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Panel Weighs In On Syrian Crisis and U.S. Role

Aired August 31, 2013 - 18:00   ET

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


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us. I'm Don Lemon here in New York. We are continuing our special coverage of the Syria crisis.

You are watching CNN live. You saw the president today. President Obama transforming Syria's civil war transforming it into a domestic issue and putt his own credibility on the line at the same time. He used an appearance in the White House Rose Garden to announce that will delay any military action against the Syrians so that he can seek Congressional authorization.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That's why I have made a second decision. I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress. For the last several days we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Well, the president's decision has opened a whole new conversation here in the U.S. over what to do about Syria's civil war. Support and opposition for the president's call to action crosses all political lines. Members of both parties have lined up in support but vocal opposition is strong.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: I'm troubled by the just justifications the Obama administration has put forth so far. Much of their discussion has concerned what they describe as international norms and they have suggested that the U.S. military should be employed to vindicate so- called international norms. In my view, U.S. military forces justify only to protect the vital national security interest of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Joining me from Washington, CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta and our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash and also at pentagon for us is Barbara Starr.

Dana, I'm going to start with you. How much do you think pressure from Congress to hold this vote had on the president's decision? I mean, his suggestion was, really, philosophical awakening, but I mean, what has it pure politics here too?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's no question it was a significant factor, not the only factor. I mean, it's impossible to say that because there's so many weighing on the president's decision. Not the least of which what is happening on the international level and getting support from Arab countries for example. But my understanding in talking to several senators who are on phone calls and briefings over the past few days with top Obama officials is that the pressure really was mounting, not just from Republicans, not just from anti-war liberal Democrats, but from moderate Democrats to say look, you have to come to Congress. If this is not something that's dire and if it were, the strikes would have happened 24, 48 hours ago, you have to come to Congress and get authority from us.

So, that absolutely was a factor. The question now, of course, is whether or not the president is going to regret this decision because if he doesn't get the votes in the House and the Senate it will be a huge embarrassment for him.

LEMON: Yes, absolutely. Let's stick with that line of questioning. I mean, where are the votes? How is this -- is it likely to pass, Dana?

BASH: Unclear. Nobody can answer that question right now and nobody is even daring to. The general thought at this point is the democratic-led Senate is more likely to approve it right now than the Republican-led house. Not because it's the president's party but because of the makeup of the Senate. There are more people who are willing to go ahead and give the president authority for limited strikes. But even some of the Republicans who would think be natural supporters of the president, Don, like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, I just got off the phone with Senator Lindsey Graham who has been screaming from the rooftop for months and months that we have to do more in Syria, he's not sure he would vote for this because he wants to have more information about the military plans after the limited strikes.

LEMON: One more question because we are waiting for Congress to come back on September 9th. And I kept wondering during the coverage as I thought, you know, we would not have this extended coverage quite frankly this evening. After I heard the president, I said well there goes to news. It's two weeks, at least, before anything would happen until Congress meets.

I want to ask the panel. I have the panelist here. I want to ask them that. So the question is why are we here? If Congress isn't here, if Congress isn't going to come back until the 9th. Where's the urgency?

BASH: It's a great question. And it's one, again, that I was told by sources on series of calls today that senators asked of the chairman joints of chiefs, Martin Dempsey, why are we waiting? If you think this is such a problem why are we, the Congress, not coming back this week? And the answer I was told by several senators on the call is that he said that is he feels comfortable that waiting will not change the dynamic. Barbara can I'm sure can talk to you more about the military reasons for that. And in fact, they told the senator they have to give them more information and classified setting. But you definitely are seeing many members of Congress even those who may not vote yes saying we have to come back early.

My understanding is that the Senate democratic leadership, they are the one to decide on this. That they are mulling coming back next week. We do have the Jewish holidays at the end of the week and that is the factor, I'm sure.

As for the Republicans who run the house, the speaker said they will come back as planned the week September 9th, and they are going to have that vote, you know. And of course, there's the whole question of the White House having to take some time to get the votes in order to pass this. And you know, at one point you could say that taking more time could help get support. The other side of this, more time might make people flee and vote know. You just never know, It's crap shoot.

LEMON: OK. Dana, you can weigh in on this but I want to go to Jim Acosta. Because Dana, you have sources everywhere. But I want to find out from the White House.

Jim, was there a big split on Friday night when the president told his advisers what he plans to do? Was there a split at the White House?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: There was, Don. And for anybody who enjoys the theater of Washington, this was high drama that broke out Friday evening. I mean, keep in mind this briefing that was held by national security and senior administration officials earlier this afternoon with reporters, they laid out the tick tock of how this went down.

When national security were having meetings earlier this week about their options for strike against Syria, seeking congressional authorization was not even one of the option on the table according to senior administration officials. This was an idea that was sort of banging around inside the president's head. It was something that he was wrestling with.

And it was on Friday evening after he made those remarks sitting alongside the Baltic leaders after secretary of state John Kerry came out and made those forceful remarks about the intelligence case against Syria, the president asked his chief of staff, Dennis McDonough to go for a walk around the south lawn of the White House grounds. And it was during this 45-minute walk, according to senior administration officials, that the president told his chief of staff that he was starting to have second thoughts about rushing into any kind of imminent military action and that he wanted to sort to take a time out and seek congressional authorization and it was after that walk with his chief of staff that he called in his national security team and this robust debate broke out, apparently between different officials inside the White House. It was a heated exchange.

But at the end, the president's senior administration officials say the national security team then rallied behind the president. They are now standing firm behind the president. Then the president went out and made phone calls to John Kerry, Joe Biden, defense secretary Chuck Hagel. They finalized the decision this morning but it was high drama, Don.

LEMON: Yes. And Listen, you bring up John Kerry which is interesting. We were all glued to our televisions watching John Kerry go out there and give this long drawn out dramatic speech about making the case for going, at least some military action, with Syria and then now this.

Why put John Kerry out there on Friday and then less than 24 hours later say, you know what, we are going to hold our horses a little bit here?

ACOSTA: You know, that's a very good question.

And you know, speaking of John Kerry, he is going to be on all the Sunday morning talk shows tomorrow morning including "STATE OF THE UNION" so Gloria Borger will get the chance ask him that. But, you know, Don, in some ways John Kerry was also, not only talking about what he thinks and what the administration thinks, he was responding to what was happening around the world. Keep in mind, the United Nations had really in the minds of the White House had really stymied this president.

The president could not go to the U.N. security council, president's administration could not go to the U.N. security council and say give us a vote for striking Syria because Russia was there saying no. We are not going to give you that vote.

The United Kingdom, Britain, the indispensable ally that is always there with the United States had just that traumatic vote in parliament voting against military action along with the United States.

And so, in many ways, John Kerry came out and made the statements. It was really also a message to the world and senior administration officials were asked about John Kerry's performance at this briefing. Why did the president let him go all the way out there? And they maintain that John Kerry was speaking in behalf of the president. That the president feels just as forcefully as John Kerry and that they feel very good about his John Kerry's performance through all of this. But no question a big difference there.

LEMON: Well, that was his first words. I think that what he said I have the authorized military action and I think we should take military action against Syria.

Also, let's talk about John Kerry and also Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary here and the secretary of state. Were they on opposite sides here or were they in complete support of the president or were they on the same side? Do they not want to go?

ACOSTA: You know, we pressed senior administration officials on who was on which side and they just declined to comment. They didn't want to get in to that. And I think those are details that probably get out in the coming days. But at this point, they want to present a united front even though it was a divided one last night, Don.

LEMON: All right, thank you very much, Jim Acosta.

Let's go to Barbara Starr now, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Barbara, you have been listening to this. And of course, it's going to be up to the U.S. military if and when this finally happens. Give us the latest from the Pentagon. Because obviously, we are ready if this indeed does happen. But it doesn't appear to be at least ten days out yet before anything could happen unless Congress comes back for a special session.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Don.

Look. The U.S. military is ready to go. They are making that very clear. They still have those warships in the eastern Mediterranean. Five ships with about 40 tomahawk missiles on board, each of them.

But the military also got a reaction to all of this. A spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told me a short time ago quote, "we continue to refine our targeting based on the most recent intelligence and the chairman assured the president that we would have appropriate targeting options ready when he called for them."

So, what are we talking about here? U.S. intelligence has seen the Syrians move around. Their men, their troops, material and equipment in the last several days dispersing it in advance of what they thought was planned U.S. attack. So, this is going to mean the U.S. military to be ready is going to have to keep targeting, retargeting, loading those tomahawk missiles with new GPS coordinates. Not complicated. They know how to do it but it's an intelligence challenge. They'll have to keep after this. Make sure they know where all the targets are in Syria so when the president calls, indeed they're ready to go.

And, most importantly perhaps, there's another no answer to this question. What if the Syrian regime engages in another chemical attack in the coming days. What will the president then order the U.S. military to do or not do.

LEMON: Well, it is interesting, Barbara. Because they are saying it is a limited attack if it does happen. It is going to be, you know, just strikes from ships, no boots on the ground. But when you are talking about chemical weapons, can you be that targeted from a warship?

STARR: Well, you know, do we have the intelligence capability to conduct the surveillance with our satellites to watch for any chemical stockpiles? The actual agent moving around. So, when a tomahawk missile hit a warehouse and thinks it's a warehouse, the U.S. knows there isn't, you know, tons of sarin gas inside of that because they don't want to hit by all accounts an actual stockpile of chemical agents. That could be very problematic if it disperses into the atmosphere.

What they are looking for it is to hit the delivery systems, the artillery, the rockets, the shells so that the regime can't actually engage in a useful attack.

Again, the next ten days are going to turn out to be an intelligence challenge for the U.S. military to make sure they stay up on all of this.

LEMON: All right, so at Barbara there, do we still have Dana and Jim there? Are they gone?

BASH: I'm here.

LEMON: They are still there.

So, I'm going to ask this question to you Barbara. Where is Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs now? Do you know?

STARR: Well, he was at the White House earlier today. And he has been in and out of the pentagon. He's got communications. He keeps in touch with this 24/7.

LEMON: OK.

Dana, do we know about the Congressional leaders. Obviously, most of them are back in their districts now and they are giving statements. I don't have Jim Acosta, but can you speak to this. There was -- some people are concern because right after this, the president and John Kerry went to play golf right after his announcement. That's not great optics, is it?

BASH: You know, you can argue in both ways. On the one hand, you know, they're human. And everybody needs to blow up steam and sometimes when you kind get away from it all, you can digest and think better, you know. I think we want our leaders to be human. On the other side --

LEMON: There's a big movie theater and bowling alley in the White House and basketball court where he didn't have to be in front of cameras.

BASH: I hear you. On the other hand, you're right. I mean, the optics are everything. But I think what you are getting and ask me about people being home in their districts, to be fair, members of Congress. It's Labor Day weekend. You know, some of them are working it, some of them over their constituents, others are likely at the beach with their families doing picnics like every other American does. So, there's no question that there is a balance here between Congress not being here and the president being hard at work.

While I have you, I just want to mention one other thing which I think our viewers should keep this mind talking about people being home and that could be driving part of this. A poll came out over the weekend or yesterday, I should say, that said 79 percent of Americans want Congress to approve or authorize this before going ahead. That's a stunning, stunning number and I'm sure members of Congress who are back home with constituents are hearing that loud.

LEMON: Yes. And I'm going to ask my next guest about that. I'm sure they have a lot to say about it.

But yes, members of Congress have to keep in mind, it did not just come out and say I think I want, you know, take military action as a leader of the free world. It goes somewhere listen, I'm not saying that the president doesn't deserve to but the optics are very important. George Bush was criticized a lot for optics.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Yes, absolutely. Thank you very much, Dana. Thank you Jim and also thanks Barbara Starr, our pentagon correspondent.

Moving on now. Tomorrow, secretary of state John Kerry will be on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION." That's Sunday morning 9:00 eastern right here on CNN.

In a move that surprised many D.C. pundits, the president made his case for military action against Syria, then said it's now up to Congress. My great panel is right here and they are going to dig into that. You don't want to miss them. We had some great conversation beforehand. It's going to be better on camera.

And just ahead, "the New York Times" Web site disappeared off the web for hours and a group of Syrian hackers said they did it. But could they take down more than just websites?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: While the president spoke today addressing his plan or part of plan for possible action against Syria, more on that in a moment. But right now I'm joined by Chris Dickey. He is a Paris Bureau chief and Middle East editor for "Newsweek" and "the Daily Beast" and Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Stanford University's Hoover Institute.

Fouad, I want to start with you. Before I read this article, the first question I had was why are we here? I mean, it doesn't seem -- it will be ten days, at least, right?

FOUAD AJAMI, SENIOR FELLOW, STANFORD UNIVERSITY'S HOOVER INSTITUTION: Well, we are here because we are invited by Don Lemon.

I think it is -- you're absolutely right. The president took the moral urgency out of this moment. And I think I heard your exchange with Dana and when he put the secretary of state out there to give this passionate statement, this has been, if you will, the brightest moment of John Kerry's career, I believe. This moral case he made for intervention in Syria and then you turn around and say well, of course, we can wait. This intervention is not time sensitive. It is time sensitive. And I think the world is looking at Barack Obama. And I think his authority as a leader, as a war leader has really been damaged substantially.

You cannot call for war effort and then say I will take it to Congress. All the more so, final point that he is doing so against the background of British Prime Minister David Cameron taking a case of war to the House of Commons and losing. And so, there's a suspicion legitimately we have to say, what's Barack Obama going to do? What if Congress turns him down?

LEMON: Yes. Well, you know, we shall see. I don't think it's as dire. I don't think David Cameron situation is as dire as many people are making it out to be and probably it won't be for the president if they decide not do it as because it puts it on Congress or whatever happens. But, you were disagreeing. What will you say?

CHRISTOPHER DICKEY, PARIS BUREAU CHIEF, NEWSWEEK/THE DAILY BEAST: Look, Don. Nobody in America wants this war. Let's start with that as a premise. And I think the president felt he was being stamped into a war partly by his own staff, partly by the Washington elite. He starts talking about credibility, credibility.

LEMON: His own words as well.

DICKEY: He said red line. He said red line a year ago. You know, is that written in the Bible? Is it exact for saying that he said that. People bring that up as a typical Washington story, typical Washington hysteria. But the French call the logic of war where everybody gets on this train within a power elite and just keeps pushing toward war until there's no turning back. He said, you know, it's time to stop and take breath.

LEMON: I understand that. In that, though, even if you think it's just politics playing out but don't you think the president feels some sort of pressure saying those are my words. Am I going to have any credibility if I do nothing.

DICKEY: He said he's going to do something about it. But he said that Congress has got to get on board. And frankly, he had not put the ducks in a row that he needs to do before he does anything. It's not going to be a limited strike or a bigger action because there is not going to be a limited strike. You start with a limited strike, it's going to escalate. And he is going to need a lot more support than he has.

LEMON: What is a limited strike? I mean, are you essentially telling your enemy, so to speak, that OK, I'm not going to go all the way. I'm only going to go just a little bit. Is there really such a thing, Fouad Ajami, as a limited strike?

AJAMI: Look at the logic of this campaign that President Obama has in mind. You send a telegraph to Assad. The telegraph is your regime will not be touched. We are not doing a regime change. We're just going to punish you for the use of chemical weapons. It's not the way to wage war. It's not the way to wage a war in an area sensitive to opinion appearances as this greater Middle East. Because many, many of the allies of President Obama have begun to have second thoughts about this. His most faithful ally in the region, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey has just said we don't want this kind of campaign. We want a serious campaign but we'll return to the point --

LEMON: Erdogan doesn't want a limited campaign.

DICKEY: No. Let the Turks fight the war.

LEMON: He thinks Bashar Al-Assad should be taken out or removed is a better term.

AJAMI: And there is a kind of -- there is a logic in the region.

LEMON: LEMON: Or should be remove, I should say.

DICKEY: There is a lot better term.

AJAMI: You don't shoot to wound anyone. You shoot to kill. If you're not going to overthrow Assad, why do this? But the point you made about secretary of state Kerry. Kerry came out and made this passionate case, this moral case for war and now all of the sudden you said, well you know, we can wait.

DICKEY: You know, this is not such bad diplomacy and it is not such bad politics. And that is not even bad for the war after it comes at the end of the day. In fact, what the president is doing is exactly what George W. Bush did in the fall of 2002 when he went before the general assembly and said the international community has to take its responsibility for disarming Saddam Hussein.

LEMON: Yes.

DICKEY: The difference is Bush wanted to go to war and this president does not want.

LEMON: I have to take a break. Before, do you get for more chance. But George W. Bush also said OK, I'm giving you, Saddam Hussein, one more chance before I invade your country.

DICKEY: Well, that in effect is what the president is doing right now.

LEMON: Can I say, you know, I misspoke earlier and said the secretary of state and the president went to play golf, it was the vice president. You don't like that.

AJAMI: No. This doesn't look good. I mean, look. There was a moment when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she was going to Istanbul for a conference on Syria. She stopped in South Africa and she cut a rug on the dance floor in South Africa. Many people in the region were just wondering, what kind of behavior is this?

We now have the president, this a somber moment in the life of our country and in the life of the region and 1400 people have been killed in this attack, it's good to forego the golf course.

LEMON: Yes. No one is denying that, you know all adult, everyone needs to, you know, relax sometime, but you have to be at least sort of aware of the optics.

DICKEY: You want to stop the hysteria then you said that you do have an optic as you say. You do have something you do that stops the hysteria. LEMON: All right, stand by. We are going to standby. Fouad, we will get back to you guys. We are going to break down what the president said earlier today and could part of this conflict with Syria play out in cyber space. I'm not talking about your favorite Web site going down but could Syrian hackers target U.S. infrastructure? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: I mentioned this a moment ago that President Barack Obama took some by surprise today when he asked Congress to debate and vote on a limited U.S. military action in Syria. Listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Over the last several days we heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. So this morning, I spoke with all four Congressional leaders and they agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: All so let's bring in our panel now.

Fouad Ajami, senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institute. He joins me in New York. And then we have two U.S. senior -- two CNN military analysts in Washington, General James "Spider" Marks is in Washington and also Rick Francona is there as well. And then Chris Dickey is the Paris Bureau chief and Middle East editor for the "Newsweek" and "the Daily Beast."

OK. Rick, I'm going to start with you first. Is getting Congress involved with this decision a good idea or bad idea, you think?

RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, from the military perspective I think probably a bad idea. I know for the U.S. it's good thing for the people to be heard. But what we have just done is give the Syrian military a gift. We have given them at least ten days to do what they are going to do. They have their freedom now to mount another offensive. They have time to disperse their assets. Whatever we are going to strike today or tomorrow is no longer where it was yesterday. They are moving things. They are dispersing their aircraft. They have ten more days to honker down the plan what they are going to do.

LEMON: Do you agree with that, Fouad? You are shaking your head.

AJAMI: Absolutely right.

LEMON: Because if they find nothing, this is going to be like a raffle. He got rid of all the weapons of mass destruction. That's why we can't find them.

AJAMI: Well, I mean, I think in the case of the use of chemical weapons in the (INAUDIBLE), Damascus, the evidence is irrefutable. This is what this man did. And at some point, you don't really need to dwell on the evidence. You need to have faith in your sources, and you need to have faith in your mission. And the fact remains, as Chris has said, which is right, the president does not want to go to war. He's a reluctant warrior. And when you're reluctant warrior, you give away this kind of feeling to other people in that region in particular that you don't want to go to war.

LEMON: Where's my general here? "Spider" Marks, who always has great information with stories like this and a great perspective? Do you agree? Are they signaling by doing this, are we signaling to Syria what we're not going to do, giving them a chance to move things around so that perhaps they won't be found?

GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, U.S. ARMY (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Don, absolutely correct. The one thing you cannot get back in warfare is time. We have given time to Assad to disperse his forces, disperse his delivery means, as Rick has indicated to conduct another offensive. It might even include chemical weapons. Why not? I've used them before quite effectively. I'm got the entire world mad at me. I can't put that back in the box. Why don't I just keep using that capability?

You never want to lose freedom of action. And the United States has lost freedom of action. I can guarantee you planners inside the Pentagon right now who are familiar with all of these considerations in terms of the allocation of force, the preparation times, the rehearsals that are necessary -- and most importantly, what our opponent, what the opponent does and what he does with that time to better prepare himself -- are right now kind of moving over into the shadows and into the corners going this is a bad idea.

LEMON: It's interesting because I know politicos do this and the media does it a lot, well, what about Iraq? What about Kosovo? What about Libya? We always compare it to some other military action or being on the brink of some other military action. Is that fair, Fouad Ajami?

AJAMI: No, we shouldn't. Actually, we've had this conversation. We should lay Iraq to rest. We should lay it to rest. And then you have even your right, the example of Kosovo has been used. I mean, Kosovo is not a bad model. Kosovo was a war; Bill Clinton did it. He didn't go to the United Nations. He bombed Serbia for 78 days. And this is Bill Clinton. No warrior was he. But he did it on his own. And I think some people are very comfortable with the Kosovo model.

But you're exactly right. This is a discreet fight right now in this year in Syria.

LEMON: Yes. I'm going to let you get in, but I heard Spider Marks saying amen. Why are you agreeing, Spider?

MARKS: Totally agree with Fouad. There's nothing wrong with being a reluctant warrior. And in fact, we should all be reluctant warriors. You look at what's at risk if you're not. But at the same time, you have the lead. You have to have the fortitude to understand -- you know, there was moral outrage in the form of the president's speech a couple of days ago. And what you heard today and what you heard from Secretary Kerry yesterday.

Now that moral outrage has been qualified. And I'm not sure why that's the case. They didn't do their work on priority to get to a position where they can act with leadership and with aggression and with confidence. And we don't see that.

LEMON: Yeah. And it's all different. And I agree. Listen, I was doing this during Iraq. There was a vast difference between Iraq and this even in the coverage, I remember. Also Libya as well. There was a vast difference between Libya and this. All the situations are unique in their own right.

I'm going to let Chris Dickey talk about that in just a minute. Stick around. My entire panel will get back. Chris, I promise I'm going to let you speak after this.

OK, will part of this conflict, this Syria conflict, this play out in cyber space? Again, not talking about favorite Web site going down, but could Syrian hackers target U.S. infrastructure? That's a very real question, and that's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: All right, we're back. Chris Dickey, did you agree with what the general is saying here, what we were saying here?

DICKEY: No. First of all, the general knows perfectly well that the technological edge the U.S. military has over the Syrian military is overwhelming. And Assad knows that as well. And so do his commanders. And that's what you'll see in action when the strike takes place. Of course, they don't want to have to reprogram their cruise missiles right now, but they can do it and they do it pretty easily.

As far as the wars being the same or different, I'll tell you the big difference between this war and Iraq is Iraq. Eight years, spending $2.5 billion a week, costing 100,000 or more lives, thousands of American lives. No, that's the big difference between now and then.

LEMON: Yes, but do you remember the president said -- then, George W. Bush said this is going to be limited. We'll be out of there in a small amount of time.

DICKEY: Yes, what we know about Bush was that he was lying. We know that Bush knew perfectly well all through 2002 that he wanted to go to war. And we know a lot of people facilitated that by creating this logic, this hysteria that said the next -- we don't want the next cloud that forms over New York or whatever to be a mushroom cloud. This kind of hysteria. We know that in fact Saddam did not have any chemical weapons or biological or nuclear weapons.

LEMON: But we know that now looking in the rearview mirror.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: But then, all the weapons inspectors, including Hans Blix (ph), who's spoken out on this as well, said they thought there were weapons of mass destructions but they never found any. And all of the intelligence leading up to --

DICKEY: No one said that. They didn't say that. They went in thinking that that might be the case. Why? Because there was a symbolic raid four years before Operation Desert Fox that resulted in all U.N. inspectors being taken out of country. So, we were completely blind for four years.

LEMON: Fouad Ajami?

AJAMI: Well, we don't want to relitigate there --

LEMON: As you said, we should put this in the rear view mirror.

DICKEY: I'm sure you don't, Fouad. You were pushing for it the whole time.

AJAMI: You don't know what I was pushing for.

DICKEY: I watched it.

AJAMI: This is just not -- we don't want to get into it. It's just too -

LEMON: No, we want to get into it. What do you mean? Go ahead.

AJAMI: No, it's just -- you can't go back and look at the Iraq war and just say here is this dummy. The Iraq war, the Iraq war was about lying.

LEMON: Put a piece of tracing paper on top of it and show the similarities.

AJAMI: You need to take a look at the context of the Iraq war. The context was 9/11. The entire country was convinced --

DICKEY: (INAUDIBLE) eight years, Fouad.

AJAMI: The context of the Iraq war in 2003 was connected with 9/11, and the American people signed up for the war.

DICKEY: The context of Syria is connected with eight years of Iraq. That's all.

AJAMI: But I don't really -- I mean, I think Syria is such a vastly different question. Syria is a country that's being tormented. Syria is a country that's being taken apart by a despot who comes through minority community. And Syria is a distinct issue and a distinct time --

DICKEY: All of those were true of Saddam, too.

AJAMI: No, no, no, I don't think so.

DICKEY: It's not true of Saddam Hussein?

AJAMI: It was true that Saddam was everything Bashar is and worse. But again and again, we need to stay with Syria. We can't revisit Iraq and relitigate.

LEMON: I agree with you. Because we don't want to draw false equivalents. But all we know is what we know, and Iraq is our most recent one that we can draw comparisons.

DICKEY: And the key question here is American -- especially in light of what was done today. The key question here is American support for military action against Syria. And if we take it as a given that really it would be a great idea to get rid of Bashar al Assad and for the U.S. to get involved, then you need a whole lot more American support that exists.

LEMON: All right, stand by, both of yuo. We'll talk much more about this.

But I want to get to this because I think it's really important as well. And we're talking about cyber space. Today, the president said the U.S. would be justified by punishing the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons. But if the White House goes ahead with the military operation, what kind of reaction could we expect? One possible threat, one possible threat is a cyber war putting us all on the front lines, all of us. Here is CNN's Brian Todd.

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BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (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: 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.

FRANK CILLUFFO, PROFESSOR, 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.

TODD: The targets for America's cyber-enemies? The U.S. electrical grid, government computer systems. Experts say the Syrian Electronic Army isn't 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.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE) LEMON: OK, so, is U.S. infrastructure in danger of attack? I'm going to put that to my panel. They're waiting, next.

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LEMON: OK, so you saw our story about a cyber attack on the other side of the break, just before the break. Let me bring in CNN military analyst Rick Francona. The Internet war goes beyond Web sites impacting even infrastructure. So, Mr. Francona, what kind of impact are we talking about here, possibly talking about here?

FRANCONA: Well, this would be one of the options that you could see in response to an attack. There will be a whole host of possibilities. This one is a low threat, little threat of retaliation. It's easy to do. And these guys could have real impact.

But so far, their attacks have going after what I would call soft targets. But when you start to go after more things, I probably think they would try to go after the Pentagon networks, things like that, where there are vulnerabilities. But I'm not sure this group has the wherewithal to take that on. But we could see it for sure.

LEMON: OK. So, what does Syria gain from using the Internet as a weapon here?

FRANCONA: It's something they could do. As Chris mentioned earlier, the vast difference between the level of the Syrian capabilities and our capabilities, even with just the limited amount of warships we have out there, is so large that I don't think you're going to see a serious Syrian military response beyond trying to defend against the attack. But this is something that could happen with very little threat or retaliation. Nothing happens (INAUDIBLE) has happened to these guys yet.

LEMON: All right, Rick, stand by. I'm going to keep you there, but I want to bring in some other folks. The rest of my panel here now. Just now joining us is Barak Barfi. He is a research fellow, New American Foundation. Then Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. And Christopher Dickey, of course, Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

All right. So, Mr. Barfi, you've been listening to all of this. And you heard what the gentleman said. He said it's because it's something that they can do. It's also something that's new. This is a new possible line of attack in wartime.

BARAK BARFI, RESEARCH FELLOW, NEW AMERICAN FOUNDATION: We're seeing a lot of these cyber attacks from the Syrian side. They have been able to bring down al Jazeera. They've been able to hack into "The New York Times." So we are definitely afraid of what they can do to the homeland if in the event - or when we have an air strike and how that will affect people in America who we think now they don't really support any kind of attack, and if there is any type of cyberattack, that support will decrease as well. LEMON: How concerned - you mentioned other areas. You said it's being used a lot. How deeply concerned should the American people be about the possibility of an attack like this, Mr. Barfi?

BARFI: We should be concerned because we know that the Syrians have done this in the past, and they are going to use all (INAUDIBLE) at their disposal to attack us just like they did to their own people. If they're willing to gas they're their own people, they're willing to bring down our Internet infrastructure. They're willing to attack our banks. They're willing to try to disrupt all types of electronic communications in the United States. This is not something Americans want brought to the homeland. They can't even understand why we're going to attack Syria, and now if the Syrians attack us, they're going to be very frustrated with that.

LEMON: OK. I see both gentlemen here in New York shaking their heads in agreement. You in particular think, Chris Dickey, you think this is something that is, for some reason this rises to an urgent level for you.

DICKEY: Well, you know, what you're talking about here with "The New York Times," that's sort of amusing. That's just psychological warfare for the moment.

The real concern is actually not about the Internet as such. The real concern is about fundamental infrastructure in the United States: electricity, dams, things like that, all of which are controlled through the Internet in various ways. And the sophistication of real cyber warfare is at a level as we saw, for instance, with the Stucksnet (ph) virus that we used against Iran where you can make things turn on and turn off.

LEMON: Explain that.

DICKEY: Well, with the Stucksnet (ph) virus, for instance, there are the centrifuges that are enriching uranium. We were able to infect those in such a way that they would slow down and speed up unpredictably and wreck the system. You can do the same thing with the gates of a dam. You can do the same thing with the electrical grid in this country. We're trying. The United States government is trying constantly to guard against it. But it is possible, and that's the level at which things start to get serious. If New York blacks out, that's not amusing. That's frightening. And that's the kind of thing that Iran particularly would like to be able to do. And, of course, Iran is deeply in bed with the Syrian government.

LEMON: I want to know for real, though, how real is that threat? And are we actually at a point where we're capable of doing that? Stand by.

And also, if al Qaeda is bent on revenge in Syria, why not just let them take care of it? After the break.

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LEMON: Welcome back now. President Barack Obama says a limited U.S. military strike in Syria won't resolve the deep conflict there. Still, he wants to go ahead with a limited strike. So, what is the endgame here? What is the endgame in Syria? The battered nation's civil war is almost two-and-a-half years old. So, then, what's the urgency? Obviously, chemical weapons, but there had been reports they used chemical weapons before.

So, I want to bring back in Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution. He's a senior fellow at Stanford University, and he joins me here in New York. And Chris Dickey with Newsweek and The Daily Beast, also in New York.

So, let's talk about the endgame here. What is the endgame? Some say they want to take Bashar Assad out of power at least. Others say they just want to get rid of chemical weapons. What is the real endgame here, do you think?

DICKEY: For the United States or for Syria?

LEMON: For the United States.

DICKEY: Well, I think that's one of the things that bothers Fouad and frankly, bothers me, too. We don't seem to have an endgame. And I think that one of the ideas that's floating around the Middle East right now is that various parties -- United States, Israel, others -- are willing to see Syria bleed for a very long time because it neutralizes a major force in the region.

I think that's a very dangerous policy. But I do think there's a lot of concern that that is the intent of the Obama administration.

LEMON: You're saying letting Syria bleed for a long time because it neutralizes a lot of folks in the region. Basically what you're saying is just letting people die?

DICKEY: Just letting -- sure. It's happened before. The Iran and Iraq war was sustained by Israel for a while.

LEMON: It appears you guys finally agree on something.

AJAMI: Exactly. One of the objections I had to this use of chemical weapons as a trigger for American intervention -- why use chemical weapons as your trigger? Why not use air power? In fact, why not - why not - I mean, this has been an argument I have consistently made.

LEMON: That is a very good point. And we have a segment called "No Talking Points." We were saying if the definition of intervention is chemical weapons, there were many more people who died for air power or from other types of activities than chemical weapons. Why is that the definition of intervention?

AJAMI: Exactly. Well, chemical weapons is because in August 2012, the president said if they use chemical weapons, that's going to be a game changer.

LEMON: Obviously, it's awful that that happened. AJAMI: Right. And there are moral prohibitions on the use of chemical weapons. But I would think the use of air power, when someone gets -- the regime gets its fighter jets to level and destroy the city of Aleppo, to level and destroy the city of Homs, that would have been the trigger. That would have been the time to do something. The problem with the Obama strategy or lack thereof, he comes to this late. It's a little too late and a little too little, in many ways.

LEMON: Much more to come. We'll be right back. Don't go anywhere.

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LEMON: Hello, everyone. I'm Don Lemon. We have got so much more for the next hour of the CNN NEWSROOM. My incredible panel, next.

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