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THE SITUATION ROOM

Crisis in Syria; Interview With Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers

Aired August 29, 2013 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, growing fears of a cyber-Pearl Harbor, as some are calling it. Will Syrian hackers retaliate with a massive online attack if -- if the United States strikes their country?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."

Some lawmakers clamoring for more information about Syria's alleged chemical weapons attack are getting it right now. Top administration officials, including the secretaries of defense and state, they are scheduled to start briefing congressional leaders and key committee heads by phone.

The conference call comes as the U.S. and its allies weigh a possible military strike against Syria, but the debate is growing and momentum may be slowing down. We're using CNN's global resources to cover the crisis from all angles in this hour's special report.

Let's begin, though, with our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She has details of the Syria conference call with members of conference -- members of Congress going on right now.

Dana, what do we know?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We know that it has begun and this is good news for lawmakers, as you said, who have been really asking the Obama administration for more information, because we have pretty heavy hitters, the secretaries of defense and state, as you said, other officials talking to congressional leaders and key committee heads of both parties. That's the good news for them.

The bad news for these lawmakers is that Obama officials are going to be limited in what they can say, because they're going to be talking, or are as we speak, on a phone line that is not secure. So what that means is that they're going to be able to discuss only unclassified information. And that could rule out what many of these lawmakers really want to know, what intelligence the administration has the to back claims about Assad using chemical weapons, not to mention military options for strikes against the Syrian regime.

That is all likely still classified. So there isn't much that they can likely say on that. The other thing is, it's a limited group of lawmakers, Wolf, rank and file members out there, many of them who have been saying not only do they want more information, they want to have a vote to authorize before anything goes on.

They're still saying that they're in the dark. They don't anything beyond what they're hearing from us and from other news organizations.

BLITZER: And in contrast to the relative silence up on Capitol Hill, in Britain, the House of Commons, they came back from their vacation, the prime minister brought back all the members of the House of Commons, the Parliament. They had a very spirited debate today. Is there any possibility that members of Congress, including those who are clamoring for more information, will come back to Washington and start dealing with this?

BASH: No, not before they're scheduled to in two weeks. Look at what happened just last hour in the House of Commons. David Cameron lost.

And I have not talked to any members of Congress or aides, even those who very much support going after Assad, and even limited military strikes, who think that a vote or even coming back to have a discussion on a resolution, never mind authorization vote, would be a good idea, because it likely wouldn't pass.

The concern, again even among lawmakers who are maybe not in the president's party, but are natural allies of him on this issue, they say that they're very concerned, very frustrated, because they think that he and his administration simply have not made the case enough publicly, and that ties their hands in what they can do to support him in going forward.

BLITZER: Dana Bash, our chief congressional correspondent, thanks very much.

Let's get some more now on that huge parliamentary vote in London, a huge defeat for the British prime minister, David Cameron. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The ayes to the right, 272. The nos to the left, 285. So the nos have it. The nos have it. Unlock.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What a setback, what a political embarrassment for the prime minister, David Cameron.

Let's go to London. CNN's Max Foster is on the scene for us.

Max, this was a relatively tepid resolution and Cameron couldn't even get that passed by the House of Commons, even though he's in the majority. What happened?

MAX FOSTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Exactly the problem.

What they were voting on here was the principle of intervention in Syria. What Cameron wanted initially was intervention in Syria. It was a watered-down motion in the first place. And it got defeated and it was a remarkable defeat, Wolf, of David Cameron and his government. And afterwards, David Cameron said it's clear the House of Parliament didn't want a military strike in Syria and he would act accordingly. I have spoken to a Labor member of Parliament and a conservative member of Parliament and they both interpret that as saying that there will now be no British military involvement in Syria.

They can't back America if that's going to be what Obama wants. It so looks like it's over, but both did say, we have to hear more detail in the morning. But all the words from Cameron seem to suggest that this is pretty much over.

BLITZER: So how politically damaging is this for the prime minister and his coalition?

FOSTER: Well, it is damaging. He had watered the motion down. And he couldn't even get that through, as you say. So it's embarrassing. People are questioning his power on foreign policy, certainly something he's going to be considering. He's in a coalition government. He's not in a huge majority situation, as other governments have been in Britain over the years.

It's unusual to have a coalition here. He has certainly been weakened, and it's a triumph, I have to say, for the opposition leader, Ed Miliband. Many people see him as a weak opposition leader, but certainly he's not that tonight.

BLITZER: And it certainly is a setback in U.S./U.K. relations, because, as you know, Max, the Obama administration was counting on its number one ally, Britain, to be together with the United States in case there were military strikes against these targets in Syria. So this could be a real setback in U.S./U.K. relations as well.

FOSTER: Yes. The president was brought up in a debate today as well, but David Cameron did point out that he doesn't run U.K. politics, and it's actually Parliament that does.

He did describe the president as a friend though. He said he's repeatedly spoken to him, worked very closely. I know all levels of government and in the civil service as well, they have been speaking to their American counterparts. They certainly tried the to support America as much as possible, but David Cameron just couldn't get it through.

The problem is Iraq. They went to war in Iraq, backing America up without the evidence. So, this huge shadow cast over Parliament because of that. They didn't want to do it again, so maybe David Cameron made a mistake coming to Parliament before they had the evidence from the weapons inspectors.

And maybe he was premature on all of this. The opposition leader did say he wasn't get intervention, per se, but the case hasn't been made very well. So, yes, Wolf, I do think it has been damaging to the prime minister.

BLITZER: Max Foster reporting for us from London. A huge, huge setback. Thanks very much. A setback for the British prime minister.

As we reported, congressional leaders and the heads of key committees, they are being briefed this hour on a conference call with the secretaries of state and defense. Some lawmakers have already been looking at all the classified intelligence, but do they feel they're getting enough information about the crisis in Syria?

Now part two of my interview with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Do you support a military strike to deal with this, to punish the regime of President Bashar al-Assad because of the use of these chemical weapons?

REP. MIKE ROGERS (R-MI), CHAIR, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I believe when -- when the president called for a red line -- and, by the way, that red line has been crossed numerous times -- the full credibility of the United States was put on the line, some 60 years of -- of walk softly and -- and carry a big stick is at stake here.

And one of the reasons the world behaves in so many places is because of the strength of the United States and its conviction that we will do things when we say we're going to do things.

I think all of that is at stake here. And so, the very fact that we said that you're not going to use chemical weapons, that is our threshold, that we won't tolerate it, and the fact that what -- chemical weapons were used, I do believe we have to do something.

BLITZER: You know that if the U.S. were to launch strikes against weapons depots, command and control facilities, the Al Qaeda elements in Syria, Al-Nusra and other Islamist terrorist groups, they would be cheering the United States of America for weakening their dire enemy, the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.

That's a major dilemma, isn't it?

ROGERS: It's a huge dilemma. And, unfortunately, not making decisions early have led to really bad choices today. So not making a decision was an affirmative decision to allow things to get worse in Syria, which I thought was a mistake. I still don't -- do.

But now we're at a point where we are in a box. The president has issued this red line. They've crossed this red line. We know that they have these chemical weapons.

The problem is, how do we make sure -- and the U.S. national security interests are to make sure that these chemical weapons don't fall into the hands of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, others that their conventional weapons stockpiles -- remember, the Russians are pouring weapons into Syria you know, like there's -- there's no tomorrow.

And they're pretty sophisticated. There's sophisticated anti-air weapons systems, other systems that the -- anti-tank systems that cause us some concern. We don't need that falling into the hands of the bad guys either.

BLITZER: Was it a mistake for President Obama to issue that red line?

ROGERS: Well, it's hard to tell now. My -- my argument is the red line is -- has been issued. He should have only issued the red line if he meant it. It's too late. Now we've got a problem here. We've got chemical weapons usage.

You know, listen, I argue that allowing Syria to turn into a jihadist recruiting pool from the rest of the world and disintegrating the stability on the whole Levant is a huge national security problem for the United States. Pretending it didn't -- wasn't a problem and we didn't need to have to deal with it was a terrible decision.

On top of that, you issue a red line and don't do anything about it, is a worse decision. And we're going to pay a price for this. That's why you see the Russians so emboldened. They think that the United States just won't do anything. They think that -- you see China being more aggressive.

Why?

Because they think the United States won't do anything.

Why is Iran so emboldened in Syria and progressing on its nuclear program?

Because they don't believe the United States will do anything.

There is credibility in this that will impact our country and our national security for generations if we do not get it right.

BLITZER: But you know that we don't know what the consequences of a very limited, even precision, air strike or missile strike would -- would lead to. We don't know how the Iranians would react, would they retaliate, because they're so closely aligned with the Syrian regime.

What about Hezbollah?

Would they start launching rockets from Southern Lebanon into Northern Israel once again?

And would that further drag the United States into what the American public clearly doesn't want, which is another all-out Middle Eastern war that could last 10 or 15 years?

You've got to worry about that, don't you, Mr. Chairman?

ROGERS: Oh, absolutely. And we worry about all of those categories. You also worry about the fact that if you say, whoo, Iran has threatened us, let's stand down. That also presents some real consequences for the United States.

Remember, this is the regime that tried to kill the Saudi ambassador by blowing up a restaurant in Washington, D.C., just a few years ago. They've had numerous -- I think about a dozen -- different covert attacks around the world, Argentina, Pakistan, other places, where they have tried to assassinate, and in some cases, been successful, some of their adversaries around the world.

They are very aggressive on this. And I'll tell you what they're going to understand. They're going to understand that if you say you're going to do something internationally, you need to keep your word. You need to show them that you're serious.

BLITZER: But here's a question a lot of people are asking. Why does the United States always have to do this?

Where are the Europeans?

Where are the friendly Arab countries, the Arab League?

Why can't they retaliate for the use of these chemical weapons?

Why is it always the United States?

ROGERS: Well, we have been working with our Arab League partners. Remember our Arab League partners think we're -- we've just been absent in this.

They've been asking for our leadership, not -- this is not a military boots on the ground...

BLITZER: But I don't see the air force...

ROGERS: -- boots on the ground.

BLITZER: -- I don't think the air force of Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates or Qatar or -- or Kuwait, or Jordan, I don't see them getting involved in this.

ROGERS: Oh, well, I will tell you that the -- that all of the countries you've just mentioned are involved in Syria today. And what they've been asking for for almost two years is, we just need leadership, U.S. leadership at the table here. And they haven't gotten it.

BLITZER: They -- they've been involved covert...

ROGERS: Now, that's a huge problem.

BLITZER: -- they've been involved covertly. They're on the ground.

ROGERS: Yes.

BLITZER: They're helping with arms supplies. But I -- as I said, I -- I don't see their air forces...

ROGERS: Well...

BLITZER: -- or their missile capabilities -- and they all have that kind of capability -- I don't see...

ROGERS: Well...

BLITZER: -- that kind of involvement.

ROGERS: Yes. No, I understand what you're saying. But I think I would disagree on two -- well, two points.

A., I think you'll see a coordinated effort. This won't be done solely by the United States.

But the United States has special capabilities that no other military in that region or, candidly, even our -- our friends and allies have. And I think it would be wrong to expose people without using our capabilities in conjunction with an international effort, including the Arab League. The Arab League should be involved. A -- they are. The consultations are happening.

So should the French and the British and others, through consultation about what our options are here and what we all ought to do. but at some point, we are going to have a role. I would not outsource U.S. leadership to the countries in the Middle East on matters that protect what has been a red line for the United States. That's not something you want to outsource.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, speaking with me earlier.

President Obama might unilaterally order a strike on Syria, rather than seek congressional organization. And he wouldn't be the first president to make that kind of move. The 1973 War Powers Resolution has been bypassed five times by both Republican and Democratic presidents who ordered military action in Grenada back in 1983, Panama in 1989, Iraq in 1991, Haiti in 1994, and Kosovo in 1999.

Up next, the horrifying reality of chemical weapons and just how little it takes to kill.

Plus, unknown consequences from a strike against Syria. We will have a closer look at the very disturbing worst-case scenarios. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: All right. We're finally going to be getting some reaction from the White House, reaction to a devastating setback for the U.S./U.K. relationship. The British Parliament only moments ago rejecting a motion to authorize, at least preliminarily, a resolution that would have allowed the British government to go ahead and work with the United States in dealing with a military response to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons against civilian targets in Syria, but that resolution just moments ago went down to defeat, despite the urgings of the British prime minister, David Cameron, 285 votes against the resolution, 272 in favor, a major setback, could be a serious political problem for the longevity of David Cameron's government.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's getting reaction from officials over there.

What are they saying, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we can report that a senior U.S. official tells CNN that unilateral action may be necessary now against Syria in light of the vote in Britain, that source telling CNN -- quote -- "I do think that is a possibility."

And then speaking about the vote in British Parliament, this official said -- quote -- "We care what they think, we value the process, but we're going to make the decision we need to make. And then this official pointed back to what the principal deputy press secretary, Josh Earnest, said at the White House briefing earlier this afternoon, who talked about the national security interests of the United States and how the president is going to seek out actions that advance those interests, no matter what is happening on the world stage.

So this is an indication, Wolf, that the president is willing to go it alone against Syria -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, he certainly doesn't have the British government on board, at least not yet, in this huge, embarrassing setback.

Here's the question, though. The U.N. weapons inspectors, they're supposed to be coming back over the weekend, Saturday or Sunday, reporting to Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. secretary-general, on what they discovered, what they found. I assume the Obama administration will at least wait until their report reaches the U.N. Is that right?

ACOSTA: I haven't gotten a sense as to what the White House is willing to wait for. I think that the message has been communicated to the United Nations, from this White House, that those inspectors are in harm's way and that they need to get out of this area, at least in the short-term, very soon.

But, Wolf, one thing I have heard from administration officials all week is that this White House is not going to allow diplomatic maneuvering get in the way of what they feel like they need to do to advance U.S. national security interests, and the president has said, time and again, that while he hasn't made a decision to execute some sort of strike against Syria, that he feels like a chemical weapons attack against civilians in Syria carried out by the regime not only is a threat to U.S. national security, but is a violation of an international norm, such as the Geneva Conventions, the chemical weapons treaties that have been signed and adhered to by countries around the world.

And so the White House is pretty firm on this. They have been saying all along that they wanted international cooperation, but you always had the sense that when you talked to them that that wasn't necessarily a deal-breaker if they didn't have it, Wolf.

BLITZER: And a further complication. The president is supposed to be in Russia, in St. Petersburg, Russia, later next week, at the G20 summit, Russia a key ally of Syria. That puts the U.S. in an awkward position if airstrikes or missile strikes are launched before he leaves Washington for first Sweden and then St. Petersburg, Russia.

Jim Acosta over at the White House, we will stay in close touch with you.

We will take a quick break. Much more of our special report, "Crisis in Syria," right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now: As the United States weighs possible military action against Syria, some are asking just how solid the intelligence is on that alleged chemical weapons attack. I will ask the former CIA chief, General Michael Hayden.

Also, if the decision is made to strike, could there be unintended consequences? We're taking a closer look at some possible worst-case scenarios.

And looming fears of what's called a cyber-Pearl Harbor, what a military strike potentially could mean for hackers.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."

The images of countless victims perishing in an apparent poison gas attack are horrifying every time you see them. It's clear chemical weapons can be lethal, but you may not realize just how powerful they really are.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence has the story.

We want to warn you. The images you are about to see in this report are extremely graphic and very disturbing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Describing this video as disturbing doesn't do it justice. But some attach a different word: proof.

AMY SMITHSON, SENIOR FELLOW, JAMES MARTIN CENTER FOR NONPROLIFERATION STUDIES: I have absolutely no doubt this was a chemical weapons attack.

LAWRENCE: Amy Smithson has been studying the use and effect of chemical weapons for 20 years and says it was the child in this video that erased all doubt.

SMITHSON: Maybe 5 years old, and the twitching of the eyes and the mouth and the arms were all going in different directions at different times. That simply cannot be coached in a child of that age.

LAWRENCE: And here's another with white foam pouring out of his nose.

(on camera): What is that and what does it mean?

SMITHSON: Well, it's one of the hallmark symptoms of exposure to a nerve agent. It could have been a cocktail of chemicals, not just classic warfare agents like sarin or V.X. or soman or tabun.

LAWRENCE (voice-over): Victims can die within 10 minutes of breathing sarin gas. In liquid form, a fraction of an ounce can be fatal. Even contaminated clothes can hurt you.

Iraq used sarin against the Kurdish people in the 1980s, killing thousands. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo used sarin in terrorist attacks in the mid-'90s.

(on camera): The people treating these victims don't have any sort of respirators or protection on. Why aren't they getting infected as well?

SMITHSON: Well, there's been an attempt to wet these people down to decontaminate them. That's what decontamination in a rush is all about, just making sure they're at least doused with water, if not soapy water, and the clothes are taken off.

LAWRENCE (voice-over): Nerve agents like sarin blind victims, causing them to choke and spasm.

SMITHSON: Like this. See the twitching in the body?

LAWRENCE: And these images of the dead show no sign of a conventional bomb blast.

SMITHSON: There you see bloody bodies, broken bones, gaping wounds.

LAWRENCE (on camera): And, obviously, we did not see that in this attack in Syria.

Now, some people do survive these kind of attacks. There are certain drugs that can help counteract the effects. But they have to be given so quickly, that most times people do not get the help that they need -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence reporting for us. Thank you. There's, meantime, a stunning new report that the Obama administration actually refused to send gas masks and chemical weapons protection gear to Syrian opposition groups, despite frequent requests going back long before last week's horrific attack.

Josh Rogin broke the story for "The Daily Beast." Josh is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You spoke to some opposition members. What did they say?

JOSH ROGIN, "THE DAILY BEAST": They said, despite over a year of pleas to the Obama administration directly for equipment like gas masks, chemical protection gear, and the nerve agent antidote atropine, the White House has not provided any of these materials to the opposition, and still refuses to provide them, despite a spate of chemical weapons attacks.

BLITZER: Why? You spoke to administration officials. How did they justify that?

ROGIN: The explanation I got from a senior administration official was that they determined last year that it was too risky to give the opposition gas masks, because they could be misused or given to extremist groups, and those extremist groups could use them for nefarious purposes.

BLITZER: Like what? I mean, how could you use that for nefarious purposes?

ROGIN: They actually said that you could use them to, then, if you wanted to attack a chemical weapons depot and steal chemical weapons, these would help you do that. That's a risk, for sure, but it's not very comforting to the people on the ground.

BLITZER: So the concern, just to be precise, is that it could wind up in the hands of al-Nusra or al-Qaeda sympathizers, in the opposition to Bashar al-Assad, they could use it to go to a chemical weapons depot, steal the chemical weapons, and then use them. That's the concern?

ROGIN: That's what they said. Again...

BLITZER: You sound skeptical.

ROGIN: Well, lawmakers who have pressed the White House to provide these materials, as well as opposition on the ground, say that that risk is minimal. They also say that these groups could find gas masks on the black market if they wanted to. They also say that gas masks are being provided to the -- to the government and to the military by other regimes, including North Korea. So they think this risk is well overblown.

This also reflects a really broad concern about working with the opposition, that the Obama administration has held all throughout this conflict. BLITZER: These kinds of gas masks, these atropine shots or whatever, they're pretty available out there. It's not that hard to get. Why wouldn't the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, which are opposed to Bashar al-Assad, why wouldn't they provide this kind of -- they provide arms covertly to these groups?

ROGIN: Well, as it turns out, access to some of these areas, especially in the opposition areas that are really under attack, is very difficult.

Also, it turns out that actual storage of these weapons are most prevalent in U.S. warehouses, Pentagon warehouses all over the region, leftover from the Iraq war, so they believe that the U.S. is in the best position to provide these.

It's true that the U.S. isn't the only entity in the position to provide these, but a lot of people were looking to the U.S. to do this, and it seems that the U.S. just decided not to.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Well, Josh Rogin, reporting for "The Daily Best," thanks very much for coming in.

ROGIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: An important story. Let's learn some lessons from what just happened.

Up next, how good is U.S. intelligence when it comes to Syria? I'll talk about that and more with the former head of the CIA, General Michael Hayden. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus, growing concern that Syrian hackers could retaliate against the United States in what some characterize as a potential cyber-Pearl Harbor.

This is THE SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Up next on our special report, key members of Congress. They're still out on recess. They're not up on Capitol Hill, but they are getting an unclassified briefing on Syria right now by phone.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: High stakes for the United States and its allies, if and when the decision is made to launch military strikes against targets in Syria. Could there, though, be some unintended consequences?

CNN's Tom Foreman is over at the virtual studio with CNN military analyst, Major General James "Spider" Marks, retired.

What's going on, Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, those unintended consequences is the big concern here. The White House has been talking a great deal about the idea of a controlled strike, where they would have everything under control. In effect, these ships would come in here; they would launch these missiles; message would be sent; mission accomplished. But there are many things that can change in this equation, including, first of all, basically the reaction to everything. General, what are we talking about here?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, Syria obviously is going to respond militarily and diplomatically. Also, I think more importantly, is the reaction of Russia, China and Iran, the three allies that Syria enjoys. In fact, the Russians have ships in the Eastern Med right now.

But those three -- those three allies have been providing Assad a lot of support over the course of years. There's every reason to believe that that support will continue after this strike by the U.S. or the coalition, if they have one, and ironically, is Assad may be stronger after the strikes than he is before, because of this additional support.

FOREMAN: That's one unintended consequence. There's also the question of what happens with the insurgent groups there. There's a lot of talk about many, many fractures in these groups. Many different groups in play. The goal right now from the White House is not to topple Assad at the moment, but if he is severely weakened by this, what can be the unintended consequence?

MARKS: Well, Tom, we don't anticipate that Assad will capitulate, put up his hands and quit, but what we can see is the insurgent groups, which are made up of Hezbollah and al Qaeda affiliates in Syria. They're going to gain momentum; they're going to gain strength; and they're going to gain confidence. And again, they may end up being successful in Syria, against Assad, because of our direct support.

FOREMAN: There are other groups there, as well, of course, but, yes, terrorist groups, in effect, could get power because of what we had to do. That's something the White House has to measure, and as you know from your experience, there are always the unknowns. What are we talking about?

MARKS: Well, as an intelligence guy in the intelligence field all my life, I can tell you, intelligence can be wrong.

For example, a target may be struck. For example, we may unintentionally hit a hospital or hit a target that has civilians. It may have women and children in it. And we'd be complicit in this humanitarian disaster. Sadly, we have some experience in that, in that in 1999, in Operation Allied Force, the United States struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

FOREMAN: And that can radically change the equation of what happens out there, Wolf. These are all the unknowns here. As you put it earlier today, a great way of describing it. The U.S. can fire the first shot; they can start it. MARKS: Yes, the U.S. can turn this on, but they give up the off button to their opponent once the fight starts. They can't turn it off.

FOREMAN: And that's where all the unknowns come in as to how long it lasts, what the results may be, how that reads to the international community. All thoughts the White House has to be considering this very evening -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thanks very much.

General Marks, thanks to you, as well.

A conference call this hour among top administration officials and key congressional leaders, who are being briefed on Syria. The White House sharing its intelligence on last week's apparent chemical weapons attack.

Let's dig in a little bit deeper right now with retired General Michael Hayden. He served as the CIA director from 2006 until February 2009. He's now a principle with the Chertoff group. That's a security consulting firm. He serves on the board of several defense firms, as well.

What's your read, General Hayden, on how good U.S. intelligence is right now? Because we know it's often excellent, but there have been times when there have been major blunders.

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: No, there have been. I actually think we're pretty solid here, Wolf. And let me give you three sentences, all right? Chemical weapons were used. I think that's obvious. That's incontrovertible. You ran the piece a few minutes ago. That happened.

Secondly, that the regime did this. I'd give that high confidence. I don't think the opposition has the ability to do this. I think the circumstantial evidence is very powerful. And I've not seen any of the secret reporting. But I would think we've also got additional data here that makes us highly confident...

BLITZER: But when you say the regime did it, there's no evidence, at least as far as I've heard, that the president, Bashar al-Assad, personally authorized it.

HAYDEN: And that's -- and that's the third sentence, all right? And that support, where it's going to be very difficult to be certain, whether or not this came from the very top, this was permitted by the very top, or it's something that the very top would have opposed, had they known it.

Frankly, though, Wolf, I think based upon American policy, what the president said a year ago, that's a difference without a distinction. The regime used the weapons.

BLITZER: The regime, but -- but there could be a rogue element within that regime. Some army unit, not necessarily listening to the top, is saying, "You know what? We're going to go kill these opposition guys, because we hate them."

HAYDEN: Right. And I have to be open to that possibility. It's an hypothesis that you've got to put on the table.

Now what you need to look at, which I suspect has already been done, is you look at the detailed tactical communications of units in the area. What were they saying before the attack, during the attack? What did they say after the attack?

BLITZER: Does the U.S. have the capability to monitor those kind of conversations?

HAYDEN: I don't want to go into great detail, but the United States in conjunction with very friendly states in the region, I think might give us some insight here.

BLITZER: So you think that could be one of the reasons why the president now is going to go forward, presumably, with or without any coalition partners?

HAYDEN: Yes.

BLITZER: How big of a setback is it that the British parliament rejected any military force, at least for now?

HAYDEN: It's certainly a setback at the political level. At the level of military operations, we have certainly the firepower to do what the president said we were going to do.

But, again, at the political level, quite disturbing. But I think what's happened here, Wolf, is the president has made this personal, personal to him, and personal to the United States.

BLITZER: Is he right?

HAYDEN: Yes, I think he is. But I think he regrets making it publicly. Step back. Let's rewrite history for a moment. Let's say that we hadn't made that statement a year ago, all right?

BLITZER: About the red line.

HAYDEN: About the red line. That the president hadn't personally identified with it. Right now, I think most of the world would be looking at us with perhaps a slightly different view, and we would be satisfying our overall responsibility by working to build a multilateral, international coalition.

BLITZER: All right.

HAYDEN: But we can't do that now. We've got to act on our own, even if no one else supports us.

BLITZER: Well, there's -- for every action, there's going to be a reaction. Do the Syrians, the Iranians, Hezbollah -- because that's an alliance, as you well know -- have the capability to retaliate with a cyber-Pearl Harbor against the United States, shutting down communications grids, power grids, all that kind of stuff?

HAYDEN: No, I think that overstates their capability. But I do think you've seen the Syrian Electronic Army...

BLITZER: They shut down "The New York times" Web site.

HAYDEN: Right. I actually think that's a proxy for the Iranians.

BLITZER: But the Iranians are totally aligned with the Syrians.

HAYDEN: Oh, I agree.

BLITZER: They could -- they could cause some serious damage.

HAYDEN: Yes, well, what you've seen...

BLITZER: How serious could the damage be? Because you've studied this.

HAYDEN: Right. So here's what we've seen so far. Not a remote attack. They had to have access. They destroyed 35,000 hard drives in Saudi Arabia. Almost certainly the work of the Iranian government.

By remote attack, computer network operations, they've had massive distributed denial service attacks against American banks. Now, that's -- that's more than an irritant, but it's well short of what you're describing, Wolf.

BLITZER: One final question on this "Washington Post" story that moved on their Web site, which has not been shut down today, a story, once again information from Edward Snowden...

HAYDEN: Right.

BLITZER: ... detailing the $52.6 billion, let's call it, black budget, of the U.S. intelligence community. This was always kept secret, how this money was spent. It's now been out there. What, if any damage, do you believe was caused by this report?

HAYDEN: We'll have to see. I read the story that was posted, all right? And that talks in general figures, what the CIA budget was, what the NSA budget was, and so on. That probably causes some harm, but not a great deal of harm.

But I've been told, you go to the Web site and you start clicking on things, you get down to specific operational activities. That could be very, very disruptive.

BLITZER: General Hayden, thanks very much for coming in.

HAYDEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: We'll continue this conversation.

Up next in our special report, how a U.S. strike on Syria could set off a cyber-war. More on this when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's serious concern about what some are calling a cyber-Pearl Harbor, as we just heard: a massive attack by hackers loyal to the Syrian regime, possibly targeting U.S. infrastructure. And there's one mysterious group that may be capable of doing something, at least, along those lines. Let's bring in Brian Todd, who's been reporting on what's going on.

Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the latest attack on the "New York Times" Web site by a group called the Syrian Electronic Army was crippling, the hackers clearly wanting to send a message ahead of a possible U.S. strike on Syria.

That destruction has sparked concern over possibly a broader cyber-war, bringing in other American enemies if the U.S. does strike.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): "Server not found," a screen designation that many "New York Times" Web site customers had to deal with for about 20 hours. The Web site of one of the nation's largest newspapers taken down. A group called the Syrian Electronic Army claimed responsibility. Who are they?

MARC MAIFFRET, CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER, BEYOND TRUST: The Syrian Electronic Army is a pro-Assad hacking group. It appears to be a loose collective of a few individuals. There's been some information put out on the Internet that it could be even as young as 19-year-olds.

TODD: Marc Maiffret, a former hacker now with the cyber-security firm called Beyond Trust, has followed this group's attacks.

(on camera): This spring the Syrian Electronic Army hacked the Associated Press Twitter feed, put in fake message saying, "Breaking: Two explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured."

(voice-over): A U.S. official tells us this is a murky underground group that makes its name plastering pro-regime propaganda on popular Web sites, but Maiffret says the method these hackers used this time was an escalation.

(on camera): Previously experts say the Syrian Electronic Army would go after the direct managers of the Web sites they were hacking, using a phishing e-mail like this one to try to trick them into giving up their login credentials.

Well, this time the hackers went after the larger connection chain. It's called the domain name system. That's what connects you, when you type in a Web site like CNN.com or NYTimes.com, to the specific computer addresses where that content is found. This time the hackers went after the managers of those connections, in this case a firm that works with a company called Melbourne I.T. They tricked them into giving up their passwords.

(voice-over): As a result some people trying to go to "The Times" Web site were steered instead to servers controlled by the Syrian Electronic Army. Then...

MAIFFRET: You could basically have your computer attacked.

TODD: If the U.S. conducts military strikes on Syria, will the hacks get worse? As the Pentagon once warned a cyber-Pearl Harbor?

Homeland security expert Frank Cilluffo says the Syrian hackers will likely strike again.

PROF. FRANK CILLUFFO, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: If they did work with some of their allies, with Iran, if they were to get some support from China and Russia, then, yes, the game changes quickly. It escalates in terms of capability.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: The targets for America's cyber-enemies? The U.S. electrical grid, government computer systems. Experts say the Syrian Electronic Army is not sophisticated enough to do a lot of damage to those systems right now, but with Iran's help, certainly with China's or Russia's, they could get there. China and Russia, Wolf, have already mapped out the American electronic grid and other things.

BLITZER: Good report, Brian. Thanks very much. Very disturbing.

When we come back, embattled President Bashar al-Assad vows Syria will defend against any aggression. We'll have an update from the region.

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BLITZER: The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, appeared on Syrian TV today and said Syria will defend itself against any aggression, his words. CNN's Fred Pleitgen has just left Syria. He's now in Beirut.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, people clearly are getting more and more nervous in Damascus. We obviously had to leave the country early this morning, because the government didn't extend our visa.

And as we were making our way to the border, we saw a lot of cars heading in the same direction. Many people also at the borders, and the cars really had suitcases stacked on top. I wouldn't say that this is an exodus out of the area, but there are certainly more people trying to get out than usual.

Meanwhile, we know that the Assad regime remains defiant and today they showed that again. The first video of Bashar al-Assad since the chemical weapons allegations surfaced last Wednesday, Bashar al-Assad meeting with a Yemeni delegation in Damascus. And there he said once again that, if Syria is attacked by outside powers, then Syria will retaliate.

Of course, it's totally unclear how Syria intends to do that. However, we do know that the Syrian military appears to be moving hardware around, possibly to shield it from attacks by American jets -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Excellent reporting from Fred Pleitgen. He's out, as you just saw. He's out of Damascus. He's in Beirut right now, safe and sound.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching our special report. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.