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THE SITUATION ROOM

Continuing Coverage of Crisis in Syria; New Reaction From Syrian Government; Interview with Senator Rand Paul

Aired August 30, 2013 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, breaking news -- our special report, Crisis in Syria. No decision, but virtually no doubt the United States will strike against targets in Syria. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry presenting the evidence making the case for U.S. military action.

Horrific new video surfacing showing another -- another attack in Syria, this time involving a school and an apparent incendiary device.

And my interview this hour with Senator Rand Paul. He questions the goals of a strike on Syria and says the president should not act without the support of Congress.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The United States government today declaring its high confidence that the Syrian regime did, in fact, carry out the devastating chemical attacks that killed 1,400 people, more than a third of them children. An intelligence estimate says the U.S. was able to track preparations by Syrian chemical weapons personnel and the actual firing of rockets. President Obama today insisted he has not made a final decision on how to respond, but he also made it very, very clear the U.S. is preparing for what he describes as a limited military strike, even if the United States has to act alone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Secretary of State John Kerry made the case for action, describing the suffering victims and the rows of children lying dead on a hospital floor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: We know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am, too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's begin our special breaking news coverage this hour with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

He was over there at the White House inside with the president when he spoke out.

JIM ACOSTA, HOST: Wolf, you mentioned just a few moments ago that President Obama has not made a final decision about military action. But make no mistake, this administration is making every move, moving in every direction towards some sort of strike against Syria.

Just take many of the phone calls and the meetings that the president has had today. The White House has just confirmed to us in the last several minutes that the president has spoken by phone with both the prime minister of Britain, David Cameron, and the president of France, Francois Hollande.

In addition to that, just to start off the day, the president was meeting with his national security staff this morning. There's a picture that's been released of that. It shows the president meeting with his national security adviser, Susan Rice; his attorney general, Eric Holder; the secretary of State, John Kerry; and Vice President Joe Biden.

And then there was that passionate statement -- you just aired a clip of it -- from Secretary of Kerry, when he talked about the children that were killed in that suspected chemical weapons attack.

The intelligence briefing that came from the White House, another part of that news avalanche coming out of this administration today. And then the president making those comments, as he sat down with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where he basically talked about the fact that he knows the country is war weary, talked about the lessons of Iraq, talked about how he did not want to go down that same road, how this would be a limited action in Syria that will be narrow in scope and no boots on the ground.

But he did stress that this will not be an open-ended engagement.

Here's what the president had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I recognize that all of us here in the United States, in Great Britain and many parts of the world, there is a certain weariness given Afghanistan. There is a certain suspicion of any military action post-Iraq. And I very much appreciate that.

On the other hand, it's important for us to recognize that when over a thousand people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used, even in war, and there is no action, then we're sending a signal that that international norm doesn't mean much.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Jim, you were inside the room when the president was speaking out.

What was the mood like?

Because we see that -- we're also seeing a photo that you took.

ACOSTA: Well, I wanted to capture the moment, Wolf, for myself. I know there were lots of cameras in the room, no shortage of that, as I can tell you from the elbows that I sort of felt under my rib cage during that moment.

But this was really "No Drama Obama." We've heard that said about the president during times of crisis, and, really, when his back has been up against the wall, politically speaking, during these campaigns, he does sort of get down into that mode of really no drama. And that's what we saw from the president, I think, when he made those remarks.

He was asked point blank about this issue of not having international cooperation, asked about not having Congressional authorization.

And you did get the sense from him that not everything has gone his way this week, but that he is determined, he is committed to taking some kind of action to punish Syria for what he considers to be a violation of an international norm, one he says the world cannot turn away from -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, he certainly did. And so did the secretary of State.

All right, Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

With the American public, lawmakers, and even former presidents, divided on Syria, political considerations must weigh heavily on President Obama.

Let's discuss what's going on with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, and our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- technically, the president insists -- and he's right -- he hasn't made a final decision. But everyone knows he has decided that he is going to go ahead and launch...

GLORIA BORGER, HOST: Right.

BLITZER: -- some sort of strike against targets in Syria.

BORGER: At this point, it's not if, but when. I think when you hear the president speak that way, it's clear that he's got a lot of options on the table. And maybe he was still deciding about a particular option. But I think you have to assume, given the fact that what we saw today was pretty much of a roll-out, first from the secretary of State, then the president himself. There was a background briefing for journalists, with senior administration officials, talking about the evidence on chemical weapons. They're clearly making their case.

Now the issue has been decided in Great Britain. They made a point of saying that they've got France and Turkey with them. So I think what we're seeing is the beginning of the explanation of why...

BLITZER: Yes.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And it's...

BORGER: -- they're going to go in.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: They may have France and Turkey...

BASH: (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: -- verbal support, but I don't see any military...

BORGER: Well, that's right.

BLITZER: -- hardware...

BORGER: That's right. But they did specifically...

BLITZER: -- other than U.S. military hardware.

BORGER: -- mention those two, yes.

BASH: So I should say that this is -- that they're very much, as you said in the roll-out, but also checking the boxes with respect to my (INAUDIBLE) on Capitol Hill. Not only did they have this big conference call last night with the heads of these key committees, with leadership, they also then went through more of the rank and file today just to make sure that everybody kind of felt the love from the administration so that when -- when, not if, but when -- this all starts that they feel the consultation that everybody in Congress, no matter where they stand on this, really wants.

BORGER: You know, it's also interesting, because when you remember, when you talk about Barack Obama, he's the person who really is the most responsible, in many ways, for sort of this post-Iraq skepticism that we now have in this country, that he came to political prominence as a result of questioning the war in Iraq. So when he says or when the secretary of State and he both say, I know you're war weary, this isn't going to be Iraq, this isn't going to be Afghanistan, what he's trying to tell members who are worried about getting into another quagmire, wait, it's not going to happen.

BLITZER: You know, the president, a week ago, more -- a little bit more than a week ago, sat down with our own Chris Cuomo for an interview. He was in Syracuse, New York. And they discussed Syria. And this was after the reports of a chemical weapons attack.

Listen to how cautious the president was then.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Let's just take the example of Syria. There are rules of international law. And, you know, if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work. And, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And those are serious considerations, because the U.S. does not have what he called a U.N. mandate.

BORGER: Yes, right.

BLITZER: The U.S. does not have a coalition to make it work. Even the British, America's number one ally, they said no, decisively, yesterday in parliament. But yet he is going to go ahead without that international support.

BASH: And talking to sources who are familiar with their thinking, a couple of things. One is, he clearly doesn't want it. You can tell from the body language that I don't think that that has changed.

But he talked about the red line, that it was -- this is not the first time intelligence officials think that chemical weapons were used, not even close. But it is the first time it really has made the front pages, that we have seen these images, and the president has no choice. And that is what -- my understanding is that's what they're being told by allies around the world, that if you don't say what you mean and do what you say here, then if you look at North Korea, if you look at Iran, and if you look at other hot spots, you're -- you're going to...

BLITZER: You know, Gloria...

BASH: -- put yourself in a terrible position.

BLITZER: -- we heard from two former presidents today. We heard from George W. Bush. He was on Fox.

And he said this. Listen to his careful -- carefully constructed words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY FOX NEWS)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A comment about this. The president has got a tough choice to make. And if he decides to use our military, he'll have the greatest military ever backing him up. I was not a fan of Mr. Assad. He's an ally of Iran and he's made mischief. The president has to make a tough call, Brian. I know you're trying to subtly rope me into the issues of the day. I refuse to be roped in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, in contrast to the former president, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, through the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta, issued a statement, among other things, saying this, "A punitive military response without a U.N. Security Council mandate or broad support from NATO and the Arab League would be illegal under international law and unlikely to alter the course of the war."

Two different presidents, two...

BORGER: Do you think President Obama is sending him a thank you note for that tonight?

BLITZER: He's sending Bush a thank you note...

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: -- not Jimmy Carter, necessarily.

BORGER: But, you know, Bush does -- Dana and I were talking about this. Bush does what he always does, which is...

BASH: He's been very consistent.

BORGER: He stays out of it.

BASH: He says nothing.

BORGER: He stays out of it. I didn't like Mr. Assad, the president has a tough decision to make, I've been there with those kinds of tough decisions.

And Jimmy Carter was Jimmy Carter.

BLITZER: Jimmy Carter is saying...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: -- this could be a violation of international law, which is precisely what the president doesn't want to hear.

BORGER: Right. And today -- can I just say, the president was so careful when he spoke today. He said this threatens our national security interests by violating international norms. So he put it all into one big sentence...

BLITZER: He keeps re...

BORGER: -- there. He wrapped it up.

BLITZER: -- he keeps using the word "norms." He never says law. He keeps using the word "norms" because Syria, technically... UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.

BLITZER: -- has not signed that 1993...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, exactly.

BLITZER: -- chemical warfare...

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- warfare...

BLITZER: -- conventions.

All right, guys, thanks very much.

Don't go too far away.

Up next, very disturbing video surfacing of a new attack in Syria. This time, an apparent incendiary device causing devastating injuries at a school.

And Senator Rand Paul says not so fast when it comes to Syria. He wants the president to get the support of Congress. My interview with Senator Paul. That's coming up.

Our special report will continue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: We're just getting in from Damascus an official and firm denial from the Syrian government on everything that the secretary of state, John Kerry, said today and the president of the United States, President Barack Obama, said today including that U.S. intelligence report that was declassified and released today.

This is what Syria state television is now saying and I'll read it to you. "An official source at the ministry of foreign affairs, and the Next Patriots (ph), announced that the ministry is surprised how after days of media hype, exaggeration and threats, the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, delivered a speech where the U.S. administration was supposed to present its concrete evidence to its domestic and international public opinion."

"But then, we were surprised to see Kerry presenting what is based on old tales that the terrorists reported more than a week ago and it is all based on fabrications and baseless lies."

Let's bring in Arwa Damon. She's watching and monitoring what's going on. I guess, we shouldn't be surprised, Arwa, by this firm and flat denial from the Syrian government rejecting everything the U.S. said today.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, wolf, it's not surprising at all. They were even mocking what Secretary of State Kerry was saying to a certain degree, saying that that intercepted phone call, well, that was just quite simply silly. They're also denying the allegation that they blocked or impeded the U.N. from conducting their mission.

But what's also been quite interesting, Wolf, is reaction amongst the Syrian opposition, activists, rebel fighters themselves to this potential U.S. strike. A lot of them who we're talking to are saying, look, if this is the mission, if this is the aim of the U.S. strike just to carry out these targeted attacks, a very short operation, well, that is not what we want to see happen.

We do not want this to take place because that is going to cause us more harm than it is going to cause the regime, because the regime is going to retaliate against us. And once again, you're going to have more civilian blood being shed. And everyone saying, is America going to be able to protect us in that case and where has America been for the last two years, Wolf?

BLITZER: It's interesting that in the same statement that was broadcast on Syrian state television, they said that John Kerry, what he was doing and I'll read the line here, "he was doing what was basically a scene that reminds the world of the lies and the fabrications that Colin Powell tried to market days before Iraq's invasion back in 2003."

So, a very, very strong statement, a rejection ridiculing, as you correctly point out, Arwa, what the secretary of state said today. You also have, Arwa, some stunning reporting of a different attack in Syria, not the one August 21st but a different one. And this is really shocking. I want to warn our viewers, the video we're about to see is very graphic, extremely disturbing. What do we know, Arwa? What happened here?

DAMON: Yes it really is terrible video, Wolf. Now, this attack happening earlier in the week when the focus was on Damascus, on the U.N. inspectors, and this is what was taking place in the northern province of Aleppo.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON (voice-over): Once again the images uploaded to YouTube by activists are hard to watch. "I can't, I can't" this child cries out when medics ask him to lay back. He implores them to stop the burning, stop the pain. It appears that doctors are doing what they can, covering the survivors with cream.

Like so much of the violence in Syria, this is incomprehensible. According to survivors, the first strike hit a building next door to a school during math class. Then the second.

"We didn't hear any sound," the student remembers. "I just saw people burning. I was burning. My friends, too. What was happening? Why were we burning? I didn't understand."

The doctor says she is lucky to be alive. Others had 50 percent to 80 percent burns, he said. "We had to transfer the majority of the cases to Turkey because we don't have a burn unit here." The videos appear to show severe burns but no other external injuries. One woman who identifies herself as Dr. Roula (Ph) with the hand-in-hand NGO says "It looks like it was a chemical similar to napalm, perhaps, that caused major incendiary injuries."

"At this stage, there's no way to know for sure what it was." The LCC says, "The attack took place in a small village along the Aleppo-Edlib highway that is under rebel control." We've been unable to independently verify what exactly happened. The village has been hit before, but not like this.

A worker pulls back a sheet showing a victim he tried to save. "Honestly, with such severe burns," he says, "he would have died no matter where he was around the world." Amid the cries of pain, the agony, a warning to Bashar al-Assad. "We will crush you," the teenage student vows. "God willing, we will be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and we will lift this country back up after you destroyed it."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON (on-camera): Brave words there, Wolf. And Syria most certainly is going to need all that it can get when it actually reaches that phase of needing to rebuild itself. The sad reality is that whether or not the U.S. does, in fact, carry out the strike, the situation there is simply going to get significantly worse in the foreseeable future -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And let's not forget, maybe 1,400 people were killed in that chemical weapons attack according to this U.S. intelligence report released today. But over the last two and a half years, more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed in this civil war. Arwa, thanks very much.

Coming up on our special report here in the SITUATION ROOM, with all the intelligence that it was developing about Syria's chemical weapons movement, could the U.S. have prevented that attack on August 21st?

And a vivid description of the victims of that attack. You're going to hear the secretary of state, John Kerry, lay out the case for military action against Syria. Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: The United States Military continue to move equipment hardware closer and closer to Syria in the Eastern Mediterranean. Let's go to the Pentagon. Our correspondent, Barbara Starr, is getting more information. What are you learning, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, another U.S. navy warship now in place tonight off the coast of Syria. The "U.S.S. San Antonio" has come through the Suez Canal north into the Eastern Mediterranean, 300 marines on board, part of the so-called prudent planning in advance of any U.S. military action.

They will stay put for the next several days right there. But it is the intelligence everyone is focusing on tonight. An extraordinary level of detail about human intercepts, satellite intelligence, all kinds of intelligence that the U.S. learned about this attack. Let's start with right before the attack.

What the case the U.S. is making is that they had intelligence that they got that unfolded that the Syrian forces were preparing to attack in the days before chemical weapons were being prepared, forces were using their gas masks. On the day of the attack, August 21st, satellites detected rocket attacks in the neighborhood.

They calculated through intelligence means that those rockets were fired from regime-held areas. Hundreds of people begin showing up at the hospitals, dying, and injured. Thousands of social media videos and other social media elements begin to record this event.

After the attack, intercepts, again, U.S. intelligence intercepts of senior regime officials in Syria discussing the fact that a chemical attack has taken place and a continued bombardment of those neighborhoods to try and wipe out any evidence before the U.N. inspectors show up.

So, I think the bottom line here, Wolf, is what we saw today was an extraordinary level of detail about intercepts, human intelligence, and satellite intelligence. We haven't seen this kind of detail before.

BLITZER: The report and the secretary says 1,429 people were killed on that August 21st attack, including at least 426 children, but then the report later goes on to say this, "In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human signals and geospecial intelligence that revealed regime activities that we assessed were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack."

That's pretty startling. It's pretty amazing, because if you understand presumably what they're saying, if the U.S. knew three days in advance this was about to take place, why didn't the U.S. try to stop it, warn the rebels, warn the people there get out of the way, provide gas masks or whatever?

STARR: You know, that's a really good question to which there is not a really good answer tonight, Wolf. U.S. officials briefing the news media earlier today, were asked about this point and they said that it wasn't necessarily the case that they had so-called real-time intelligence, that they saw it literally unfold before their eyes.

The intelligence, in these matters comes in, they say, sometimes, after the fact. So, we also asked military officials here in Washington whether there was ever any discussion about trying to engage in some sort of military operation to stop it, if they saw it unfold, and they said there was not -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, because if, in fact, they did have even modest indications that this was about to happen, I think, the moral responsibility would have been go ahead, alert these people or at least warn the Syrians if you do this, you're going to pay a huge, huge price. But clearly, we're going to learn more about this very, very sensitive point, indeed.

The only thing I can imagine is maybe they didn't want to say anything because it could have compromised their sources and methods, how they were learning about this. And usually, the intelligence community are very sensitive about that kind of stuff. The process, though, more than 1,400 people are dead and thousands of others are badly injured. Barbara, thank you.

When we come back, a defiant secretary of state, John Kerry, laying out the case for militarily action against Syria and warning that the United States means just what it says. That's coming up. You're watching a SITUATION ROOM special report "Crisis in Syria."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama today made very, very clear that he was ready to respond to Syria's chemical weapons use while insisting he hasn't made a final decision on military action. But if you listen to the secretary of state, John Kerry, it certainly does sound like there's a done deal in the works already.

Listen to this powerful statement, a call to action which the Syrian government calls nothing but fabrications.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack. And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience.

We will not repeat that moment. With our own eyes we have seen the thousands of reports from 11 separate sites in the Damascus suburbs. All of them show and report victims with breathing difficulties, people twitching with spasms, coughing, rapid heartbeats, foaming at the mouth, unconsciousness and death. And we know it was ordinary Syrian citizens who reported all of these horrors.

The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children. Even the first responders, the doctors, nurses and medics who tried to save them, they became victims themselves. We saw them gasping for hair, terrified that their own lives were in danger.

This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people. It matters deeply to the credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies. It matters because a lot of other countries whose policies challenge these international norms are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say. We know that after a decade of conflict the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am, too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. We also know that we have a president who does what he says that he will do. And he has said very clearly that whatever decision he makes in Syria it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya. It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open ended and it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well under way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The secretary of state, John Kerry, making the case for a U.S. military strike against targets in Syria.

Just ahead, there are new indication there may be growing nervousness right now inside Syria about a possible U.S. attack.

Just ahead, I'll speak with a prominent journalist about what he's hearing from his sources in Syria.

This is THE SITUATION ROOM special report crisis in Syria."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There are new indications the Syrian government may already be taking precautions against the potentially imminent U.S. military strike.

And columnist David Ignatius is joining us now from the "Washington Post."

David, I know you're well plugged in, you've been speaking to your sources among the Syrian rebels. What are you hearing?

DAVID IGNATIUS, THE WASHINGTON POST: What I'm hearing today from Syrian rebels who are in touch with the command of the Free Syrian Army is, first, that Assad's forces are said to be moving files, other sensitive equipment, some personnel out of their normal headquarters in Damascus into the civilian areas of the city. Much has happened in Baghdad before Baghdad was struck in 2003.

The second thing that I'm hearing is that among the Assad army command, there is growing nervousness, and that's shown by people sending their families out of Syria to get them out of harm's way and by some increase in defections by Syrian army personnel to the Free Syrian Army side.

And then finally, I'm hearing that among the Syrian rebels there's an expectation that this U.S. military strike will be more rather than less. They think this may be a significant attempt to degrade Assad's army.

BLITZER: What seems to me, based on what's happening, the pressure is now on the U.S., on the Obama administration, to move more quickly, to do it sooner, in other words, rather than later. What are you hearing -- what do you anticipate about timing? IGNATIUS: Wolf, talking to senior administration officials just within the last hour or so, I get the feeling that this will come sooner, that because Congress is away, there will not be an attempt to call Congress back, that the president will assert his war powers authority and will notify Congress.

I don't think there will be an attempt to get much additional international support. The U.S. has decided to do this, the president has decided to do it and I think he will now move quickly.

BLITZER: Yes, I wouldn't be surprised if it happened as early as this weekend.

IGNATIUS: I hate to guess about timing but I do think the decision has been made. Secretary Kerry was so forceful today in his statements. And they really have assembled quite a lot of intelligence. They think they have a strong case. I think they're ready to go.

BLITZER: David Ignatius, thanks for coming up.

IGNATIUS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next in our special report, could a U.S. strike actually benefit al Qaeda elements inside Syria and other extremists within the Syrian opposition?

And Senator Rand Paul says not so fast when it comes to striking at Syria. My interview with the senator, that's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special report. Is the United States tipping its hat about a possible strike. Could an attack end up making life easier for some of the more dangerous elements within the Syrian opposition especially those aligned with al Qaeda?

Let's talk about it with Colin Kahl, who's the former deputy assistant secretary of Defense during the Obama administration, he's now in the Center for New Americans Security.

Colin, thanks very much for coming in.

COLIN KAHL, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY: Great to be here.

BLITZER: So how much of a problem is this that some of the biggest applause lines -- applause will come from al-Nusra and al Qaeda elements and the opposition once they see the U.S. target some of these positions of the Syrian military?

KAHL: Well, I think actually some of the al-Nusra guys have been on Facebook saying that the United States might come after them, too. So I think they'll hold their applause.

BLITZER: Do you think they would? KAHL: I don't think so. I think that the administration has been reluctant to get too deeply involved precisely because it didn't want to assist extremists in this way. And I think that the strikes will be limited in a way to minimize that risk.

BLITZER: Because if you weaken the Assad regime, do you automatically help al Qaeda and al-Nusra and those anti-American terrorist elements in the opposition?

KAHL: Well, probably depends on how you weaken the regime and where you weaken the regime. It depends on what types of units and what types of capabilities we end up targeting. That would actually depend on what the effect will be.

BLITZER: I know you're no longer at the Pentagon but what do you anticipate? What should we be bracing for?

KAHL: I think it will be a limited decision to deter Assad and degrade his capabilities. I think we'll probably not go after the chemical stockpile themselves because of the environmental consequences of that.

BLITZER: Because if you blow those up, who knows how much collateral damage there could be.

KAHL: Precisely. Plus you'd have to maybe send boots on the ground to secure those weapons. That's not going to happen. I anticipate we'd go after the rocket launchers, the missile launchers, the artillery, some of the units that were involved like the Fourth Armor Division, some of the command and control, but probably not a wide spectrum of regime targets.

BLITZER: Well, that sounds like that could go on for several days.

KAHL: You know, reporting suggests something on the neighborhood of 50 targets. We have five warships in the eastern Mediterranean with a total of about 200 Tomahawk missiles on them so --

BLITZER: On all of the five.

KAHL: Total. Right.

BLITZER: But there are some submarines. There are, too, right?

KAHL: The reporting says we don't know how many are confirmed. So you're looking at probably a couple of days of bombardment from the sea.

BLITZER: What about drones? Would that be appropriate to send drones over and use some -- if you're going to target terrorists, for example, as the U.S. does in Yemen or Pakistan or in Afghanistan, do you want to start killing people?

KAHL: Well, I don't think we're going to do that. I mean I think if we use drones it would be largely for intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, not for targeting. Because drones actually don't pack a heck of a lot of punch. They might be good for blowing up a car with a terrorist in it but not blowing up storage depot --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But if they found out Maher al-Assad, the brother who's a thug, of the Syrian leader, would that be a legitimate target to go out there and try to kill him in a convoy?

KAHL: Maybe, although I think the administration is going to be careful not to signal to the regime that this is about regime change. So I would doubt that they would go after high valued, time sensitive targets like very senior leadership targets because they wouldn't want to communicate that this is about toppling Assad.

BLITZER: Colin Kahl, thanks for coming in.

KAHL: Good to be here.

BLITZER: Up next in our special report, Senator Rand Paul says not so fast when it comes to attacking Syria. My one-on-one interview with the Republican senator. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As the clock ticks closer to a possible U.S. military strike against Syria, many are warning not so fast. Earlier I spoke with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. He's a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We spoke just before that declassified intelligence report was released.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Senator Paul, if you were president of the United States -- and I know you're thinking about becoming president one of these days, but if you were president now and you got a report from your intelligence community that hundreds of people were gassed, were killed by chemical weapons, thousands injured, on August 21st, what would you do about that?

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Well, I think it's incumbent to always obey the Constitution. The rule of law is something our country's founded on. And I would ask Congress to come together and we would debate whether or not it's in our national security interests to be involved.

I think it's horrific, you know, when civilians are killed. But civilians have been killed on both sides of this war. Horrific things have happened. You know, there have been images of Islamic rebels eating the hearts of their opponent. So really I don't think there's a lot of good on either side of this war.

But the main thing is I agree with Barack Obama of 2007 who said that no president should unilaterally go to war without the authority of Congress. BLITZER: Well, you know that ever since that 1973 War Powers Act became the law, a lot of presidents, Democratic presidents, Republican presidents, they launched military action without formal congressional authority, whether it was Ronald Reagan in Grenada, or George H.W. Bush in Panama or Bill Clinton in Kosovo.

So if the president were to launch military strikes against Syria right now, he'd be following their examples.

PAUL: Yes. Bad examples are not always good examples to follow. You know, if you look at the War Powers Act, it says explicitly that the only exception to Congress giving you authority is an imminent attack. And the president seemed to understand this as a senator. So did Joe Biden as a senator as well.

They both were very explicit that you have to be under imminent attack or, actually, in Biden's case, he said it was an impeachable offense. So he believed very strongly about this as a senator. I believe very strongly that the Constitution was intended to separate the powers.

You know, Madison said that the executive is the power most likely to go to war so that we vested the power to declare war in Congress.

BLITZER: In an article you wrote for CNN.com, you wrote this, I'll put it up on the screen. You said, "America's wars must be debated by Congress, declared constitutionally and fought only for the interests and security of the United States. They should never be fought to save face."

All right, so what do you mean by that when you say save face? Because the implication is what as far as the president is concerned?

PAUL: I think some may feel and the president may be one who feels that he's losing his international power or acclaim if he doesn't follow -- he said there was a red line with chemical weapons and he feels incumbent to act. But the thing is just to act to save face is not a strategic objective.

He's already pre-announced that if he does attack, he's going to do it in a very limited fashion and he's not going to be for regime change. To me this sort of sounds like we're not going to win. He's for stalemate.

When I've had private conversations with the administration, that's what I hear. They're not for victory for either side. They're for equalizing the battle and having stalemate. But I see it in personal perspective. I have three sons. I don't see sending one of my sons to war or your son to war to fight for stalemate.

I think this should be a clear-cut strategic objective that helps the United States. And we should know that whoever wins the war, whoever we're supporting, will be a friend of the United States. I'm not certain that either side or any of the multiple sides of this war will ultimately be a friend to the United States. BLITZER: You know, you have disagreements among some of your Republican colleagues, Republican Senator Bob Corker, for example, a key member of the Foreign Relations Committee. He said after being briefed by the administration, he says he now supports what he calls surgical proportional military strikes. So why is he wrong and you're right?

PAUL: Well, I would ask the question, what is the strategic objective? Is it simply to say shame on you for launching and using chemical weapons? I would like to know who used the chemical weapons. In all likelihood it probably was the Syrian government. But it really isn't to their advantage. It's actually more to the advantage of the rebels to have launched this attack because the whole world now is uniting against Assad.

I would want to know, though, would the surgical strikes that are favored, would they somehow eliminate chemical weapons and stop him from using these again? If it's not regime change, it may well incite the Russians to become more involved, the Iranians to become more involved. It may well incite gas attacks on Tel Aviv or Israel.

What happens then? Will Israel feel restrained this time the way they did in the Gulf War? Or will Israel respond in not just a proportional fashion but an overwhelming fashion to now obliterate as much of Iran's military capacity if Iran gets involved? There's a lot of unknowns about this.

And, you know, Eisenhower said that when the violence begins, you can throw out all your plans. But you certainly have to think about before you begin offensive actions what the possible ramifications are if this spins out of control.

BLITZER: I just want to be precise, Senator. Are you leaving open the possibility, albeit remotely, that perhaps the rebels were responsible for this chemical gas attack as opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad?

PAUL: I've seen no evidence on either side. I have seen news reports that says the rebels may well have access to chemical weapons. I have seen no evidence from our intelligence committee -- that's the other thing about this. Should we go to war without the president coming before a joint session of Congress, presenting the case and showing the intelligence?

We've been misled before. In Iraq we were misled by the intelligence. Even at the various high levels of government the intelligence was massaged, I believe, to try to instigate and get us into the war in Iraq.

I don't want that to happen again. We should have a more deliberate evaluation of the information before we go to war.

BLITZER: Well, the war in Iraq there was resolutions passed by both the Senate and the House. And some of the other examples I gave, Ronald Reagan and Grenada, for example, no resolution passed. And very quickly, did he, Ronald Reagan or President George H.W. Bush in Panama, did they violate the Constitution by sending troops in without formal congressional authorization?

PAUL: Well, the Constitution doesn't specify between small wars and big wars. I think that we've become -- through the War Powers Act and through our custom, we have come to believe and I do believe that the president has the right to stop and repulse imminent attacks. But really anything else -- when we were attacked in Pearl Harbor, FDR came to a joint session of Congress the next morning, and we got a Declaration of War.

When we were attacked on 9/11, George Bush did come to Congress and ask for a use of authorization of force. So I think it really is best and the country's most united when we try to stick to the Constitution and when we try to have the people involved through their representatives.

BLITZER: Senator Paul, thanks very much for coming in.

PAUL: Thank you.

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BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, our special report, "Crisis in Syria." One thousand and four hundred people dead including hundreds of children.