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President Obama Holds Off On Military Action Against Syria -- For Now; Several Members of Congress Flock To Capitol Hill; Secretary of State John Kerry Says There Is Strong Evidence Of Chemical Weaponry In Syria; Saudis Calling To Attack Syria
Aired September 1, 2013 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello again, everyone. We are entering your second hour now of the NEWSROOM on this Sunday afternoon. I'm Fredericka Whitfield. A look at our top stories.
The U.S. Congress now taking a hard look at chemical weapons allegations against Syria. Some members are in a closed door meeting this afternoon. We will have more from Capitol Hill.
Plus, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry say this is more shocking evidence of a chemical weapons attack.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: It has tested positive for signatures of sarin. So each day that goes by, this case is even stronger.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: That full interview coming up.
And here is a big question lawmakers have to weigh. How much will it cost to take action in Syria?
Right now on Capitol Hill, members of Congress are in a closed door briefing with team from the Obama administration.
Dana Bash is outside that briefing.
So Dana, what have you been able to hear or see from that meeting?
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We have seen fair number of lawmakers both from the Senate and the House go in. In fact., I have to say considering the fact that it is Labor Day Sunday, it is kind of surprising how many members we have seen come past us into the auditorium here in the capitol at classified for these members to get the briefing they are getting.
We saw Tony Blinken and other members of the administration who are among the briefers to come in as well. Everybody looking like they're here on a weekend, which is exactly what they are. And what they hope to accomplish, they, meaning, the Obama administration is to begin to turn the skepticism we are all hearing from many of these lawmakers into a yes vote.
And the other thing I should underscore that I and other members of our hill team have been gathering from talking to these lawmakers, Fredricka, is that there is a lot of skepticism and a good number of undecided lawmakers both in the Senate and the House.
So, this is really the beginning of what is a very important really crucial legacy kind of full-court press for the Obama administration to get this yes vote an authorization which will not happen until the week after next.
WHITFIELD: And Dana, what more can you tell us about this planned meeting between President Obama and Senator John McCain, how this came about and what is expected as early as tomorrow?
BASH: This meeting tomorrow is going to be an example of one of those critical lobbying moments. John McCain has been one of the most outspoken lawmakers on the idea of being aggressive and needing to aid the rebels in Syria and trying to do away with the threat Bashar al- Assad poses.
He is not yet a yes vote on authorization still. And it's because he wants more information. Listen to what he told reporters earlier today about what he expects from this meeting at the White House tomorrow.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I want to talk to the president. I want to find out whether there is a plan and a strategy. I want to find out whether this is just a pinprick that somehow Bashar al-Assad can trumpet he defeated the United States of America.
But I will say that if Congress overrules a decision of the president of the United States on an issue of national security; that could set a catastrophic precedent in the future. It would be very dangerous precedent to be setting.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BASH: Fredericka, I thought what John McCain said was important and telling for a couple of reasons. Number one, the fact is, as I said, he has been somebody who wanted aggressive action by the United States with regard to Syria. And even he is skeptical about this authorization vote because he doesn't think maybe it goes far enough. So, that is what the administration is dealing with, people who don't want go in maybe at all and those who don't think this goes far enough.
But the second thing and maybe the most telling thing he said is that he is concerned about Congress not voting to help the president effectively and voting down something that could embarrass not just the president but more importantly the United States on the world stage.
So that, I think, tells you a lot. If he gets on board with this, he will be a very important player in lobbying particularly Republicans who might not be sure whether they'll vote on this.
WHITFIELD: All right, Dana Bash, thank you so much for that on Capitol Hill. Keep us posted.
The U.S. military is ready and has been for a while now. But now, the waiting continues after the president's decision to ask Congress for approval to strike Syria.
Let's bring in Barbara Starr, our Pentagon correspondent.
So Barbara, are you sensing any concerns at the Pentagon how this delay could impact the effectiveness of a strike or bode well for the Assad regime?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is a classic two- edged sword, isn't it, Fredericka?
For the Assad regime, there is intelligence, we are told, we are not told what it is that the U.S. has, that the Syrian forces are moving around a bit, dispersing in anticipation of some type of U.S. attack. It is enough to say that they are not continuing their effort showing civilians inside Syria. So, they are moving around a bit. That means that U.S. military has to keep an eye on Syria, very closely for the next several days so they can track the targets they want to hit when and if the president orders. So, ships with tomahawk missiles are still on the eastern Mediterranean. Those missiles are guided to their targets inside Syria by GPS coordinates, by satellite coordinates, very precise. So, if inside Syria, the target move around, the U.S. has to calculate the new GPS coordinates, program than into the satellite.
It is not hard to do. They know exactly how to do it. But when you look at the range of targets that you see that they want to strike if the order comes, it is going to be a busy several days now for the military, the U.S. military to keep chasing down where the Syrians are -- Fredricka.
WHITFIELD: And again, the president saying and re-iterating yesterday from the Rose garden that no boots on the ground, strictly were, sounds like it would, most be by form of air assault, tomahawk missiles, et cetera.
STARR: Absolutely. Every indication and in fact, officials privately still saying this today. This will be, if ordered, cruise missiles very precise as we said. Thousand-pound warhead, very lethal, but most importantly, it keeps U.S. aircraft and U.S. pilots out of Syrian air space, out of the risk being shot down.
WHITFIELD: All right, Barbara Starr, thanks so much from the pentagon.
So, how did the president come to change his mind on congressional approval from military action in Syria?
CNN's Jim Acosta looks at the chain of events. JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, just as the president seems to be ready to go it alone on Syria, he called on Congress to go along with him.
ACOSTA (voice-over): In a city that piece on political theater, it was high drama just past high noon as President Obama told the world he pulled back on the brink of a military strike against Syria.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Will seek authorization for force from the American people's representatives in Congress.
ACOSTA: Aides to the president may Mr. Obama decided to go in a different direction at almost the lasts minute. At approximately 6:00 p.m. Friday, the president made the stunning change in plans to seek congressional authorizing and then went for a walk. A 45 minute walk, in fact, with his chief of staff, Dennis McDonough.
At approximately 7:00 p.m., the president announced his decision to his national security staff sparking a heated debate. He then, started to spread the word calling vice president Biden, secretary of state John Kerry and defense secretary Chuck Hagel. Saturday morning, Mr. Obama convened a principal's meeting with top national security and intelligence officials to finalize the decision.
KERRY: The question is what do we collectively, what are we in the world going to do about it?
ACOSTA: Just hours before the president's abrupt move, Secretary Kerry had made a passionate case for urgent action.
KERRY: Instead of being tucked in their beds at home we saw rows of children lying side by side sprawled on a hospital floor all of them dead from Assad's gas.
ACOSTA: But aides say what Kerry and the rest of the president's team did not know is that Mr. Obama had been privately kicking around the idea of seeking approval from Congress for days. As Kerry was turning up the heat, the president seemed to be turning it down.
OBAMA: I am very clear the world generally is world weary. Certainly, the United States has gone through over a decade of war. The American people understandably want us to be focused on the business of rebuilding our economy here and putting people back to work. And I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me.
ACOSTA: As it turns out administration officials say, the president was listening to members of Congress who wanted in on the process.
SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I think it's incumbent to always obey the constitution. The rule of law is something our country is founded on and I would ask Congress to come together.
REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA: The 64 of us who signed our letter want to make sure Congress is called back in session, debate the issues, the facts and then vote whether or not we should engage militarily.
ACOSTA: So on Saturday, the president got back on known calling house speaker John Boehner and other congressional leaders.
OBAMA: Here is my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community. What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?
ACOSTA: Just minutes later the president departed the White House with Biden to play a round of golf leaving administration officials scrambling to show a united front. Despite that fierce discussion inside the west wing, aides say, the president's team is now fully on board.
As for the defense secretary, one senior U.S. official said as a former senator whose views on war are well-known it's not hard for Chuck Hagel to agree with the president. Another official said of Kerry no concerns. He was in the Senate 29 years and has made consultation with Congress a huge priority since he became secretary of state.
The debate that counts is the one to come in Congress. The lawmakers from both parties still have questions.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: In my view, U.S. military force is justified only to protect the vital national security interest of the United States. And to date, the administration has not focused on those interests.
REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: I don't see where America is threatened. I don't see where our national security is threatened. And perhaps between now and the time we get back on September the 9th, the president will have information that would allow the Congress to effectively see where this danger is.
ACOSTA: Administration officials say the president still reserves the right to take military action. As one top official put it, the commander in chief still has the authority to act even if Congress says no --Fredericka.
WHITFIELD: Thanks so much, Jim.
And a few minutes ago, we got word that Saudi Arabia is calling for international action in Syria. The Saudi foreign minister said this, quote, "the Syrian regime has crossed all the lines with its tyranny. It's time for us as the international community to take responsibility and put an end to this tragedy entering its third year. The Syrian regime has lost its legitimacy within the Arab world and internationally," end quote.
The foreign minister made the statement while attending a meeting of Arab league foreign ministers in Cairo.
All right, now that the president is going to Congress, just how much of a gamble is this for him? And what if Congress says no?
Next up, we will ask someone who has advised presidents for 30 years.
WHITFIELD: So President Obama says he wants Congress to weigh in on a military strike against the Assad regime in Syria. He is going to be talking to congressional leaders. And tomorrow, in fact, the president is scheduled to meet with Republican Senator John McCain who has been calling for action in Syria for a long time now and calling very loudly.
David Gergen is CNN senior political analyst, He is also been an advisor for presidents from Nixon to Clinton.
So Davis, I want to ask you, you know, is this a gamble for the Obama presidency to call the shot, say, I want to strike Syria, but then turn around and say, we're going to put this in the hands of Congress?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It is indeed a gamble, Fredericka. He conceivably could lose it just as David Cameron lost in an upset in the British parliament. I think, though, he's likely to win it.
GERGEN: Well, if you go back in American history, there have been 18 occasions since the First World War when presidents have gone to Congress asking for approval for military action. On every single instance, 18 out of 18, the Congress said yes. I would be very surprised if, when they look over the abyss at what would happen to -- if he lost, the crippling of a president for national security purposes over the next three years. That's why I think you saw John McCain today saying as much as he disagreed with the limited nature of what's intended now he really thinks it's very important the president not be defeated in Congress. He not be stripped off the authority to act.
WHITFIELD: He said it would be a travesty. But why is that the case? What if Congress says no and what if the president is, you know, really left high and dry?
GERGEN: Well, that is obviously a possibility. I don't think the president would then use force if he got a clear message, public opinion were against him and he was fairly isolated. David Cameron wanted to use force. But after the parliamentary vote he said, we are not doing that anymore.
But the larger point here is the president goes and asks for such a limited air strike in effect and is turned down, it is going to cripple him as commander in chief. Let's say he's facing Iran and he says, look, if you have nuclear weapons, I will come after you. Asterisk, big asterisk, only if Congress approves it and they may well not.
I just don't think United States is going to put him in that bush. The Congress is not going to put him in that position. They are going swallow hard. Some of them and a lot of them will hold their noses. But at the end of the day, I imagine the president is going to squeak through this. And I have seen this happen in the past. And it's a very difficult vote for some lawmakers but that's what they are elected to do.
WHITFIELD: And you have advised so many presidents, as I have mentioned, from Nixon to Clinton, and you know, say, you were advising President Obama and perhaps he had confided in you, as he did with his chief of staff, that you know, I have had a change of heart here. I'm thinking now and I would like to, you know, turn to Congress, would you advise him to think otherwise or would you go along with it just as former senators, you know, Kerry, Hagel, have all done. And Biden, all to say, we have been those shoes before, meaning members of Congress. We know the importance of being able to vote on this?
GERGEN: Well, and the truth is, Fredricka, in normal circumstances, I think the White House president and president's aides would urged him do not go to Congress every time you have small military action. This is very limited.
When President Reagan wanted to hit Libya with action, he did not go to Congress. President Clinton, when he want to go in limited action into Afghanistan, to Kosovo, he did not go to Congress. President Obama, when he want to do look, did not go to Congress. Normally, you protect the president from going to Congress every time.
But in this particular instance, and it's an isolated incident, we had a president who is almost completely isolated. He looked like he was the lone ranger out there. He didn't have the international support, didn't have the U.N., didn't have public support, didn't have the Congress. And I think particularly when David Cameron lost in parliament that turned things. After that, he needed somewhere. And you know, I think he's going to -- I think he'll build it up. But I have to tell you this. At the same time, I think at the end of the day, he is probably going to win this. I think he probably did the right thing going to Congress. But the way he got there has left -- has raised a lot of new questions about his leadership. This has been messy.
WHITFIELD: In what way? What do you mean?
GERGEN: They look like they are winging it. You know, from day-to- day, you never know quite where they are.
WHITFIELD: Opposed to being thoughtful, a lot of his advocates say this is who he is. He likes to think things through and he may change his mind based on that but he stands by his own decision. But you don't see it that way?
GERGEN: Well, take the drawing of the red line a year ago. Clearly, they had not thought it through. He clearly did not want to do this. It is obvious, but if it were not for the red line, I don't think that he would be. But he made that statement casually. It was not scripted thought through statement.
WHITFIELD: You don't think he meant it.
GERGEN: But look at this last week. You know, we have been hearing for week now. It is coming. The military is coming. There is going to be actions. Everybody thought when he went in the Rose garden yesterday, he would go out and announce that military action was under way. And instead, we had this, what is near daily news today on its cover, you know we had, ready, aim, hold fire. And that gives people a lot of pause. But do they have a firm grip on the wheel on these issues?
It was only a few days ago we were hearing it's urgent that we go in because Assad is dispersing his forces. We are not going to be able to find them easily and not able to hit them. And now, we're told, wait a minute, it doesn't make a difference if we go in three weeks from now, four weeks from now.
WHITFIELD: So, it sounds like I'm hearing from you, either way, whether there is congressional approval or not, this process, this portion of this process is damaging for the president and his legacy?
GERGEN: I think it -- yes. And I think people, Assad and the Iranians may misinterpret it. I do think they need to settle down and be very careful from here on out and give people. I think John Kerry has done a good job, the way he's gone out on television and appeared the last 24 hours. I thinks that president has done a better job yesterday in this statement.
They look more decisive. They look cleaner. But they have to keep that up now because there's a sense maybe they really don't have a grip on this.
WHITFIELD: David Gergen, thanks so much, always a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.
GERGEN: Thanks, Fredricka. Take care.
WHITFIELD: Thank you.
All right, well just the talk of an attack in Syria can impact U.S. and world economies. One impact, the price of oil. We will tell you what a penny rise in gasoline could costs America ever every day.
WHITFIELD: As the United States prepares for possible military action against Syria, the Assad regime is likely preparing as well.
Tom Foreman explains what he likely might be doing right now.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Every hour and day the debate goes on is more time Syria can no doubt get ready. Just a few days ago there would have been satellite and radar and telephone signals, all sorts of things that we could hone in on, the U.S. forces could hone in on. Now, you would expect something different? MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Absolutely, Tom. Assad may be a monster but he's very clever. He has unplugged all systems that emanate a signal. He is intentionally going to black right now so is harder for us to find him.
FOREMAN: So, even if we know where the facility is, the U.S. knows where a facility is, it's hard to know what would even be there now. For example if you had an office that handled radar communications or command and control, what would be in that facility now?
MARKS: Until we open the door, we don't know. We think we know but we have to assume at this point all the contents of those fixed facilities have been packaged up and distributed throughout the countryside.
FOREMAN: What about things like missiles and rockets?
MARKS: If a weapons system isn't being used it's in a garrison facility. Again, we probably would see those weapon systems dispersed to places where they wouldn't be effective like underneath overpasses.
FOREMAN: And you can't move air fields, but you certainly can move aircraft.
MARKS: I would bet you right now, those aircrafts are already in Iran. In fact, let me tell you something else, when we invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein, buried his aircraft in the dirt.
FOREMAN: Unbelievable, some of the things that might done out there with this much run up time. And this is radically different than what we have seen in recent years from the Israelis who have really emphasized the element of surprise.
MARKS: Tom, the Israelis won't give up the element of surprise and they don't spend time building a coalition. For example, when September of 2007, the Israelis struck a nuclear facility in eastern Syria and destroyed it. And just last month they attacked Syria anti- ship cruise missiles in Latakia and destroyed those as well.
FOREMAN: And when did the world find out about those attacks?
MARKS: When they were finished.
FOREMAN: That's a very differed approach and that makes a very different playing field right now as both the country of Syria and the United States wait to see what is coming next.
WHITFIELD: All right, thank you so much.
Uncertainty over Syria is also impacting the world of economy as Christine Romans report that could threaten the already fragile global recovery.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Just the threat of U.S. strikes in Syria is already affecting your money. The worst day on the Dow since June as investors rushed out of stocks and into the perceived safety of gold and government bonds. Oil prices, already up 215 percent over the past three months, thanks to instability in Egypt surging to an 18 month high.
Now, Syria is a major oil producer and international sanctions have already reduced that country's oil exports. But traders worry that the violence could spread disrupting supply. Syria has political, economic, and military links to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.
Now, the threat of an unintended chain reaction resulting in wider regional stability could push your gas prices higher. Just a one cent increase at the pump takes $4 million out of the pockets of American consumers every day.
MOHAMED A. EL-ERIAN, CEO, PIMCO: So the last thing the global economy needs today is another headwind that would slow what is already a very sluggish recovery.
ROMANS: Christine Romans, CNN, New York.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: All right, thanks so much.
So, what makes Syrian president Bashar al-Assad tick? He is praised by some and feared by many. Coming up, we take you inside the mind of a dictator.
WHITFIELD: All right, bottom of the hour now. Welcome back. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.
Five things crossing the CNN news desk right now.
Number one, a team from the Obama administration is giving a classified briefing on Syria to members of Congress this afternoon. Earlier today, secretary of state John Kerry said blood and hair samples from Syria tested positive for signature offers sarin gas and he called the case to take action quote-unquote "overwhelming." President Obama is seeking congressional approval for a military strike.
Number two, California firefighters are making some headway fighting a mass of fire in and around Yosemite national park. It is now about 40 percent contained. More than 222,000 acres have burned. The forest service says warm and dry conditions won't make fighting the fire any easier over the next few days.
And number three in Florida, forensic researchers have found human bones on the grounds of a closed reform school. They began digging in the town of Marianna, just west of Tallahassee n Saturday. Some former residents in their school now in their 60s and 70s have told stories of brutal beatings and boys disappearing without explanation more than 50 years ago.
And number four, so far so good for Diana Nyad. She is more than 30 hours into her swim from Havana to the Florida Keys. And her force right now are pretty good. This is Nyad's fifth attempt to become the only person to swim the 103 miles without a shark cage, flippers or wet suit. The 64-year-old is wearing a mask to prevent jelly fish stings to her tongue.
And number five, a veteran British broadcaster, David Frost has died. He was a fixture on American and British television, but he was perhaps best known for his revealing interviews with President Richard Nixon. Frost died of an apparent heart attack aboard the cruise ship, Queen Elizabeth. David frost was 74.
Very few westerners have had access to the family of Bashar al-Assad. CNN's Brian Todd talked to a man who worked with his wife and came face to face with the Syrian dictator.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, Bashar al-Assad ism by most account, often pleasant, even charming on the outside. It is when he is out sight making critical decisions with those closest to him that he acts with cold brutal calculations. This time, however, those calculations may have betrayed him.
TODD (voice-over): Bashar al-Assad some analysts say may have badly misread the signals, believed it when his cronies told him President Obama wouldn't enforce his red line on chemical weapons a staggering miscalculation, expert say, driven by Assad's own unpredictable swings of behavior.
ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEA EAST POLICY: Bashar al- Assad, unlike his father, is erratic. He is quite moody and goes from one side to the other, bouts of rationality and irrationality.
TODD: Andrew Tabler is among few westerners to gain access to Assad's inner circle. He worked with Assad's wife, Asma, running a charity in Syria and has been with Bashar al-Assad. He describes Assad as delusional, conspiracy minded, but also persuasive coming across in interviews as the antithesis of a murderous dictator.
When CNN's Christiane Amanpour asked him in 2005 about reports that he threatened Lebanon's prime minister.
BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIAN PRESIDENT: It's not my nature to threaten anybody. It's a -- I'm very quiet person. I'm a very frank but I wouldn't threaten.
TODD: And in 2011 when ABC's Barbara Walters pressed him on whether he ordered his forces to fire on the opposition?
AL-ASSAD: They're not my forces. They are military forces belong to the government. I don't own them. I'm president.
BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS: No. But you have to give the order. AL-ASSAD: No, no.
WALTERS: Not by your command?
AL-ASSAD: No. We don't have -- no one's command. There was no command to kill or to be brutal.
TODD: What do you make of that bearing? He's so polite and soft toned?
TABLER: I think he's a master of deception. I think that the regime, the package of Bashar and his wife, Asma, is very seductive. And it draws you how could someone who seems so reasonable command such a horrific regime.
TODD: Illustrating what Tabler calls Assad's two faces, he was trained as ophthalmologist. He has facebook and Instagram accounts. Has enjoyed being seen with his glamorous wife out on the town from Aleppo to Paris. But from his bunker, he is overseeing the killing of tens of thousands of his own people. What will he think about now?
TABLER: He is going to think about how am I going to I react to these strikes. What we can see from past strikes by the Israelis is that actually Bashar does very, very little in terms of a direct response. But over time, he might carry out other kinds of attacks on American assets.
TODD: That means the militant group Hezbollah, a key ally of Assad, considered a terrorist group in the west, might carry out some asymmetrical attack on American interests. Assad is likely talking to them right now about a possible response the American air strikes if they come along with his other close friend, Iran -- Fredricka.
WHITFIELD: All right. Thank you so much, Brian.
U.S. secretary of state John Kerry said there is overwhelming evidence for taking action in Syria. And he said the president is taking exactly the right step to do it. His argument next.
WHITFIELD: U.S. secretary of state John Kerry said today samples of Syria tested positive for signatures of sarin gas. And he said on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION," the case to act is overwhelming.
Gloria Borger asked him what happens if Congress votes against military action. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
KERRY: We don't contemplate that the Congress is going to vote no, Gloria. I believe this case is powerful and grows more powerful by the day. I can share with you today that blood and hair sample that have come to us through an appropriate chain of custody from east Damascus, from first responders, it has tested positive for signatures of sarin.
So, each day that goes by this case is even stronger. We know that the regime ordered this attack. We know they prepared for it. We know where rackets came from. We know where they landed. We know the damage that was done afterwards. We have seen the horrific scenes all over the social media and we have evidence of it in other ways and we know that the regime tried to cover up afterwards.
So the case is really an overwhelming case, but the president really felt very strongly that the Congress of the United States weighing in makes our nation stronger in whatever action we take.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: But doesn't it worry you that you have put this heavy responsibility on a Congress that's notoriously paralyzed and divided?
KERRY: We have confidence. There are good people in the Congress of the United States. I know there have been politically -- it's been difficult, but this is a matter of national security. It's a matter of the credibility of the United States of America. It's a matter of upholding the interests of our allies and friends in the region. Jordan which is threatened by when's happening, Israel, Turkey. Lebanon. All of which as I said the other day are just a stiff breeze away from chemical weapons being used.
I mean, there are huge interests here. And in the long term, Gloria, you know, what we may or may not have to do if we cannot find a peaceful resolution with Iran, or what we need to do with North Korea, all of these things are part of a continuum of decision making that's made in foreign policy and we believe the Congress of the United States will recognize that responsibility and do what is right.
BORGER: But Mr. Secretary, the head of the council of foreign relations, for example, says that, in fact, President Obama has gone -- these are his words, from leading from behind to not leading by going to Congress. He says that it raises doubts about the United States' reliability and determination. Can I get your response on that?
KERRY: Absolutely, of course you can. The fact is that the president of the United States is leading and he is leading very powerfully and he is leading in the right way. If he didn't do this, I can hear all of the critics saying, why didn't the president go to Congress? Why didn't the president, he could have asked. He had time to ask. It didn't make a difference. I mean, all of these --
BORGER: But then they could ask, why didn't he go sooner?
KERRY: The president made his decision first and he announced his decision. His decision is that he believes the United States of America should take military action to deter Assad from using these weapons and to degrade his capacity from going so. Now, that's the president's decision. But he --
BORGER: No matter what Congress does? No matter what Congress does? The president -- KERRY: He has the right no matter what Congress does. That is his right and he asserted that in the comments yesterday. But the president believes and I hope we will prove to the world that we are stronger as a nation. Our democracy is stronger when we respect the rights of the Congress to also weigh in on this. And since it is not an emergency overnight as we saw in a place like Libya where people were about to be slaughtered, since we have the right to strike at any time if Assad is foolish enough to engage in yet another attack, we believe that it is important before this takes place to have the full investment of the American people and of the congress.
BORGER: Well, what are you telling the Syrian opposition now, who clearly counting on military action sooner rather than later and now it's been delayed.
KERRY: Well, sometimes the wheels of democracy require us to take an extra day or two to provide the legitimacy that the founding fathers contemplated in actions that we take. And I talked yesterday with the president of the Syrian opposition. I believe he understands that America intends to act. That we are going to continue to support the opposition. That we may even as a result of this be able to provide greater support to the opposition and do a better job of helping the opposition to be able to continue to fight against the Assad regime.
I think that they will be stronger. We will be stronger in the end and it's amazing to me to see people suddenly standing up and taking such affront at the notion that Congress ought to weigh in. I mean, I can hear the complaints that would have taken place if the president proceed unilaterally and people say why didn't he take the time to --
BORGER: Mr. Secretary, it seems -- I think the questions are being raised because it seems that from the onset of this over the last couple of weeks it seems the president was poised the take action sooner rather than later. You came out and said it matters if nothing is done.
KERRY: It does matter, Gloria. None of that has changed.
BORGER: Why didn't he decide to go to Congress immediately if it was so constitutionally important?
KERRY: Because the president needed to gather the evidence and have ask me and others to make judgments and ultimately to make the case to the American people.
BORGER: Did he conclude he didn't have enough political support in the country to go it alone that way?
KERRY: Absolutely not. The president of the United States asserted yesterday, you know, that he has the right and I believe he has that right. But the president made, and I think, a very courageous decision. Just because he disappointed some people who thought, who thought without any basis that he was setting up to go take a strike doesn't mean that he didn't reserve the right to make the judgment that he made. No decision is made by a president until the decision is made. And this president did not make the decision until he finally came to the conclusion that he wanted to take this to Congress in order to have the greater strength of the American people speaking as a whole.
I think it's -- I personally believe at a time when the institutions of governance are doubted by many people, I think this is a very courageous decision. I think it is a big presidential decision and no one should misinterpret it, particularly Assad or the opposition.
BORGER: But it's also risky, Mr. Secretary, isn't it? I mean, the risk is if Congress were and I know you don't expect this, but if Congress were to vote no and then the president were to strike, wouldn't that set up a constitutional crisis?
KERRY: The president has the right, and he has asserted that right, that he could do what's necessary to protect the national security of the United States at any point in time. The president believes that we are stronger as a nation when we act together. The branches of government that are designated with powers with respect to foreign policy.
And so, the president has made his decision and he courageously went out yesterday and announced his decision to the nation and the world. He believes that this outrageous attack by Assad merits the United States joining with others to stand up and defend the international norm with respect to the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons.
The president announced that decision and now he has asked the Congress of the United States representing the American people to join in with him in that decision.
BORGER: Mr. Secretary --
KERRY: And we are stronger as a nation when that happens.
BORGER: Let me as you about our coalition. When you were running for president in 2004, you said that in Iraq, we should not have relied on what you call the coalition of the few. Isn't that that what we have here right not?
KERRY: Well, I think we have a coalition of more than a few. But is the situation that is going to grow as the evidence comes out. That's another reason why the president believes there is a value in going through this process.
I talked with a number of nations who have offered to be helpful. No decisions have been made about what shape that will take, but I believe that there are many -- the Arab league has already spoken out. Voices as far away as Japan, New Zealand, Australia, other places who have spoken out. I think the world takes enormous affront at this incredible abuse of power, this, you know, this attack on decency and incredible crime against humanity. I think voices will grow over the next days as people see the evidence.
BORGER: And -- KERRY: And that evidence is becoming more powerful every day. As I mentioned to you, we now have the additional evidence of the signatures of saran gas from the first responders in Damascus.
BORGER: Is this the United Nations? Is this from the United Nations or --
KERRY: No. This is independent. This came to the United States. It is independent. But it is confirmation of the signatures of sarin. And so, the case gets stronger by the day and I believe the case for action will grow stronger by the day.
WHITFIELD: The United States says it is clear saran gas was used in Syria. The chemical weapons is extremely deadly. And CNN's Chris Lawrence reminds us why the international community banned the use of these weapons.
Warning, this report contains many graphic and disturbing images.
CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Describing this video as disturbing doesn't do it justice. But some attach a different word, proof.
AMY SMITHSON, MONTEREY INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: I have absolutely no doubt this was a chemical weapons attack.
LAWRENCE: Amy Smithson has been studying the use and effects of chemical weapons for 20 years and says it was the child in this video that erased all doubt.
SMITHSON: Maybe 5-years-old and the twitching of the eyes and the mouth and the arms were all going in different directions at different times. That simply cannot be coached in a child of that age.
LAWRENCE: And here's another with white foam pouring out of his nose. What is that and what does it mean?
SMITHSON: Well, it's one of the hallmark symptoms of exposure to a nerve agent. It could have been a cocktail of chemicals, not just classic warfare agents like sarin or vx or (INAUDIBLE).
LAWRENCE: Victims can die within ten minutes of breathing sarin gas. In liquid form a fraction of an ounce can be fatal. Even contaminated clothes can hurt you. Iraq used sarin against the Kurdish people in the 1980s killing thousands. The Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, used sarin in terrorist attacks in the mid-'90s.
The people treating the victims don't have respirators or protection on. Why aren't they getting infected, as well?
SMITHSON: Well, there's been an attack to wet these people down to decontaminate them. That's what decontamination in a rush is all about. Just making sure that they are at least doused with water if not soapy water and the clothes are taken off.
LAWRENCE: LAWRENCE: Nerve agents like sarin blind victims, causing them to choke and spasm.
SMITHSON: Like this. See the twitching in the body?
LAWRENCE: These images of the dead show no signs of a conventional bomb blast.
SMITHSON: There you see bloody bodies, broken bones, gaping wounds.
LAWRENCE: Chris Lawrence, CNN, Washington.
WHITFIELD: The Capitol Hill briefing on the situation in Syria has just wrapped up. The White House meeting with members of Congress. A live update from Capitol Hill next.