. It's been hotly debated inside the Justice Department. Essentially what the federal government is saying is, in these states where they've passed these laws to allow recreational use and in those states where they allow medicinal marijuana, in the District of Columbia, for instance, that the feds are not going to essentially get involved with recreational use or with medicinal use. That essentially they're going to focus on what they say are eight priorities, which is keeping pot out of the hands of minors, making sure that -- that it's not being trafficked across state lines, and that drug cartels aren't -- aren't involved in the marijuana trade. If you steer clear of these areas, the feds are saying, we're not going to come after you.

BALDWIN: Hmm. So what about the agents who would normally -- would normally come after you, even though now it's legal in these states? Does this essentially make their job easier, or no?

PEREZ: Right. Well, that's actually one of the things that's been hotly debated inside the Justice Department, at the DEA in particular, you have agents who say that this sends mixed messages. That it makes their job a lot harder. And this is one reason why the feds essentially did not go the additional step. There have been a lot of pressure to change marijuana from being a banned substance under the Controlled Substances Act and this did not happen. Essentially what they're doing is they're walking a line, keeping it illegal, but saying they're going to abide by these state laws.

BALDWIN: In Colorado and Washington state. How about that. Evan Perez, thank you very much, with that from Washington.

PEREZ: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Coming up, you know not to text while driving, but one state trying to make sending a text to someone who is driving a crime. How is that going to work? That's coming up a little later.

But first, as conditions definitely heat up as we watch Syria, President Obama is weighing his options. Critics say the U.S. should stay out, but the military is poised to act. Let's talk about this looming turf battle, perhaps, between the president and Congress. A couple hours away from that conference call. That's next.