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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

No Decision on Syria Action; Interview With Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe; Obama: No "Boots on the Ground"; Media Whiplash on Covering Syria; Losing the Element of Surprise

Aired August 30, 2013 - 16:00   ET

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


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: "This kind of attack is a challenge to the world," words from the president as his administration makes the case to strike Syria.

I'm John Berman. And this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, exhibit A., a map showing areas around Damascus supposedly hit by chemical weapons, part of the proof the U.S. says it has and is sharing against the Syrian regime, and yet the president says he still hasn't made their decision.

The national lead, a skeptical American public just heard the case for action against Syria, but can it be convinced, especially after more than 6,000 Americans have died after more than a decade of war? And if a U.S. attack is coming, don't you think Syria knows by now? The administration has given plenty of lead time for them to brace themselves, so how might the Assad regime fight back?

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

We begin with the world lead. Less than two hours after Secretary of State John Kerry gave the strongest impression yet that the U.S. will strike Syria, President Obama declared that he is definitely, positively, without a doubt still considering his options.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This kind of attack is a challenge to the world.

We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed. I have not made a final decision about various actions that might be taken. In no event are we considering any kind of military action that would involve boots on the ground, that would involve a long-term campaign, but we are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Now, just a short time before that, Secretary Kerry used language that sounded quite a bit more forceful, as he gave the broad strokes outlining the evidence that the U.S. says it has on Syria.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It matters because if we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Kerry also strongly indicated that the U.S. is willing to lead this effort after its closest ally, Great Britain, essentially joined a coalition of the unwilling by declaring it will sit this one out.

Five U.S. warships are now at the ready in the Mediterranean. The White House released this map you're looking at right now that claims to shows areas around Damascus that were hit with chemical weapons on August 21. United Nations inspectors have finished their investigations in those areas, but their findings are not available yet.

And there is a fresh reminder today of exactly what everyone is arguing about here. We have to warn you, the video we're about to show you is quite disturbing. The opposition says this is the aftermath of another chemical attack on Monday, five days after the alleged chemical attack that the U.S. says killed 1,400 people on August 21. Once again, once you see this, you can't unsee it, young, burn-covered victims, the pain so apparent on their faces.

The opposition says this was an attack that hit a school in northern Syria. We should tell you, CNN cannot independently verify the video's authenticity. What we do know is that more than 100,000 people have died in two-and-a-half years since the conflict began in Syria.

Still, the American people are weary after more than a decade of war. Recent polling shows that most people don't seem to want to get involved in Syria.

Now I want to bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, lay out the evidence that the White House now says it has on Syria. Also lay out what the White House says it is willing to do and I suppose not to do about it.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, even though the president said he has not yet made a decision on whether to strike Syria, I think what you have seen all day long is an administration that is building up to military action.

You saw the president holding a National Security Council meeting earlier this morning with Secretary of State John Kerry, then Secretary Kerry's comments saying he has a high confidence and U.S. officials have high confidence in the intelligence material about last week's chemical weapons attack. Then, John, you referenced intelligence from the administration. I was on a conference call with administration officials earlier this afternoon where they were laying out their evidence. They talked about videos, one word that came up a lot in this intelligence report, videos that are publicly available, video that they have obtained showing the victims, showing signs of chemical exposure.

And then they also talked about communications intercepts involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime. And then, John, you mentioned that map. Let's put that map up on screen. I asked a senior administration official about that map and what's key about that map is that all of those targets around Damascus that are highlighted in yellow, those areas are areas that the administration says were hit with chemical weapons on August 21.

And what they want to say about that is that this indicates how widespread, indiscriminate the use of chemical weapons were on August 21 -- John.

BERMAN: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House.

The key here to remind everyone, the White House said no boots on the ground, a limited action and the goal here they say is not regime change, but just to punish Syria, if they go ahead with the strike for the use, of chemical weapons.

Now, as you can imagine, the words from the administration are having a very different kind of impact within Syria.

Let's get now to our Frederik Pleitgen. He's in Beirut in Lebanon. Until just about a day ago, he was actually inside Syria, the last Western television reporter there.

Fred, what's the reaction right now out of Syria to what the president and also the secretary of state had to say today?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, it was actually very interesting because normally it takes the Assad regime quite long to issue statements and responses to things.

But today it went very quickly. Right after John Kerry's speech there was urgent banners up on Syrian state TV essentially saying the U.S. was trying to protect its key ally Israel in the region, of course always trying to put U.S. very close to Israel and trying to drum up support among the Syrian population with statements like that.

They also said that there was international condemnation of what the United States was doing, that, of course, coming from Syrian state TV, which is fully operated by the Syrian government. Another interesting thing was they put out statements from regular people saying they would support the president.

And I know from sources on the ground in Damascus that apparently the regime has also been sending cars into the streets with people waving Syrian flags, trying to drum up the support for Bashar al-Assad. And the government there has said that, if attacked, it will retaliate in any way that it can. It's unclear how it intends to do that.

But we also have heard from sources on the ground that apparently the Syrian military is moving around a lot in the Damascus area, potentially trying to bring its hardware out of the reach or at least out of sight of those potential U.S. airstrikes.

Clearly, they are very worried about this, and they're starting to realize that this attack by the international community, by the United States, is a very real prospect. So right now they're pulling no steps diplomatically and really trying to go on the offensive, if you will, with their rhetoric.

BERMAN: And they have had a number of days at this point to prepare. Frederik Pleitgen in Beirut, thank you so much.

While the president still insists he has not made a decision on what action to take in Syria, some members of Congress would like to answer for him and avoid military action at all. The Obama administration spent the afternoon consulting with members of Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees in both chambers.

Earlier, I spoke to one of the skeptical members, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma. And he still has a lot of questions for the president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: Senator Inhofe, thank you so much for joining us.

Based on what you have heard from the Obama administration and seen for yourself as a key senator, what do you think really happened on the ground in Syria?

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: Well, I think on the ground in Syria that they assume it's Assad responsible for the gassing of a lot of people, very similar to what we went through with Saddam way back in Iraq, when they did the same thing to the Kurds in the north.

BERMAN: So based on the fact that you believe it happened, that there was some kind of gas or chemical attack there, do you support the kind of limited action that seems to be on the table right now?

INHOFE: No, I don't.

And the reason I don't, John, is I am the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. I have watched what's happened in the last four-and-a-half years with the president downgrading our military. And it's to the point where we're in a position right now where we don't have the assets to get involved in another intervention.

BERMAN: So your opposition, it's really just based on funding? You don't think that a chemical weapons attack is a dire enough event to demand a response?

INHOFE: I said yesterday at that hearing, I said, if you guys sell this idea, even though I'm opposed to it, I said to John Kerry, make sure -- and to Secretary Hagel -- make sure that you tell us how you're going to pay for it, what resources you're going to use, what assets you're going to use and that they're there. I'm still opposed to it because I know that we don't have the assets to do it.

BERMAN: And, to be clear, there would be a price tag on this. A Tomahawk missile can cost up to $1.5 million. So, any kind of effort, however limited, would be expensive.

But also to be clear, you did seem to feel differently about the threat of chemical weapons in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002, 2003. You did support that effort, which turned out to be incredibly expensive. You said at the time, if you needed a smoking gun, we have got it in the chemical warheads that the intelligence community at that point said that Saddam Hussein had.

So why is the situation now different? You're -- go ahead.

INHOFE: John, you're exactly right.

The difference is, we were a very healthy military at that time. We had the assets. We had the resources to go anywhere that we wanted to go to do the things that we felt in our mind were right. That's not the situation today.

Yes, it would be very nice, it would be clean, you go in, you strike once, you send a cruise missile in, all the problems are over, you wash your hands and it's over. That's not the way it happens. I think we all understand that.

We really need to hear from the president what his broad perspective is, his plan for the Middle East , and how his military intervention will be a part of it.

BERMAN: Do you think the U.S. takes a hit in terms of credibility if it doesn't act now?

INHOFE: You know, I don't really -- I don't know. Apparently, Great Britain didn't think that.

And, by the way, that announcement came during the hour-and-a-half of persuasion of John Kerry. That happened right in the middle of that hour-and-a-half phone call. And so I think that people are looking at it and saying there are -- there's a serious problem. Everyone feels the same way about the tragedy that takes place, the same as we did about gassing the Kurds in the north in Iraq.

And it was a bad -- you know, these are horrible things that are going on right now.

BERMAN: Senator Inhofe, thanks so much for your time. Have a terrific holiday weekend. Appreciate it, sir.

INHOFE: Thank you, John.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BERMAN: And coming up here: John Kerry told the world today that the U.S. has high confidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in Syria. But remember that slam dunk from 2003? Our guests say the media could stand to ask a few more questions this time around.

And there is an elephant in the room the size of a Tomahawk missile. How will the world's most public military planning session impact Syria? That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In no event are we considering any kind of military action that would involve boots on the ground, that would involve a long-term campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: And welcome back to THE LEAD.

We've been following the latest developments on the situation in Syria. You just heard the president say that the United States does not plan to send troops there. That really leaves air strikes as the most likely response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons.

Let's bring in CNN's Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, if the president gave the order, how soon would the military be ready to go?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the military says, especially the U.S. Navy with those five warships say they are ready very quickly to go. What this waits for now, John, is an execute order from the president, the president saying "Go." Once that happens, the order comes to the Pentagon and then it goes out to commanders in the fleet and they will be ready very quickly because these cruise missiles that would theoretically launch of a these five warships, they are guided to their targets by satellite coordinates.

So, a lot of this is already preprogrammed to go after those Syrian targets that the president knows are the military option on the table. Syrian targets -- command and control, chemical weapons delivery sites, not the chemical weapons themselves, of course, because that could cause a catastrophe, regime targets, to go after things that could be identified by the White House, by the Pentagon as being associated directly with this chemical weapons attack that the U.S. says the Syrians undertook. That's what everybody's looking for. That is what is most likely to unfold in the next couple of days according to the sources we're talking to, John.

BERMAN: For all practical purposes, when does the window for an attack open up? Does it depend on how soon those United Nations weapons inspectors actually get out of Syria?

STARR: Yes, I think it does. The word is that they will be out by Saturday morning, tomorrow morning. So, you know, if you really look at the clock, seven hours time difference, that means the window opens tonight U.S. time. They will not do a strike, many people believe, while it is still Friday, the holy day in the Arab world. So it will have to begin potentially on a Saturday.

The inspectors have to be out, a number of things like these execute orders have to happen. But that window does begin to open and, of course, the political window is, as people will tell you, it's got to get done before the president goes to that summit in Russia.

BERMAN: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Meanwhile, the president appears to be getting a complex message from the American public. NBC News released a poll this morning that show a majority, 50 percent, oppose the president taking military action in Syria, 42 percent saying they do support it.

But what if it's a limited strike like cruise missiles? Then, it's a different story. Fifty percent support that idea, 44 percent oppose it.

And then there's this -- when asked if the use of any chemical weapons used by a country that required military options, 58 percent said yes, 35 percent said no. And in the media just last week, the White House was facing tough questions about how they were going to react to the striking images of apparent gas attacks on victims, to the same voices of being skeptical about his taking military action.

I want to bring in Michael Calderone. He is the senior media reporter for "The Huffington Post."

And, Michael, it really is interesting here. It seems like the president has faced three stages in the media coverage since the incident in Syria allegedly happened, the alleged chemical attack last week.

The first stage was look at these horrible pictures. Doesn't the U.S. have to respond right away? The second stage, you know, hold on, how can the president respond without congressional support and an international coalition? And the third stage we seem to be in right now is, why is it taking so long for the president to act?

What do you think is behind this sort of media whiplash here?

MICHAEL CALDERONE, THE HUFFINGTON POST: Right. I mean, you're seeing the press is getting what information they can at the giver time. You know, throughout the past week or so, sources in the government have disclosed limited amounts of information. Now, today, we're getting a lot more of information. I think either way, it's still incumbent on the press regardless of how this information is coming out, whether it's coming out in dribs and drabs or an intelligent assessment to, you know, to really scrutinize what the government is putting forward.

BERMAN: Iraq seems to be such a giant factor here, hanging over in essence all the reporting, not to mention the activities coming out of the White House. You wrote about this today and how media organizations are trying to behave differently this time around.

CALDERONE: Right. I mean, the Obama administration doesn't want the public to think about Iraq, but it's something that reporters in newsrooms across the country are thinking about and part of that is the breakdown that happened before the Iraq war in 2003 where you had news organizations didn't express real skepticism of what the government was putting forward.

So, right now, in the last couple days especially, you've seen a lot more skepticism, you've seen questions about the intelligence that is being put out there. And some editors, specifically at "The A.P.", which I wrote about, you know, they were referencing Iraq in memos to staff, urging them to think about Iraq when they're covering Syrian intelligence.

BERMAN: The challenge, though, Michael, and I was in Iraq quite a bit, including the invasion, the challenge is that as reporters, we're not always qualified to assess the intelligence. We can't, you know, stir up the soil and know if chemical weapons really were used there. So, at a certain point, when do you have to trust that the evidence that is being presented by the authorities?

CALDERONE: You know, this has been an incredibly difficult war to cover for the press because it's been very difficult to get an official visa to actually report in Damascus or in Syria. So, a lot of reporters have been sneaking in illegally, often with rebel forces and there are all sorts of risks that come along with that.

So, doing on-the-ground reporting has been difficult. So, the best reporters can do is press their sources in government and challenge their sources to not just say the government is certain but to show you why the government is certain.

BERMAN: They have a high level of confidence they say. And, of course, this time around, there's also all the videos on social media, which contribute to the effort to understand what's going on there, though in and of themselves I suppose, Michael, not confirmation.

Michael Calderone, thanks so much. Great discussion here.

CALDERONE: All right. Thanks for having me.

BERMAN: Coming up for us on THE LEAD: if the president does decide to act in Syria, it will hardly be a surprise attack at this point. Could the early heads up help Bashar al Assad?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

Staying with Syria, our world lead -- if the U.S. does strike Syria, you really can't say that the regime wasn't warned. For days, the Obama administration has telegraphed an attack is likely coming, though the president did say again today that he hasn't decided which course to take. Even so, the Syrians have gained time as the U.S. has lost the element of surprise.

I want to bring in Tom Foreman to run this down for us.

And, Tom, you have an esteemed colleague with you.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I have General James "Spider" Marks is here.

And, in fact, John, you hit the nail on the head. There's a cost to all of this going on. Whether we think we should attack or from the U.S. policy standpoint, whether people feel that way, there is a cost, because about five, six, seven days ago, there would have been all sorts of radar signals coming out of military facilities, government offices there, telephone signals, computer signals, all sorts of things that could be read by intelligence sources.

But what do you think is probably happening now while this debate goes on?

GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Tom, we've given Assad a lot of time to think about his condition right now. He may be a monster but he's incredibly clever. He is shutting down these communications right now. Any communications that are taking place are now on land lines. He's eliminated every signal that he has so he is not emanating things that we can go against.

FOREMAN: So, in effect, the whole country ends up going dark and all of these buildings out here that we previously could have narrowed in -- the U.S. military could have narrowed in on are suddenly no longer able to be traced that way but the military still knows where they are.

MARKS: Sure.

FOREMAN: So if there is, for example, a command center out there for radar or communications, why not hit it anyway?

MARKS: Well, we will hit those technical facilities. We'll hit an entire list of fixed facilities, but in the interim while the United States has tried to build a consensus and has discussed what's going on in Syria, Assad has probably been packaging up the contents of those facilities and disbursing them throughout the country.

FOREMAN: That would also be true of things like his missile supplies?

MARKS: Those would normally, his missiles and rockets would normally be confined to garrison facilities and in the interim he has disbursed them to places where they would normally not operate, for example, underneath overpasses and highways.

FOREMAN: And what about things like aircraft? You can't move airfields.

MARKS: No, Assad has probably, and I don't have access to classified cables, moved the aircraft most likely to Iran. That's where they probably are right now. FOREMAN: And if all of those assets get moved out, then after the initial strike, they can all be moved back in and he can essentially recover almost immediately that way if he wishes to. This is very different from the model that we've seen from the Israelis in recent years.

MARKS: Far different, Tom. The Israelis aren't worried about having a consensus. They maintain the element of surprise, to include September 2007, the Israelis struck a nuclear facility in eastern Syria and destroyed it. And then this summer, just this past July, on the 5th, the Israelis struck a facility in Latakia and destroyed anti- ship cruise missiles.

FOREMAN: As you mentioned earlier, they reveal the action after it was done. Very, very big difference, and the response in Syria very different as well -- John.

BERMAN: Big difference, indeed.

Tom Foreman, General Spider Marks -- thanks so much.

Meanwhile, still to come here, if you're one of the millions of Americans hitting the road this holiday weekend, you will feel the Syrian situation every time you gas up. That's later in the money lead.

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