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CNN NEWSROOM

Obama, McCain And Lindsey Meet New Hour; Congress Divided About Striking Syria; Navy Ships Now In Red Sea; Marine Recruitment Site Gets A Redirect; Diana Nyad Nears Florida Shore; Administration to Make Case for Syria Action

Aired September 2, 2013 - 13:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.

(INAUDIBLE) against Syria may be on hold in the United States, but the civil war still rages on. Today, a big meeting at the White House. In less than an hour, the president meets with Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Meanwhile, other members of Congress are being quite vocal on where they stand. Some support military action. Others do not. But whether or not they're Democrats or Republicans, all of them still have a lot of questions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. SANDY LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: This is not our plight (ph). The president wisely said to the Congress, we want your input and we want your support. It's better for the U.S. and it's better for the world. We're capable of acting on this and then going onto other things. I think the resolution may be altered but I'm basically in support.

SEN. ROY BLUNT (R), MISSOURI: I need to hear more. I'm going to continue to listen but the broad authority the president asked for, I think creates lots of concern with me and others there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Plus, swimmer Diane Nyad -- Diana Nyad set to make history there. She is in the water. It could happen just in the next hour. She is swimming from Cuba to Florida and only has a couple of miles to go.

And digging for answers in Florida, anthropologists, they have now started unearthing what they believe are the remains of dozens of children buried on the grounds of a former reform school. We're going to have a live report.

This is CNN newsroom. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. The debate over what to do about Syria revving up Washington now. President Obama making his case to Congressional leaders for U.S. military action. Well, now, Russia says it's going to send its own delegation to Congress to make exactly the opposite argument. Now, the Russians insist there is no proof that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. Meanwhile, defense secretary Chuck Hagel, secretary of state John Kerry, they are preparing to testify tomorrow before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They are expected to explain the president's strategy.

I want to bring in Athena Jones who joins us from the White House. Republican senators we know, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, they have said that the president's plan for limited action in Syria would send the wrong signal. They actually want more action. They want a stronger, more robust military response. So, what do we expect to come out of this meeting? How important is this for the president?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Suzanne. Well, it's certainly important. The White House is hoping that they can convince McCain -- Senator McCain and Senator Graham to go along and to convince their colleagues on Capitol Hill to go along with supporting this resolution. As you know, the votes are very much up in the air right now. But we expect Senators McCain and Graham to use this 2:00 p.m. meeting to continue to make the case that they have been making. They both want to see a clear plan and a strategy for how military action in Syria will work and what the goal is that they want to accomplish.

As you mentioned, they have been pushing for the president to go further. They want military strikes to take out Bashar al-Assad's air power, missile defense, command and control centers, significant military targets with the goal of shifting the balance of power on the battlefield against Bashar al Assad.

Now, of course, the White House has said the goal of any military strike here is not regime change. It's to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. So, there's some disagreement there. But, of course, this meeting is going to be very important in the White House's push to get members of Congress to support this.

I should add the White House has said the president doesn't need -- doesn't necessarily have to have the support of members of Congress but since they put this on the table, they're going to be very -- working very, very hard to make sure they get it -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Athena Jones, thank you. Appreciate it. So, what is behind the president's decision to seek Congressional approval for military action inside Syria? Brianna Keilar looks at the whole chain of events behind the scenes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Secret briefings on Capitol Hill.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Zip the lips.

KEILAR: The White House making its case to skeptical lawmakers. On CNN, secretary of state John Kerry revealing new evidence to back claims the Assad regime killed hundreds with nerve gas.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Blood and hair samples that come to us has tested positive for signatures of sarin.

KEILAR: The president's team moving quickly after his surprise decision to put a Syria strike on hold saying Congress should approve.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And all of us should be accountable as we move forward.

KEILAR: His aides insist he's been thinking about reversing course even before the British parliament (INAUDIBLE) Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nays have it.

KEILAR: Friday, though, he sends Kerry out to argue for urgent action.

KERRY: What is the risk of doing nothing?

KEILAR: Later that day, he signals second thoughts.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nobody ends up being more war weary than me.

KEILAR: But aides say he didn't tell anyone until Friday at 6:00 p.m. when he takes a 45-minute walk with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. At 7:00, he tells national security staff sparking a heated debate. Saturday morning he calls his top team to the situation room to finalize his plan, phones Congressional leaders from the Oval Office to get them on board, then heads to the rose garden to stun the world.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.

Brianna Keilar, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Of course, going to Congress, high stakes strategy for the president. He is not guaranteed, by any means, to get approval for taking military action in Syria. In fact, the president is already getting lot of push back from both parties. I want you to listen to what lawmakers said earlier today on CNN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D), NEW YORK: I think that when all facts are known and that legislatures in both parties see what is best for the United States, I think that the vote will be overwhelmingly yes.

REP. MIKE POMPEO (R), KANSAS: I think we waited a couple of years too long to act in the Middle East. And so, I think time is absolutely of the essence. We've got to move quickly. But I think we'll have an important debate over the next days about the appropriate response, how Congress ought to deal with that response, the power we ought to give the president to do that or not to intervene. And so, I think now, we'll be fully engaged this next week.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MALVEAUX: I want to bring in Dana Bash on Capitol Hill. And, Dana, I mean, really fascinating when you take a look at -- I want to show some of these pictures here of the lawmakers, interesting bedfellows, the Republicans, the conservative Republicans, some of the liberal Democrats who have teamed up against any kind of authorization of military action inside of Syria.

So, how does the president manipulate, how does he cajole, how does he negotiate when you have such a large swath of lawmakers who just do not believe this is the right action?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's very difficult especially since the people who don't believe it's the right action, many of them believe it for many different reasons.

MALVEAUX: Sure.

BASH: And some of those reasons contradict one another. But just to kind of give you an example of the uphill battle. The White House or White House officials just got off a conference call with House Democrats. I was told that it lasted for about 70 minutes. And according to a member who was on the call, it was very lengthy but also very impassioned when it comes to the argument that administration officials made, especially John Kerry. Very forceful about the need to do this.

On the flip side, the Q and A, I'm told, didn't last that long. But I am told that there were some very tough questions, again from the president's very own party. One member asking if the administration is suffering from historical amnesia because of what happened in Vietnam and Iraq. And I'm told that John Kerry responded by saying that as a former prosecutor, he feels that this is something he has beyond a reasonable doubt.

So, that just kind of gives you some insight into what's going on behind the scenes --

MALVEAUX: Sure.

BASH: -- on these conference calls. And one other piece of news I also want to report to you is that we already know that there are going to be public hearings tomorrow. We've been reporting that. Chuck Hagel and John Kerry are going to be testifying. And we just got word that Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he will also be testifying at tomorrow's hearing. They added a second public hearing on the House side on Wednesday. It looks like Kerry and Clapper are going to testify there.

And on top of that, they are going to have classified hearing -- briefings pretty much all week. Every day all week. Tomorrow at 11:30. Every day all day I believe except for Wednesday. The White House says they're flooding the zone. This is flooding the zone.

MALVEAUX: It surely sounds like they're flooding the zone. And, Dana, real quickly here. You've got all those briefings going on. Any reaction to the fact that you've Russian lawmakers now who are planning coming over to meet with members of Congress?

BASH: Isn't that interesting? We were just talking about it within our team to try to figure out exactly what the reaction will be. Nobody's here, at least for the most part. They are coming in for these briefings and leaving, particularly today since it's a federal holiday. But we are trying to get reaction to that to see if anybody is going to meet with them. And if so, who and to what end?

MALVEAUX: All right. It's going be a busy week. And we'll be following you closely. We'll be on your toes. Thanks, again.

BASH: Thanks, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: More U.S. fire power is now headed to the region as well. U.S. officials says that several U.S. Navy ships are now in the Red Sea. Another U.S. official says that the aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, is not expected to participate in combat operations over in Syria, but the ship is there for greater U.S. military presence in the region, obviously, even as the possibility of this missile strike is delayed.

Here is also what we're working on for this hour. The crippled -- they actually crippled the "New York Times'" Web site last week. Well, now, they have targeted the U.S. military. We're going to show you the message one group of hackers supporting Syria's Assad regime has now for the Marines.

And this. Love this story. It's a goal she's been chasing for 35 years. She is so, so close. Diana Nyad about an hour away from the Florida coast. We're going to have a live update on her quest to swim from Cuba to the United States.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: We are now getting all kinds of reactions to a possible U.S. strike on Syria, including from the pro-Assad Syrian electronic army. That's what they call themselves. This is a group that temporarily got into the U.S. marines recruitment Web site, sent visitors to a totally different site. Our Deborah Feyerick, she's in New York. She's following how they actually did this. And, Deborah, the Marines are not calling this necessarily a hacking incident, but what was this exactly?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Suzanne, last week, the target was "The New York Times," before that "The Washington Post" and others. The new target is Marines.com. And a message believed to be the Syrian electronic army was posted on the recruitment site urging Marines not to attack Syria and saying, quote, the Syrian army should be your ally, not your enemy. And the letter suggests that the Syrian fighters are patriots fighting al Qaeda. Now, like attacks against papers, "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," earlier, the actual site Marines.com was not breeched or hacked, not necessarily. Instead, what happened is that people were redirected to another site.

And CNN's Chris Lawrence was told by the Marines that there was no evidence that confidential or personal information was compromised. This is consistent with the other high profile attacks by these -- by this group. You can see the pictures there of uniform Marines. It is not clear, we have not been independently able to verify whether, in fact, those are actual Marines holding actual signs -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And you mentioned here about whether or not information was compromised. How can we be so sure?

FEYERICK: Well, that's one of the things they really look at, the way these attacks happened. The past attacks have been sort of routine phishing attacks. You know, those e-mails we're told not to open because people will gain access to our information. Well, I spoke with a cyber-security expert who has investigated the Syrian electronic army and he tells me that the hackers could be doing a lot more damage because they are actually able to control what people see and where they go.

Yet, so far, it seems the intention of this group is to spread pro- Syrian information as opposed to spreading malware or a virus which clearly is so much more dangerous. Keep in mind, also it appears that this group itself was hacked in April with somebody gaining access to its information. The group says, no, that didn't happen. But clearly, any claims of responsibility are inconclusive at best -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, thank you. Appreciate it.

Ahead on NEWSROOM, she is almost at her goal. It is so, so close. Diana Nyad close to completing her 103-mile swim from Cuba to the United States. We are so excited for her. Going to have a live report from Key West up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: In California, finally some real progress to tell you about in that massive Yosemite National Park wildfire. Now, the fire, it is still growing but the U.S. Forest Service says that it is about 60 percent contained. Almost 350 square miles have burned. Thousands of homes and businesses are still being threatened. Full containment of that fire is not expected for at least another couple of weeks.

In Nevada, fast-moving flood waters swamped roads, overwhelmed some drivers. -- this is in the Las Vegas area -- trapping them inside their cars.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And all of a sudden all this stuff started coming down really quick and I was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Two women were stranded in their car with a baby for about 45 minutes. Well, the crews, they were getting ready for a swift water rescue when the waters, they actually receded. They were able to pull everybody out to safety. And off the coast of Florida today, history being made here for the fifth time. Fifth time's the charm. Diana Nyad, she is trying to swim from Cuba to Florida. And what that makes this unique and distinct here, we're talking about no shark cage, no wet suit, no flippers. But after 100 miles, she's almost made it. We're told just a couple of miles now away from the coast. Very, very close to Key West.

I want to bring in John Zarella over the phone to tell us about, you know, it must be amazing, the excitement, the anticipation on shore, as all those people are gathered with you to watch her come in.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Yes, that's exactly right, Suzanne. Just within the last hour or so, the beach has really filled up. A couple hundred people, at least, here to watch and waiting for Diana Nyad.

It looks more now, Suzanne, as if it's just a matter of when and not if she makes it. We can see them kind of hovering offshore. We had a crew out on a boat just a little while ago. They got some spectacular images, pictures, of her swimming.

And you can see one of the great advantages today and throughout most of the swim is just how calm the water is there. She's not fighting any waves. She's not getting beat up too badly out there. But periodically she's stopping and she's getting some nutrition, either water or this pasty material that they give her through a tube, and then she picks it up again. And she starts going. And you know, Suzanne, that the adrenaline must just be flowing now as she's probably within a mile, at best guess, of the shoreline.

MALVEAUX: Wow.

ZARRELLA: And I'm sure she can taste it.

MALVEAUX: That is so awesome. Think about this. So she's been trying to do this for 35 years. We've had an opportunity to speak with her, several occasions, the fourth time when she failed and the third time when she failed. And she was so inspiring with this message of like, you know what, I'm just going to give this one more shot. Here's what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DIANA NYAD, ENDURANCE SWIMMER: I think the message is be your best self. I can look back at those 30 hours of yesterday and I can say I couldn't be my best swimmer. The asthma, the shoulder, the weather conditions -- I was just not gliding along the surface like I can do. And that hurt me. That hurt my pride and that hurt my distance made. But I was the best person I could be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: So John, what makes this time around different than the last couple ones? No big challenges here, yes? ZARRELLA: Yes, I think one of the big keys is this prosthetic mask that they made for her, that they molded for her. It took them almost a year to do it. And that was to try and protect her from those box jellyfish which were so poisonous and really derailed her last attempt. It was those box jellyfish that were the main culprits. This time, we did not hear of any reports of any significant jellyfish stings or bites. Certainly no reports of sharks out there, which is always a good thing.

So, yes, she really didn't face the hurdles or obstacles this time that she had in the past and that certainly -- not to belittle this attempt, but it certainly helped and made it a lot easier for her to pull it off this time than it did in the past.

But again, she's 64 years young and it's an absolutely amazing feat, going 110 miles, is what'll end up to be when she makes landfall here at the Smathers Beach. So it would have been an amazing feat for anybody at any age and certainly at 64 a testament to just what a spectacular athlete she is.

MALVEAUX: It's pretty awesome, John. Thanks so much. We'll be watching very closely. We expect it within the hour or so that she will be finishing that long, long swim. All right, thanks, John. Quite an inspiring story.

Ahead on the NEWSROOM, making a case for military action inside of Syria. Well, the White House is sending both the Secretary of Defense as well as the Secretary of State to the Hill. We have a live report, up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Making the case to Congress. President Obama scheduled to meet with Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in about 30 minutes or so from now to discuss his plan for military action inside Syria. Tomorrow, also, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey, they're going to go to Capitol Hill to testify about the plan. The president wants congressional approval before taking military action inside Syria.

Samples collected by U.N. weapons inspectors inside Syria will be delivered to labs in Finland and Sweden to be analyzed. Now NATO is calling for strong international action against Syria. The Arab League is calling on the U.N. and the international community to take what it calls "deterrent measures" to stop the Syrian regime's crimes but could not agree on whether or not to back U.S. military action. And Russia says it doesn't by U.S. claims that Syria's president used chemical weapons on its own people.

Meanwhile, there is more U.S. fire power that is now headed to the region. A U.S. official says that several U.S. Navy ships are now in the Red Sea. Another U.S. official tell us that the aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, is not expected to participate in combat operations over Syria, but the ship is there for a greater U.S. military presence in the region even as the possibility of a missile strike is delayed. The Secretary of State, John Kerry, he's going to testify tomorrow. This is at a Senate hearing on Syria and Kerry will get added ammunition from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

I want to bring in Barbara Starr from the Pentagon to tell us a little bit about what we expect to hear because you've got all these different officials at the highest level really trying to present a case.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: And present a unified case, Suzanne.

Expect to see Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel focus very sharply, very clearly, on military strategy and the justification for the use of force. That's according to a Defense Department official. Hagel will make the military case that it is military fire power that must be used, that show of force to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. Diplomacy clearly hasn't worked so they're going to go the military route and attack. Of course, the president has already said he wants to undertake military action. He just wants Congress to approve it.

So what the next step may be is for Hagel to make the case, but where he may run into trouble is trying to convince members of Congress that it's going to change anything on the ground in Syria. This will be a very limited operation and many people will tell you it's very doubtful it's going to make the Assad regime change its behavior. Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: And Barbara, if you can, can you describe for us what you think this military plan will look like? What are some of the details in this plan?

STARR: Yes, let's go back into -- we'll start in the Eastern Mediterranean where now for several days there have been five U.S. Navy warships equipped with Tomahawk missiles, about 40 missiles apiece. That is the weapon of choice; these are very precise missiles guided to their target by satellite coordinates with 1,000-pound warhead on each missile. Very lethal; very precise; very much an effort to avoid civilian casualties. That would be a huge problem if that were to happen.

That's the first thing. This show of force in the Red Sea; that's more about presence. There's no expectation that those fighter jets off the deck of the carrier Nimitz are going to be used in any kind of combat mission over Syria. But this is definitely sending a message to Assad and sending a message to the region that the U.S. military is still there.