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Nyad Completes Historic Swim; Selling Syria Strike to Congress; For and Against a Strike on Syria; Marines Recruitment Website Hacked; Obama and Republicans Meeting at White House

Aired September 2, 2013 - 14:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I will take it from here, Suzanne, thank you so much.

And welcome to all of you.

We are watching this incredible feat playing out live here on CNN. Two boxes on your screen. Live pictures. Left side, this is Smathers Beach, Key West, Florida. A lot of revelers. And a lot of revelers who so happened to be there when really history is made because we now know 64-year-old Diana Nyad has swum to shore. That multi-hour, multi- day swim that she had been chasing, this dream of hers, ever since her first attempt when she was 29 years young. She has now reached the shore.

I want to go straight to John Zarrella, who's been waiting, who has followed this journey of Diana's for years and years.

I have spoken with her. I mean talk about, you know, talk about living the dream, John. Tell me - tell me what you know, how long ago did she accomplish this?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, you have to just say, Brooke, wow.

BALDWIN: Wow is right.

ZARRELLA: I mean, exhale. It's over. You know, she's done it. She's finally put the exclamation point on to this 35-year quest of hers. And, you know, four attempts. This was the fifth attempt. She had said that she would not do it again if she didn't make it. So the fifth time certainly the charm.

And, you know, all along, you know, she has said, look, you know, I want to give it one more try. I want to give it one more try. And everything played out into her favor this time around. The weather conditions, as you saw. The water is perfectly calm. She had good weather conditions all the way across. She did not run into the obstacles of the jellyfish that she did last year, that really -- those box jellyfish that derailed her attempt a year ago to make this swim. She wore that specially - the prosthetic mask that was made for her to keep those jellyfish from stinging her if they encountered them. So everything played out in her favor to make this swim certainly much easier on her than in the past attempts. But that doesn't take anything away from what she's accomplished.

And we talked to one woman who was down there at the other end of the beach. She came ashore about 300 yards from us. A person that witnessed it saying she walked out under her own power and she got -- fell into the arms of one of her -- one of the people in her team. But that she just was absolutely determined to walk out on her own, to make it without any more help to the shore, and she did it.

And what a tremendous athlete she is. You know, we hear about all these incredible athletes out there, but there is no doubt about it, Diana Nyad, with what she has accomplished at 64 years young, ranks up there among certainly, in my estimation, one of the greatest of all times as far as an athletic feat here.

But the people are starting to thin out a little bit now.


ZARRELLA: Still a lot of them up the beach. But many people just running back this way. And everybody, Brooke, smiling. What a wonderful moment.

BALDWIN: As they should be. I mean talk about an athletic hero who has officially, at 64 years young, you know, truly realized her dream.

We are waiting to see and hear from Diana Nyad. John Zarrella, don't go too far from that camera because we will take our viewers right back to the spot where you are at Smathers Beach there in Key West to bring her story to our viewers live in just a moment.

I want to move away from this story, though, from Key West and talk Syria, because also happening at this moment, the threats from Syria are getting louder. President Bashar al-Assad reportedly warning U.S. ally France, stay out. Stay out or prepare to face, and I'm quoting him, "negative repercussions."

Of course we know now what President Obama says he wants, a military strike on Syrian soil. He is now making the case to convince everyone else to get onboard with his plan. This whole thing now moving into the hands of Congress. And while certainly there is a lot of skepticism among lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, plenty of folks against any involvement whatsoever, right now President Obama is sitting down with two men who have called on him to do more militarily, not less. I'm talking about Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain. Both Republicans. Senator McCain also thinks leaving it up to Congress is risky business.


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 Assad can trumpet that 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 a very dangerous precedent to be setting. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: This dramatic change of mind for President Obama has left him with a very small window to work with before Congress votes. Keep in mind, they're still on vacation. They come back next Monday. So, look at this busy week ahead. The president leaves the U.S. for Sweden tomorrow. Then on Thursday and Friday of this week, he will be in Russia -- remember Russia? Good friend of Syria's -- for the G-20 Summit. He returns home to the U.S. on Friday night. And then at the start of next week, as I mentioned, Congress reconvenes Monday.

Jake Tapper, our chief Washington correspondent, host of "The Lead," and Dana Bash, our chief congressional correspondent, both join me now.

And, Jake, let me just begin with you because we know, Senator John McCain, not just the guy President Obama beat to become president. He has been one of the fiercest critics of the White House. How important is it for the president to get John McCain behind him on Syria?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It's very important, first of all, because they need every vote they can get. And this is probably, as of right now, there's no guarantee that this will pass either the House or the Senate. There's a lot of skepticism among not only Republicans, but Democrats.

John McCain has been calling for action since Assad started behaving violently towards those demonstrating against his administration two years ago. He basically is the voice of action, for action in Syria, and has been for the last two years. So getting him on board is incredibly important because other Republicans will definitely follow McCain's lead on this issue. Without McCain, it gives Republicans an excuse to vote against it.

BALDWIN: And just to be specific, when you say action, I mean Senator McCain is taking it to the point where he wants to interrupt the ground war, interrupt the civil war, and ultimately get Assad out, correct?

TAPPER: McCain supports regime change. And that has been his position for quite some time. He hasn't gone into detail, as far as I know, about whether he wants boots on the ground or what, but he has supported military action against Assad's regime for years.

BALDWIN: And, Dana, you've got some information on this call, 127 Democratic members, lasted 70 minutes. Tell me what you're learning about this call.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'll tell you in just -- in one second. I just wanted to - as Jake was talking -- got information that we will hear from Senators McCain and Graham at the White House right after they have their meeting.

BALDWIN: Oh, wow.

BASH: So we're going to get that information on their decision hopefully in the next hour or so, depending on how long this goes.


BASH: And the second thing on this point I want to make is that I've actually spoken to Lindsey Graham a couple of times over the past couple of days and what he says is, just as Jake was suggesting, it's not that they expect President Obama to just to go have a massive military strike. What they are doing effectively is using this authorization vote as leverage to get the president to do what they've been pounding him to do, which is to articulate a strategy. Specifically to train and arm the rebels that they can find (ph) -- who they trust inside Syria.

On the question that you asked, very fascinating conference call that apparently just went on today with 127 members of the Democratic caucus in the House and Secretaries Kerry, Hagel, Martin Dempsey and Susan Rice, explaining, again, why they think that this is the right thing to do. I'm told that Secretary Kerry gave them some information saying that the Turks and the Saudis and the UAE will -- have promised to help, to contribute with military support. And he argued to these Democrats that 100 members of the Syrian army have already defected thanks to the threat of military action by the U.S. So there were -- those are some substantive readouts that I got.

On the politics and the pushback from these democratic members, the one that I was told by a couple of sources on this call is the most interesting is, one lawmaker from Minnesota saying that he believes that the administration is suffering from historical amnesia. They're forgetting lessons of Iraq and of Vietnam. And I'm told that Secretary Kerry was the most forceful in answering that, saying he's just wrong. Of course, Secretary Kerry is a Vietnam veteran who turned against that war. But separate from that, he said, as a former prosecutor, Kerry believes that he has a case beyond a reasonable doubt.

So a very interesting call as they continue this full court press to get those votes, particularly in the House.

BALDWIN: So that's info on the call.

Jake, back to you.

We also learned today from the Kremlin about this Russian delegation, because they are planning on sending their lawmakers to Washington to talk to Congress to - I believe the word is "dialogue" with our folks. Has this ever happened before? And do you think that the U.S. lawmakers will listen?

TAPPER: I talked to a number of senior aides on both the House and the Senate and the Democrat and Republican side and I'm told it is very, very uncommon. No one could recall a similar incident of the Russians or a similar country coming to lobby lawmakers to vote against something the president is supporting. No one could remember any similar incident. Obviously the Russians are skeptical and have voiced skepticism that the Syrian regime was behind the August 21st chemical attack outside Damascus. So it's not surprising that they would have that position. But to come to the United States or to come from the embassy to Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers to vote against a piece of legislation, as opposed to just making their views and their opinions known, seems very, very rare.

BALDWIN: Dana, quickly back to you. As you broke the news at the top of what you were saying about McCain and Lindsey Graham, do we have any idea, chronology as far as when they might be speaking? When they might step in front of the microphones?

BASH: No. It all depends on how long this meeting with the president goes.


BASH: But clearly what we are going to be looking for is whether or not they are going to say, yes, we support this and we will vote yes on authorization.

BALDWIN: Got it.

BASH: Just as Jake laid out beautifully, that is going to matter tremendously and that is exactly why the White House had them pretty much first at the White House as they're doing this full court press.

BALDWIN: Got it. We'll watch for it. Dana Bash, Jake Tapper, thank you both very much.

As we mentioned, there's still a lot of convincing that needs to be done if Congress is going to get on board with a strike on Syria. The case for and the case against. What lawmakers are going to be debating all week. So let's take a look at both sides of the argument here. I want to bring in Zoe Carpenter, a reporter from "The Nation," and Lee Smith, senior editor of "The Weekly Standard."


BALDWIN: So, welcome to both of you. We brought you both on because you come from very different ends of the spectrum when it comes to possible involvement in Syria.

And, Zoe, I just want to begin with you. I read the piece in "The Nation" entitled "The Case Against Military Intervention in Syria." And of all the myriad reasons that are laid out, give me one reason, one reason the U.S. should not strike.

CARPENTER: Sure. One is a practical reason. Will those strikes be effective? And what does effective mean? Are they going to be effective as retaliation? Are they going to be effective as a deterrent? Are they going to be effective for advancing a humanitarian agenda? We don't know those questions. And we don't know the answers to those questions. And there is a significant chance that they won't be effective to meet any of those objectives.

BALDWIN: Lee, how do you counter that argument?

LEE SMITH, SENIOR EDITOR, "WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, first of all, I'd like to - I'd like to see some of those answers flushed out over the next week or so until September 9th. Those are serious and legitimate questions.

I would say, though, that the United States has a vital national interest in containing and preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction. So I think that in itself -- that in itself means that we should take the strike - we should take a strike very seriously.

BALDWIN: I know one argument for intervention is the fact that other leaders of other nations, i.e. North Korea, i.e. Iran, are watching to see if the U.S. responds. And so, Lee, if the United States strikes Syria, what message would the U.S. be sending to those other countries?

SMITH: I mean I think, in particular, we're looking at the investment that Iran has made in propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria. I think the Iranians will take it as a very clear message that when the president sits down and when the president says that we will not allow them to have a nuclear weapons program, the president is quite serious. So this a very - a very useful and constructive message to be sending at this time when we're very concerned about the Iranian nuclear program.

BALDWIN: But, Zoe, you say -- or I should say "The Nation" says it's too late to worry about credibility in that region. How so?

CARPENTER: Well, I think we've pretty much shot our credibility with the hasty entrance into Iraq and the false accusations of weapons of mass destruction there and in the chaos that was unleashed after our intervention in Libya also. I think if we're worried about a nuclear Iran, we should be pursuing all diplomatic strategies as well and we're not doing that. So there are a lot of other ways to -- to approach our concerns about weapons of mass destruction in other regimes that have nothing to do with red lines and retaliatory attacks.

BALDWIN: Given the questions that both of you have, do you think that the president -- this is for both of you -- do you think the president should address the nation after the debate continues this week, before Congress reconvenes Monday? Do you feel that he needs to lay out more evidence? To either of you.

SMITH: I think the president should have been making this case for the last two years. I think that one of the problems he's going to have on The Hill right now, because he's been basically brushing off allies, regional partners from Saudi Arabia to Turkey to Jordan and saying it's not that important, and now he is saying it is important. So I'm very happy that he's campaigning on The Hill. He's sending out John Kerry. He's sending out other senior policymakers to make the case. Yes, I'd like to see the president make a powerful case to the American people while his - while his aides and officials make the case up on The Hill, absolutely.

BALDWIN: And, Zoe, since your argument is against, let me put it to you this way, what if -


BALDWIN: Chemical weapons were used again, tomorrow, would you opinion change?

CARPENTER: I think it's not very useful to speculate. I think if we're concerned about the ongoing --

BALDWIN: Just a question.

CARPENTER: Well, if we're concerned about the ongoing humanitarian implications of the Assad regime in Syria, we should be looking to choke off all the arms coming in. We should be working with the Russians. And there are a lot of humanitarian assistance measures that we could be pursuing, especially with refugee camps.

BALDWIN: Zoe Carpenter and Lee Smith, thank you both very much for both sides.

SMITH: Thank you.

CARPENTER: Thanks for having me.

BALDWIN: Coming up next, Diana Nyad. She just spoke after her record breaking swim. There she is. You will hear it in full from Key West. Huge, huge day for her. Don't miss this.


BALDWIN: She has done it. Sixty-four-year-old Diana Nyad has officially made shore, swimming all the way from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage, without flippers. She's done it and we've just now heard from her. Take a listen.







UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) just go out of the water (ph).







DIANA NYAD, JUST FINISHED HISTORIC SWIM: I've got three messages. One is, we should never, ever give up.


NYAD: Two is, you're never are too old to chase --


BALDWIN: Oh, we didn't get it. Hopefully we can - OK, we'll get it. We'll fix it. So want to hear all three - three things we've learned from Diana Nyad, as we work to fix that.

Let me just show you something. The president of the United States has just tweeted. Guys, let's throw up the tweet. You have the tweet. If not, I can just tell you, let me look in my e-mail and I'll tell you verbatim what it said. "Congratulations to Diana Nyad. Never give up on your dreams." This was the fifth time, and apparently the fifth time was the charm for Diana Nyad.

There you go. There's the tweet. And as soon as we can get that video working, I know you all want to hear from her. We will bring it to you here on CNN. Congratulations to Diana Nyad.

Coming up next, reports of another so-called hacking by the group loyal to the Syrian regime. This time, U.S. Marines are the target. That story.

Plus, we are waiting for two senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, to speak at the White House, to step behind that podium. They're meeting with President Obama on Syria as I speak. Don't miss a moment.


BALDWIN: The FBI and Homeland Security are warning Americans cyber attacks from Syria are here and they could be happening more and more often. A group called the Syrian Electronic Army is now claiming responsibility for these cyber attacks and usually big media outlets are the target. Remember just last week it was "The New York Times." Well, this go around, they targeted the recruiting website for the U.S. Marines. What did they do? They replaced it with messages trying to convince the U.S. not to take military action in Syria.

So does taking down a military website mean a high value cyber attack for this group? Let's go to our correspondent in London, Samuel Burke.

How big a deal is this, Samuel?

SAMUEL BURKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, lucky for all of us, this is a pretty soft target, so it's probably not that big of a deal. And a U.S. Marine Corps official tells CNN that what this group did was redirect traffic from that website to another website, the one that you're seeing right now on your screen, in fact. So, basically, Brooke, that's like me telling you that someone graffitied my front door in my gated patio, but wasn't able to get into my house. But they were able to get through that gate and into the patio.

I spoke with a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who specializes in cyber security and he said it seems very likely that they never got close to any important information. This is not a classified network. This is just a recruiting network of the U.S. Marines. But he did tell me that if your viewers are curious, don't visit right now, Brooke, because it could still have malware on it.

BALDWIN: OK. What about bigger picture, Samuel, just the fact that they were able to be successful using the Internet as a weapon?

BURKE: Well, it is a soft target. They're taking websites like, Twitter. They actually had more of an impact to use it as a weapon, so to speak, when they hacked the news organizations' Twitter accounts because that affected the stock market. What they did here was embarrassing for the United States, they posted propaganda, but it didn't actually have a tangible effect. But what that expert told me, the one that I was talking about before, he said, we should be very cautious because what if they did this to an online retailer. Yes, the Marines missed one day of recruitment. What if this was a major online retailer that missed 24 hours of business. That could be a major problem for the United States.

BALDWIN: Samuel Burke, thank you.

Coming up next, we are staying on Syria. We're taking you inside the mind of the president, including his mood swings, his temperament. How apparently he's a Phil Collins fan. I'll talk live with someone who has met with Bashar al-Assad multiple times. Don't miss this.