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Obama Pushes for Strikes on Syria; Russia Doesn't Buy Chemical Claims; France Wont' go it Alone in Syria; Israel is Worried U.S. Won't Strike; Crisis in Syria; Fukushima Disaster Continues

Aired September 2, 2013 - 12:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama making his case to Congress for a strike on Syria with classified briefings today. The pushback from both parties straight ahead.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, radiation levels at Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear plant are even worse than thought. High enough to kill a person within four hours of exposure.

MALVEAUX: Also, former South African President Nelson Mandela is now back home. We're going to give you an update on his health later this hour.

Welcome to AROUND THE WORLD. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

HOLMES: And I'm Michael Holmes. Thanks for your company.

MALVEAUX: Nice to have you back.

HOLMES: Nice to be back. It was a lovely vacation, but back to business.

MALVEAUX: (INAUDIBLE). We missed you. Back to business.

There is a lot of news here, of course. The president intensifying his effort to persuade Congress to support his plan for military strikes on Syria. Now, the president has conference calls, face-to-face meetings today with top congressional leaders to press his case.

HOLMES: Indeed. It is now 12 days and counting since that alleged poison gas attack killed more than 1,400 people right near the Syrian capital, in the suburbs, in fact. President Obama insists there is no doubt that Syria's government were the ones using chemical weapons on their own civilians.

MALVEAUX: Republican Senator John McCain has long pushed for U.S. action inside Syria. He and fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham will meet two hours from now with the president. And also today, samples collected by U.N. weapons inspectors in Syria will be delivered to labs in Finland and Sweden to be analyzed.

HOLMES: Yes, but Russia says it doesn't buy U.S. claims that it was the Syrian regime that used the chemical weapons.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): It is said that the United States declared that the state used chemical weapons. But what does it mean? We have clear data about this. It is clear interference of foreign policy. There's nothing concrete. No name, no proof that it was carried out by professionals. Many experts express doubt.


MALVEAUX: And, of course, going to Congress, a high stake strategy for the president. He's certainly not guaranteed to get approval for taking military action inside of Syria.

HOLMES: In fact, the president is already getting some pushback, and from both parties. Let's bring in Athena Jones at the White House, Dana Bash standing by there on Capitol Hill.

Athena, first to you.

We've got Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham saying that the president's plan for limited action, as it's being called, would send the wrong signal. Now, what do we expect from this meeting today with the president and is there any doubt that his evidence is rock solid?


Well, that is a question that some in Congress are asking. The same point that you heard from Russia there. Maybe there is clear evidence that chemical weapons have been used, but some are wondering whether it's clear and irrefutable who used it.

But I can tell you that what we expect from the meeting with Senator McCain and Graham with the president today, that's happening at 2:00, is that they'll continue to make the case that they have been making. As you mentioned, McCain certainly has been pushing for the president to do more, to go further on Syria than the White House is currently planning. They say, McCain and Graham, they want to see a clear plan and strategy from this White House for just what the goal of any sort of military action in Syria is. They want to see strikes against significant military assets of Assad's -- ballistic missiles, command and control centers, the air defense system. They think the goal should be to shift the balance of power on the battlefield against Assad.

Now, the White House has said that the purpose of military action in Syria is not regime change. It's to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. So there is some disagreement there. But the White House knows how important McCain and Graham could be in helping to convince their colleagues on Capitol Hill in this vote that is still very uphill. It's not clear at all yet whether a resolution allowing military force would pass.

MALVEAUX: And, Dana, I want to bring you into the conversation here because it's a very good point here. I mean they're interesting bedfellows, if you think about it, when you've got some of the conservative Republicans, as well as the liberal Democrats, siding on the same issue, that they're not going to authorize military action when it comes to the president moving forward in Syria. So explain to us, I mean how does the president manage this group of people to get the kind of authorization that he's looking for?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is so difficult because there is - you know, generally it's like, OK, you go for Democrats or Republicans. Not only is not split now along party lines, but even within each party you have so many different kinds of concerns. And in many cases, Suzanne, the concerns contradict one another. For example, Athena talked about the meeting with John McCain. He wants -- he might not, he says, vote for it or he wants to have assurances before he does vote for this authorization, that there's a plan to even have further action, or at least an idea of what's going to happen in Syria after these pinprick strikes. And then you have other Republicans who are saying, you know what, I just don't think it's the right thing to do to be involved abroad. So those are the kinds of difficulties and different positions that he's going to have to navigate here.

But one thing is clear, that it's not just Republicans. It's also Democrats. As we speak, Suzanne, House Democrats are on a conference call, unclassified, with members of the Obama administration. They're trying to really convince all of these skeptical lawmakers because the votes simply are not there.


BASH (voice-over): One after another, lawmakers emerge from a classified briefing intended to convince them to authorize force in Syria supremely unconvinced. Republicans -

REP. MICHAEL BURGESS (R), TEXAS: The mood of the district that I represent is, do not do this. And I honestly didn't hear anything that told me I ought to have a different position.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a no based on the information that I have now.

BASH: And many of the president's fellow Democrats.

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: I'm still very skeptical about the president's proposal. It is not clear to me that we know what the results of this attack will be. Meaning, will it be effective?

BASH (on camera): If the vote were taking today, would you be yes or no?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I honestly cannot say.

BASH (voice-over): Democratic Janice Hahn took the red eye from California seeking answers, but left with lots of questions.

REP. JANICE HAHN (D), CALIFORNIA: We want there to be some consequences. What is that?. Is that just going to war? Is that bombing? Is that killing more people? I'm not - I'm not there yet. I would not vote for it today. BASH: To be sure, the president does have some support.

BASH (on camera): Where are you right now? Are you a yes or a no?


BASH (voice-over): But to get enough yeses to pass, one thing is clear, this version of authorization the White House sent Congress Saturday night must be changed.

SEN. ROY BLUNT (R), MISSOURI: The biggest, single concern among the members may very well have been a very broad request for authority with a supposedly very narrow intent to do anything.

BASH: That concern is bipartisan. Lawmakers say they want to limit the authority they give the president, specify a timeframe for military strikes that make crystal clear no boots are on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Blank checks or even partial blank checks.

BASH (on camera): And this is a blank check that they sent?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, this is a partial blank check the way it's currently draft.


BASH: And, Suzanne, I am told that changes are in the works as we speak to the language of that authorization, to make some of the changes that you just heard there, making clear that this is - that there's an expiration date on authorization and also no boots on the ground. Members of Congress want that in black and white. And I wouldn't be surprised if we saw other requests for changes to this authorization before they bring this up for a vote.

MALVEAUX: All right, Dana Bash, thank you.

HOLMES: Yes. Now, of course, the rest of the world waiting and watching to see what the U.S. is going to do in Syria.

MALVEAUX: So where are Russia, France and Israel positioning themselves on this right now? We've got reporters in all three countries. Phil Black is in Moscow, Jim Bittermann is in Paris and Jim Clancy in Jerusalem.

Phil, I want to start off with you in Moscow.

Russia is an ally of the Assad regime. We know leaders there, they're not buying U.S. claims that Syrian forces were responsible for using those chemical weapons. Are they looking for more evidence?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, the foreign minister here, Sergey Lavrov, today said that Russian government has seen information provided by the United States and its allies. And even after seeing that information, the government remains absolutely unconvinced the Syrian government was responsible for using chemical weapons in this case. He said the information lacked detail. Basically said it's thin. It wasn't concrete.

Here's a little more of what he said. It's a direct quote. And he said this. "There are no facts, there's only talk about what we know for certain. When we ask for more detailed evidence, they say, you know, it's all secret, so we can't show you. There means there are no such facts." So Russia clearly doesn't believe the U.S. case is credible and the United States and its allies aren't ready yet certainly to swallow the Russian theory which suggests it was the Syrian opposition that used chemical weapons in this case as part of an elaborate plan to manipulate international feeling and trigger some sort of military intervention.

But as the debate now moves into the U.S. Congress, members of Russia's parliament today announced that they will be sending a delegation to the United States to meet with members of Congress to try and persuade them not to vote in favor of military intervention.

HOLMES: And, yes, thanks, Phil. And the Russians, of course, among those saying, you know, why would Assad do that with U.N. weapons inspectors there.

Let's go - let's go to Paris now. Jim Bittermann there.

Jim, we've seen the British vote in their parliament. The U.S. moving to vote in Congress on this. The French president does not have to put it to a vote, but the French aren't going to go it alone, are they?

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly what they've been saying over the weekend. Frankly, there's some doubt here about whether they can militarily got it alone or that they could mount such a strike, a punitive strike, against Bashar al-Assad if they wanted to. But in any case, that's a matter for debate.

But politically, at least, they're not going to go it alone. And to be fair, President Hollande said after his statement last week that he wanted to punish Bashar al-Assad for the gas attacks against civilians. He said that he would want to - wanted that punishment to come in concert with the other allied nations. And without the United States' leadership in this and not least this moment very clear, France is also in a position of not being very clear of what it's going to do.


MALVEAUX: Want to go to Jim Clancy in Jerusalem.

So, Jim, Israel, obviously, understandably nervous right now, across the border from Syria. Not really sure what the United States is going to do at this point and a critical U.S. ally. So what's next?

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, the disappointment here in Israel was real. Full stop. There's no getting around that. Many saw a U.S. president who backed away from his own red lines, who was indecisive at a key moment, delaying action against regional actors who not only possess chemical weapons, but have allegedly employed them against their own people. Government officials who were warned in advance by the White House of this were quick to point out that going to Congress, part of the American democracy, trying to smooth things over. But the decision last week by the British parliament ruling out any response to Syria's chemical case was seen really as a bad omen, increasing uncertain over whether and if any U.S. action would go ahead.

Now, the army said it's staying on alert as the U.S. makes up its mind. Nearly half of all Israelis think they're going to be a likely target from any reprisal from Syria or one of its allies whenever that strike were to take place.


MALVEAUX: All right, thanks. Phil Black, Jim Bittermann and Jim Clancy, all there keeping our eyes around the world and reaction to what is taking place.

HOLMES: Indeed. Yes. There's a lot of people wondering that, you know, 12 days after this attack and with a lot of people doubting what it could achieve and the rest of it, the Russian doubts, what's the point now? It's, you know, time is moving on here. It's nearly two weeks after this happened.

Well, we want to get more now on possible reaction to a U.S. strike on Syria. And check this out. The pro-Assad Syrian electronic army, these are some pretty talented hackers, it would appear, they have attacked the U.S. Marines' recruitment site.

MALVEAUX: Looks like they posted a letter urging Marines not to attack Syrians. Part of this letter reads, "Obama is a traitor who wants to put your lives in danger to rescue al Qaeda insurgents. You're officer in charge probably has no qualms about sending you to die against soldiers just like you fighting a vile, common enemy. The Syrian army should be your ally, not your enemy."

Here's also more of what we're working on for AROUND THE WORLD.

We have been talking about chemical weapons, of course, in Syria, but what are these chemicals? What are we talking about? This nervous gas, what does it make? What's made of it that makes it so deadly? We're going to take a look at the symptoms of exposure to sarin gas.

HOLMES: Also this. A big spike, a big one, in radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Radiation so high, it could kill an unprotected person within four hours. We've got that and a lot more still to come here on AROUND THE WORLD.


MALVEAUX: The White House says it now has evidence now that chemical weapons were used in that attack in Syria two weeks ago that killed more than 1,400 people including hundreds of children.

Now France says it has its own evidence that the Assad regime is responsible. No one is more resolute on what's been collected than Secretary of State John Kerry. Here is what he said on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION." Listen.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Blood and hair samples 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 the rockets came from. We know where they landed.

We know the damage that was done afterwards. We've 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 afterward.


HOLMES: Let's talk now about what Sarin gas is. Where did it come from, for a start?

It was developed in 1938 in Germany, initially as a pesticide, and it's extremely volatile as a nerve agent because of its ability to change from a liquid to gas.

It does dissipate quickly, though. It presents an immediate but short- lived threat. That's the good news.

Mildly exposed people can usually recover. Now some symptoms would include nausea, vomiting, even a runny nose, watery eyes, blurred vision, that sort of thing, also abdominal pain.

But anyone who is severely exposed, they're not likely to survive. The symptoms would be loss of consciousness, convulsions and then paralysis, now all of this leading to respiratory failure and likely death.

Now it's been used before and the outcomes have always been horrible. You might remember back in 1988, reports that 5,000 people died when the Iraqi air force under Saddam Hussein dumped poison gas on their own people. This was in the infamous Halabja attack. That's in northern Iraq.

Now in 1995, in Japan, members of a cult placed plastic bags of Sarin on trains during Tokyo's rush hour. Thirteen people died. More than 5,000 people became sick.

This is a nasty thing, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Michael.

We also want to warn you about this next report. It is very graphic. It's one thing for us to post the statistics, right, about how many died or how many get sick. But to really understand what we're talking about when we talk about Sarin gas, you have to see it. You have to see what it does to people, the impact and the reality of chemical weapons. It's just awful.

Chris Lawrence shows us why this gas does what it does and why this is so terrible.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: 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 effect of chemical weapons for 20 years and says it was the child in this video that erased all doubt.

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

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

What is that, and what does it mean?

SMITHSON: 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 Soman or Tabun.

LAWRENCE: Victims can die within 10 minutes of breathing Sarin gas. In liquid form, a fraction of an ounce can be fatal. Even contaminated clothes can hurt you.

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

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

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

LAWRENCE: Nerve agents like Sarin blind victims causing them to choke in spasms.

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

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

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

LAWRENCE: Chris Lawrence, CNN, Washington.


MALVEAUX: It's very hard to even see it, but it illustrates what we're talking about now, why we're engaged in this heated debate over what to do.

HOLMES: What to do and what exactly happened, too? That's the other question.

As you correctly pointed out before that story, it's horrible to watch. It's important to see.

All right, we're going to move on for now. We have got a lot more in this hour of AROUND THE WORLD, including that leak at a crippled Japanese nuclear plant, radiation levels 18 times higher than previously thought.


MALVEAUX: Radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan are 18 times higher if you can imagine than we previously thought.

That's not the only bad news that's actually coming out of that facility.

HOLMES: This story is just going on and on and on.

There's radioactive water spilling into the Pacific Ocean, as if we needed that. This is two-and-a-half years after the disaster, and Japan's nuclear regulator says there's still no real plan to deal with it.

Here's Paula Hancocks.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thirty-foot waves engulfed Japan's northeast coast, destroying almost everything in their path.

Almost 19,000 are believed to have died after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant was crippled. Three reactors suffered a meltdown causing the world's worst nuclear disaster in a quarter of the a century, but it's not over yet.

This weekend, the operator of the plant admitted radiation levels near a water storage tank are 18 times higher than thought at levels that could, in theory, kill an unprotected man in four hours.

Tepco only realized the spike when they started to use a more sensitive measuring device. The company is struggling to cope with hundreds of thousands of tons of highly radioactive water. The head of Japan's nuclear regulator said Monday, Tepco has been dealing with this issue in a haphazard way with stop-gap measures. They're simply dealing with one crisis after another, so many things are missing from their overall plan.

Two weeks ago, Tepco admitted 300 tons of radioactive water had seeped into the Pacific Ocean after leaking from a storage tank. The regulators wants hundreds of identical tanks to be replaced and admits some low-level contaminated water may have to be deliberately released into the ocean.

An estimated one and a half million tons of debris washed away from Japan after the tsunami. Some of that has reached U.S. shores.

A recent study predicts contaminated water could reach parts of the U.S. early next year but at very low radiation levels.


MALVEAUX: Japan's government is about to reveal its strategy now for how they're going to actually deal with the toxic water problem as well.

HOLMES: Leaders say they're going to unveil a series of measures to deal with the crisis at a ministerial meeting headed by the prime minister tomorrow.

The government not happy with how the company Tepco is handling it, they're going to move in and do more. About time, a lot of people say.

MALVEAUX: And good news here, history being made off the coast of Florida today, possibly. For the fifth time, Diana Nyad trying to swim from Cuba to Florida.

HOLMES: Will she do it? No shark cage, of course, no wetsuit, no flippers. After about a hundred miles, though, she's, oh, so close. She's nearly there. She can smell the sand.

MALVEAUX: About two miles from the shore of Key West, that's where she is, expected to arrive in about hour and a half or so.

You might remember the last attempt failed after she was stung many times by those huge jellyfish.

HOLMES: Yeah, box jellyfish, nasty stuff, too. She's been trying this swim for 35 years now. She's already broken the record, though, for doing the swim without a shark cage.

And keep going, nearly there.

MALVEAUX: Almost there.

The White House pushing Congress for a green light to attack Syria. Up next, we're going to speak to one congresswoman who says she's against any military strike.