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Syria Crisis; Syria's "Secret Weapon"?; "We Should Have Done It 2 Years Ago"; President Obama's Evolution On Syria

Aired September 2, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Show me the strategy! President Obama meets with two key Republican senators who want him to commit more military might against Syria, not less.

I'm Jake Tapper, and this is "THE LEAD."

The politics lead, selling Syria, President Obama sits down with John McCain, hoping his old foe can be his enforcer on Capitol Hill with leaders on both sides of the aisle weary of jumping into another Middle East war.

The world lead: from Russia with loathing -- Moscow sending a delegation to D.C. to lobby lawmakers against the president's war plan, but how far are they willing to go to defend their friend Syria from the U.S. Navy?

And the national lead. The president is trying to convince skeptical lawmakers on a military action that he himself has sounded pretty ambivalent about -- the evolution of Obama when it comes to the use of U.S. force.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the politics lead. No Labor Day barbecues for the White House, but it sounds as though there is plenty of grilling going on, as the Obama administration tries to make its case to a very skeptical Congress, House and Senate, Democrat and Republican, whose members are not sold on the Obama administration's plan for military strikes in Syria.

Some question whether the resolution gives President Obama too much power. President Obama, fully aware of the uphill battle he's facing, hosted what you might call a frenemy summit this afternoon. He met with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Republicans, two members of Congress who have long criticized his inaction on Syria, two people who frankly don't think the president's current plan for military action goes far enough.

After that meeting, Senator McCain said anything but a yes-vote on the resolution for Syrian airstrikes would lead to dire consequences.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Both Senator Graham and I are in agreement that now that a resolution is going to be before the Congress of the United States, we want to work to make that resolution something that the majority of members of both houses can support.

A rejection of that, a vote against that resolution by Congress, I think would be catastrophic, because it would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States. None of us want that.


TAPPER: President Obama is hoping Senators McCain and Graham can sway other members of Congress to support some kind of action against the Bashar Assad regime for allegedly using chemical weapons against its own people.

This comes just one day before two top administration officials, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Hagel is expected to lay out the military strategy and attempt to justify use of force in Syria.

We have CNN team coverage of the crisis in Syria. Nic Robertson is live in Amman, Jordan, with the international reaction.

But I want to begin with chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash live on Capitol Hill.

Dana, we heard some pretty strong language from Senators McCain and Graham after that White House meeting. Even though they were standing in the president's driveway, they didn't hesitate to criticize him for waiting to act in Syria. But it does fundamentally seem like they're going to go all in and try to get Congress to support his resolution.

Is that how you read it?


At the end, Senator McCain hesitated a little bit, but that sound bite you just played really I think encapsulated what his strategy is. Look, I talked to Senator Graham a couple times going into this and it was just clear from what he said and what John McCain said publicly that they know their role here and they know the leverage that they have and they're trying to use it.

And what they're trying to get for their support of this authorization measure for their help with twisting arms, especially on the Republican side, are more public assurances from the White House that they're going to, in their words, upgrade the rebels.

This is something they have been talking about for years. This is something they have pressing for, for years in a very frustrated way, that the administration hasn't done it. So, they at least say they have gotten some good first steps and good lip service, if you will, from the president in this meeting today. And I know they're looking for more.

So, that's why they don't want to say, OK, we're happy until they actually hear it publicly from the president because they understand the meaning of leverage, but this is absolutely critical. Jake, we have seen John McCain in the past couple of months use his seniority here, use his power of persuasion to help the president when he wants to. He can help the president when he wants to.

And on this issue, he has just about as much if not more credibility than anybody else in this Congress, particularly on the Republican side.

TAPPER: Dana Bash, thank you so much.

Congress is not yet sold on Syria strikes, but the League of Arab States seems to be on board, kind of. The group says it supports some sort of action in Syria, but it doesn't seem too keen on the U.S. or any other Western nation for that matter being the ones behind the strikes.

Senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is live in Amman, Jordan.

Nic, is this tepid show of support still a win for the administration from an international standpoint at least?


The Saudis were the ones who really tried to get the strongest language possible from the Arab League in their resolution on Sunday, three parts to the resolution, condemnation of the attack, attribution, attributing blame to Bashar al-Assad, and then the call for the international community to do something.

Saudi foreign minister spoke during that Arab League summit and was very, very clear that a red line has been crossed, that the world cannot stand back and watch this and action must be taken. The diplomats that I'm talking to here that have been working behind the scenes to strengthen the language from the Arab League firmly want U.S. strikes.

The reason that language is not coming from the Arab League is because the Arab street here doesn't like to see the Western world bomb Arabs, strike Syria, per se. But they do believe Bashar al-Assad should be stopped.

It's complicated. It's not simple. That's why it's a hard sell for the Arab League. That's why the language sounds tepid. But the Saudis and their allies at the Arab League really hope that this resolution from the Arab League is enough to give President Obama the sort of political leverage he may need at home.

TAPPER: All right, Nic Robertson, thank you so much.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spoke to French newspaper "Le Figaro." And when asked how his country would respond to a military strike, he said -- quote -- "The Middle East is a powder keg, and the fire is approaching today. Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists."

A regional war? Is this a threat by the Assad regime or a message on behalf of its ally Iran.

Let's bring in former CIA Director Michael Hayden. He's now a principal with the Chertoff Group, a risk management and security firm.

General, thanks for being here. I appreciate it.

When you hear language like that from Assad, what is the worst-case scenario here in terms of if the U.S. does do some limited strikes? What exactly is he talking about?

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: We want it to be a one and done.

The president has made that very clear, very limited strikes, very limited objectives, deterring, degrading the potential use of chemical weapons. He's doing it, our president, to show resolve.

Well, guess what? Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies are going to want to show resolve to. They're not going to want to give the United States a free ride for this kind of action. I would expect one of those actors, particularly the Iranians, engineering some sort of a response. And once you start this, it's hard to control it.

Now, look, I think we ought to actually take action. I think I support what Senator McCain said in the White House driveway. But you can't believe it's one and done. Once you start using heat blast and fragmentation to actually text messages to another leader, things can get out of control.

TAPPER: And what do you anticipate that Iran would do in response?

You think Iran would send a nuclear missile? They don't have the capability. Do you think they would fire some sort of missile? What exactly do you see?

HAYDEN: Well, look, Assad was being a bit overly dramatic because that serves his purposes right now.

He wants to deter American action. The last thing that the Iranians, Hezbollah or the Syrians want is to expand this into a regional war. They have got their hands full right now. They're on the edge. But I can't imagine that particularly the Iranians would use their weapon with strategic reach. Our strategic reach weapon is airpower and those Tomahawk missiles with the fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Their strategic reach weapon is Hezbollah and they could then use Hezbollah to attack Americans, American interests in the region and perhaps as far as North America.

TAPPER: A White House told "Playbook" that they're pushing this message to members of Congress -- quote -- "Anyone who is concerned about Iran and its efforts in the region should support this action." And you also heard Lindsey Graham make that same argument. This is not just about Syria. It's about Iran. If Syria gets away with using chemical weapons, who knows what Iran will do. Obviously, Syria and Iran allied.

Is that a good argument as a former CIA and NSA official? Is that a good argument to make to people on Capitol Hill?

HAYDEN: I think that's a very good argument to make. Unfortunately, the argument has been a bit eroded.

We're talking about red lines. As I said before, the key here is to display American resolve. When the American president says something, we mean it and we will back it up. I do think we ought to act. But, Jake, just look at the scenario. It's been a long time, probably will be the better part of a month even under the best-case scenario, before we respond.

The response will be very limited. We have made that very clear. And the time it's taken us to respond has shown very severe political fracturing in the West when it comes time to acting. If our purpose here is to show resolve, we can do it physically.

I just don't know that the psychic effect now is going to be all we wanted it to be.

TAPPER: As a former director of the NSA and CIA, I want to get your insight into something that was in the unclassified intelligence briefing that Secretary Kerry and the administration put out.

Quote: "We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel -- including personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC -- were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack. In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack. Our intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons."

I think a lot of people might read that and think, so we knew that there was a chemical weapons attack coming and we didn't do anything? Is that wrong for people to think?

HAYDEN: Yes, a little bit.

But let me try to explain the circumstances here. We always operate under a responsibility to warn. We're very cognizant of that. When we see imminent attack, an attack is likely, we do have both moral and legal responsibilities. It could be, Jake -- and I don't know. I'm not in government. I have not seen the report.

TAPPER: Right.

HAYDEN: It could be that only looking backward, having the information we now have, does it illuminate and give certainty to the information we had in prospect.

Maybe it has this deep meaning only in retrospect.

TAPPER: And from a military perspective, does the delay that we're talking about here -- there's obviously going to be no military strike at least until next week, maybe even beyond that -- is there a military risk that that would make the effectiveness less so, the Syrians can put their assets in places that they were not before, they can put human shields in places, given lead time?

HAYDEN: Yes, like I said earlier, I think it's the psychic effect that is most important, not the physical effect.

We're not going to make him unable to conduct chemical attacks. We want to make him unwilling to conduct chemical attacks. In terms of the physical damage that we can inflict on him, this might make a difference, but, frankly, Jake, it cuts both ways.

He's dispersed his forces. He's camouflaged his forces. He's hidden his forces. That means he can't use his forces. And so he's actually suffering some military penalties because of what he's been forced to do by our threat of action.

TAPPER: All right. Former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

Coming up: Assad says the Middle East is a powder keg, so how can the USA attack without setting it off? We will take a look at more possible strategies.

And if you're looking for a little inspiration on the StairMaster, look no further than the indomitable Diana Nyad. That's ahead on THE LEAD.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

President Obama is used to facing opposition in Washington, but not quite like this. Russia may send a delegation to lobby U.S. lawmakers to vote against their president's plan to attack Syria. Russia.

Now Syria is a close ally of Moscow. It's also a big business partner. One of Assad's biggest armed suppliers and they're offering more than words. In fact, one of Russia's warships could be Assad's secret weapon.

I want to bring Tom Foreman to break this down.

Tom, what do you have there with you?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have lieutenant colonel -- retired lieutenant colonel from the Air Force, Rick Francona. He's going to help walk us through.

You know, here's the thing -- the Syrians right now are trying to act like this attack was never going to happen, that these ships were never going to come up here and start launching cruise missiles at Syria. But they're also getting ready for just that thing. And one of the things that has happened along that front is that these Russian ships have arrived here.

Why does this latest ship makes such a difference?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, they brought in an electronic reconnaissance platform, state of the art. It's got the variety of sensors. It's got the ability to monitor the electronics, the communications. It has its own radar, its own sonar. So, it's got a really good capability to track the U.S. vessels as they move around the Mediterranean. It also has the capability and to monitor and warn of a launch.

FOREMAN: So, this could be happening in fact hundreds of miles offshore here. And this Russian ship could know the moment a cruise missile left. What does it do with that information?

FRANCONA: Well, not only when the cruise missile leaves. It might also know as they run up to the launch. So, they got hours possibly of warning time.

FOREMAN: One or two hours, they could let the Syrians know that far ahead of time.

FRANCONA: And you have to assume that they set up some sort of an early warning with the Syrians. So, that information is going to go right to Syrian air defense headquarters in Damascus.

FOREMAN: Let's talk about cruise missiles for a minute here. Cruise missiles are extraordinary weapons. They're very reliable. They have pinpoint accuracy. They can carry 1,000 pound warheads and we might be talking about 100, 200, 300 of them being launched.

Against that kind of power, what difference does it make if Syria knows one or two hours ahead of time?

FRANCONA: Well, not only do they one or two hours ahead of time of the launch. They will have 10 days in which to prepare for this. So, what they're doing right now is doing things out of where we think they are, hoping that we will not detect the movement of where they're going.

So, they're hoping that those missiles are going to be, they'd be striking empty targets. Now, the Syrians have been moving their high value assets, the Scuds, the chemical weapons launchers, aircraft, command and control. And they've also been moving a lot of their security and intelligence assets of their offices and into school buildings.

FOREMAN: So, into civilian targets that would be very hard for us to hit.

FRANCONA: Politically, you can't.

FOREMAN: Very difficult to take a risk.

But let's go back to the issue of the intelligence coming out of here. We know that the Syrian government does not want to give a lot of information. We know that they're insurgent groups out there, but the insurgent groups aren't just one group. They are dozens or maybe hundreds, including some terrorist groups. In that environment, as each day passes in these terms, how can we rely on any of that?

FRANCONA: Yes. As always, information floods any after that and determine which is valid and it's very difficult because a lot of these insurgent groups. These fighters have an interest in us striking particularly target. So, they're going to make that target sound like its hiding high value asset so we can put a weapon on it.

FOREMAN: And all of that, Jake, is what is complicating this process, because, ultimately, if a missile launches, it has to land somewhere. And that means picking a target in this changing and difficult environment -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Tom Foreman, Colonel Francon, thank you so much.

Coming up, before getting involved in the civil war in Syria, the president will have to face a war of words in Congress. And tomorrow could pose another battle.

And later, the worse nuclear crisis since Chernobyl just got worse. The latest on a dangerous situation in Japan.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Now, time for the politics lead. The president is in the middle of a full court press on Congress, trying to shift opinion on a possible military strike on Syria. And right now, he's taking flack from all sides, even from lawmakers who agree that something must be done to stop Bashar al-Assad.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think it's encouraging, but we have to have concrete plans. We have to have concrete details. And we have to be assured that this is a dramatic difference from the last two years of a policy of neglect, which has led to the deaths of 100,000 people, a million refugees -- excuse me, a million children refugees, and a spreading of this conflict to the region.


TAPPER: Senior White House correspondent Brianna Keilar joins us from the White House.

Brianna, even though McCain and Graham have been saying "I told you so" in front of the cameras, is that the tone in the behind closed doors meeting? Is it more constructive and productive than that? BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, you get what you get from both sides coming out of these meetings. But I will tell you, Jake, that White House officials are very hopeful or certainly painting it as such that Graham and McCain can help them out.

One senior administration official that I spoke with said that they're hopeful that the two then can help them adjust this resolution language so that it is more palatable, so that it can get majorities in the House, in the Senate when it comes to a vote. Now, that's obviously a very lofty hope and you heard McCain there, there are still concerns in Congress about there being an end date to any hostilities, about making sure that there are no boots on the ground. So, they still have some differences that the White House is leaning on members of Congress specifically, these Republicans to adjust.

But I will tell you just sort of watching what's happening today and has happened here in the last couple of days, just extraordinary level of interaction from President Obama really on any specific issue that we've seen reaching out to Congress and from the White House in some time, his one-on-one meetings, these briefings that we're seeing on the Hill, these visits. And tomorrow, remember, it's Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner who are coming to the White House, along with many committee chairmen and top members.

This is an extraordinary level of outreach to the Hill that we haven't seen, Jake.

TAPPER: Brianna Keilar at the White House -- thank you so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD: What would 2009's Barack Obama think of today's Barack Obama, pushing for a military strike on Syria? We'll take a deep look at the president's evolving policy on using U.S. force, next.