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Obama Meeting with Pelosi, Boehner Now; The High Stakes of A Syrian Strike; Waiting for Lawmakers' Reaction; White House Seeks Backing on Syria Action

Aired September 3, 2013 - 10:00   ET



CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now in the NEWSROOM, President Obama meeting right now with congressional leaders. Can he convince them that the U.S. needs to intervene in Syria.

Plus, is the U.S. even prepared to intervene? Our budgets stretched. Our troops stretched? What would success really cost us?

And --


DIANA NYAD, SWIMMER: My whole mantra this year was find a way. You know, like it's doable. Find a way.


COSTELLO: And she did, 35 years after her first attempt, Diana Nyad finally completes that brutal swim of about 100 miles.

The worm is back in North Korea. He says it's about basketball, but can he help free an American doing 15 years of hard labor? The CNN NEWSROOM starts now.

Good morning. I'm Carol Costello. Thank you so much for being with me. Right now debating Syria behind the closed doors of the White House, just minutes ago, we watched House leaders John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, arrive with a number of other key lawmakers. They're meeting now with the president over military action in Syria. The debate so divided, the stakes so high lawmakers are trickling back to Washington about a week early.

In fact, later today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing with top administration officials. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chair General Martin Dempsey, all will be there to testify. As the administration pushes the pause button on military strikes though we're getting a better view of the high stakes and the huge costs associated with this.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said it could cost taxpayers a billion dollars a month. Let's head first to the White House before we get into that part of the story. Brianna Keilar, has everyone arrived at the White House who is attending this meeting with the president?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They've all arrived, Carol, and the meeting has begun. We're talking about the top leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as key committee chairmen and chairwomen as well as the ranking members. You've got huge group of Democrats and Republicans, very key members. I will tell you our pool of reporters and cameras has already gone into the cabinet room and has come out. We have tape of it, but we're trying to prep it so that we can bring it to you as soon as possible. This obviously is very important meet for President Obama.

This is really day three of lobbying Congress. He's been doing one- on-one phone calls as his Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough. This is the second day of meetings. President Obama certainly will be leaning on House Democrats to lend some of their support. I think Nancy Pelosi is pretty significant in this. And we do expect obviously that House Speaker John Boehner would put up a resolution for a vote on the House floor.

What's unclear though, Carol, is there are a lot of House Republicans while they want to vote on this they want to vote no. That's why House Democrats will be so essential to President Obama if he's go to get the support and also as well he's looking for support in the Senate. That's why we saw john McCain and Lindsey Graham here yesterday two key Republicans, hawks in Congress who right now are tentatively lending the president their support it sounds like.

And the White House is taking that as a positive sign, really relying on that. But I don't think this is anything they can say is a done deal at all at this point, Carol. It's still up in the air if Congress will go along with this.

COSTELLO: I know you're trying to get your hands on that tape. As soon as we get it turned around we're going to come back to you, Brianna Keilar, at the White House. That should take a couple of minutes.

But right now, let's talk about the costs of possibly taking military action in Syria. As I said, it's going to cost taxpayers a billion dollars every single month. That doesn't even factor in the immeasurable like the legacy of suicides and PTSD haunting veterans from our last decade of war.

William Cohen served as the defense secretary under President Clinton. He now leads an international consulting firm that represents defense contractors and others. Good morning, sir.


COSTELLO: Let's just first talk about that cost because it's estimated that if the United States destroys Syria's chemical weapons it's going to cost us a billion dollars every month. Can we afford that?

COHEN: The first issue is, are we seeking to destroy their chemical weapons? I doubt whether the chemical weapons storage sites are going to be targeted for the very fact that it might possibly release a toxic plume that would kill hundreds if not thousands of innocent civilians. I'm not sure those are going to be the targets.

But aside from that, any time you launch Tomahawk missiles, you're launching million and a half dollar weapon. So if you have 200 of those, you're getting up to a quarter of a billion dollars very quickly just for the launching of those Tomahawks, which doesn't take a month to do.

I don't think they're also planning on putting troops on the ground. So I don't know where the figures are coming from. But there is a Dr. Doolittle characteristic to all of this. A push me, pull you type of policy. Where on the one hand last week the president appeared to be ready to go and then suddenly he turned around and --

COSTELLO: Secretary Cohen, I have to interrupt because we turned that tape of the meeting inside the White House. If you'd be kind enough to stay and listen.

COHEN: Sure.

COSTELLO: Let's listen and we'll talk to you on the other side. Let's listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- the fact that I've had a chance to speak to many of you and Congress as a whole is taking this issue with the soberness and seriousness that it deserves is greatly appreciated. I think indicates the decision for us to present this issue to Congress. As I've said last week, Secretary Kerry made clear in his presentation last week, we have high confidence that Syria used in an indiscriminate fashion chemical weapons that killed thousands of people, including over 400 children, and in direct violation of international norm against using chemical weapons.

That poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region. And as a consequence, Assad and Syria needs to be held accountable. I made the decision that America should take action, but I also believe that we will be much more effective, we will be stronger if we take action together as one nation. And so this gives us an opportunity not only to present the evidence, to all of the leading members of congress and various foreign policy committees, as to why we have high confidence that chemical weapons were used and that Assad used them.

But it also gives us an opportunity to discuss why it's so important that he be held to account. This norm against using chemical weapons, that 98 percent of the world agrees to, is there for a reason, because we recognize that there are certain weapons that when used cannot only end up resulting in grotesque deaths but also can end up being transmitted to non-state actors, can pose a risk to allies and friends of ours like Israel, like Jordan, like Turkey, and unless we hold them into account, also sends a message that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don't mean much. And so I'm going to be working with Congress. We have sent up a draft authorization. We're going to be asking for hearings and a prompt vote, and I'm very appreciative that everybody here has already begun to schedule hearings and intends to take a vote as soon as all of Congress comes back early next week. So the key point that I want to emphasize to the American people, the military plan that has been developed by our joint chiefs and that I believe is appropriate is proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground.

This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan. This is a limited proportional step that will send a clear message, not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms that there are consequences. It gives us the ability to degrade Assad's capabilities when it comes to chemical weapons. It also fits into a broader strategy that we have to make sure that we can bring about, over time, the kind of strengthening of the opposition and the diplomatic and economic and political pressure required so that ultimately we have a transition that can bring peace and stability not only to Syria but to the region.

But I want to emphasize once again what we are envisioning is something limited, it is something proportional, it will degrade Assad's capabilities at the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition, allow Syria ultimately to free itself from the kinds of terrible civil wars and death and activity that we've been seeing on the ground.

So I look forward to listening to the various concerns of the members who are here today. I am confident that those concerns can be addressed. I think that it is appropriate that we act deliberately, but I also think everybody recognizes the urgency here and then we're going to have to move relatively quickly. So with that, to all of you here today, I look forward to an excellent discussion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, prepare to rewrite the authorization and does that undercut any of your authorities here?

OBAMA: I would not be going to Congress if I wasn't serious about consultations and believing that, by shaping the authorization to make sure we accomplish the mission, we will be more effective. And so long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, which is to send a clear message to Assad, degrading his capabilities to use chemical weapons, not just now but also in the future, as long as authorization allows us to do that, I'm confident that we're going to be able to come up with something that hits that mark. All right, thank you, everybody. Thank you, guys.


COSTELLO: All right, so a little taste of what's happening inside the White House. Let's go back to Secretary Cohen and ask him what he thinks about this. Did it sound like President Obama? I mean, he was asked, are you serious about consulting Congress? Will you act on your own if Congress votes no? What did it sound like to you? COHEN: Well, I am a little bit surprised that the president decided to go to Congress, not simply to consult but to actually seek the congressional vote of authorization. That has -- that's a river boat gamble. He may very well get the support of the Senate now that he appears to have Senator McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham on board. The House is still problematic. The problem that I have is that they are also sending signals to the administration that even if Congress votes no, the president retains the power and may very well go without a congressional authorization.

That seems to me to let the congress off the hook. If you're doing this to say, I want you onboard on this because when the going gets tough I want you there and then say but even if you don't vote to support this I'm going to do it anyway, that to me is counterproductive. Again, I get back to this push me pull you. I think that he should have consulted congress to get the leadership involved, get the heads of the intelligence committee, Armed Services Committee.

Once you put it to a vote in Congress and say, I'm asking you to authorize this, then you're going to have to live with it. And if he then decides to take action, then I think you will see something that will set in motion a different kind of dynamic that he is now acting on his own after asking the American people to speak through their elected officials. I think that would be a real challenge for him going forward in the future.

COSTELLO: So at this point, if you were secretary of defense under President Obama, what kinds of things would you be saying to him?

COHEN: Well, I would be saying to him is consult with Congress, really make a case for why this is important, show me the intelligence, again, conflicting signals coming out last week. On the one hand it was clear and overwhelming Secretary Kerry made a powerful presentation in saying that it was almost overwhelming evidence. And then almost immediately thereafter there were leaks coming out of the administration saying, well, it's no slam dunk.

Now, I don't know what that is intended to convey other than ambiguity which then caused the Brits and others to say, let's wait and see what happens here. One of the problems was the president seemed to be moving off to taking military action, he turned around and found the Arab League was not with him. They had backed away. And then the Brits had backed away. And then said, here we are, all alone. I guess I better bring Congress in.

One on a consulting basis, but I want their vote now. So I think the way this has been handled has been very -- very push me pull you type of thing and I think it needs to be clarified and to get Senator McCain and Senator Graham on board, that's going to be helpful, but I think the president still has a tough case to make to the house.

COSTELLO: Let's bring our political director, Mark Preston, into this conversation. Mark, it was interesting that that tape was made available to us, of the president meeting with lawmakers in the White House. COHEN: Well, it was, Carol, because what we're seeing from the White House right now is that they're trying to show that they're open and trying to get Congress' involvement in this. They're trying to have Congress own this vote and to own this military action if it is taken in serious. And the secretary's absolutely right. This is a push me pull me type of strategy at the White House has done.

You know, I just got off the phone with the Democratic congressman before I came on here, carol, and he told me right now that if the vote were to happen today, nobody knows what would happen in the House or the Senate right now. It's too amorphous at this point. You have hawks. You have doves. You have libertarians. You have Democrats and Republicans creating these unholy alliances right now.

What's interesting right now for the White House is that they're going to have to get Republican involvement. They're going to have to get John Boehner to try to whip some of his Republicans if he will even whip this vote to come onboard and support this resolution. Before this meeting let me read you something I was going back and forth with the House GOP leadership aide before Speaker Boehner went in.

This is what the leader said. We're only going to help the president as much as he's willing to help his. If he pushes hard and makes the case and shows he actually wants it, we may be able to get there. This aide also noted that sending John Kerry to the Hill, sending other cabinet officials to the hill is nice but this really rests on President Obama's lap -- Carol.

COHEN: Well, it seems to be the plan was evolving. One of the problems I've had is tell me what the mission is and the president initially was saying, well, very limited. Not too hard, not too soft. It's going to be a goldilocks solution. I had a problem with that because there is no goldilocks solution here. Hit just hard enough to do some damage because even though these cruise missiles are very accurate. Some of them go awry. It's not simply a very neat antiseptic type of strike, which means kill lots of innocent people.

I had the question, what is the strategy underlying this. It is not to take the regime down but the president initially said Assad had to go. We didn't do anything to help bring the regime down. I think what's taking place right now, Senator McCain and also Lindsey Graham are saying, Mr. President, we can support you on your so-called limited strike provided you're willing to give the withes necessary to the rebels that we're supporting, to help change the military dynamic on the ground and therefore, takes a sad down. So I think that sort of negotiating is going on behind the scenes.

And what I suspect is you've got the military out there. You've got at least four or five of our warships. They're all prime. They had their targets. Some of those targets will have to be recalibrated because I'm sure that Assad himself has moved some of the initial targets, what he expects will be the targets into a different location. So there will have to be some recalibration of that.

I think the real negotiation that is taking place between Senator McCain, Senator Graham and others saying this has to be serious enough that you're going to do real damage even though you're not seeking regime change with the attack. You've got to balance that off with supporting the rebels with much more firepower than you have today. That's what I think is going on.

COSTELLO: Which could lead to regime change. You're doing it without really saying it, right?

COHEN: Right.

COSTELLO: That's all politics. Brianna Keilar is at the White House. Why isn't the president coming forth with a clear mission? Because even from his remarks today, it seems like we have to send a message because other countries might use chemical weapons and for many in America that's not good enough.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: For many people in America, it's not good enough. This is the interesting divide, Carol. I think you talk with a lot of regular Americans and I have and they say they're sick of engaging in the Middle East. They don't want to see anymore potential American lives lost and a lot of them even say it's taxpayer dollars. We just don't want to do it. What's the point?

And they don't really see a point, many of them. And the poll numbers reflect that, but I think the case you hear President Obama making and that even though I don't think he really has an appetite to be engaging in something as well and we heard him say as much yesterday when he said I'm war weary. His point and his administration and he had been making this for days now, is that if you don't do something here, it's not just chemical weapons, but it's -- when he's talking about other international norms and nuclear weapons, you know other weapons of mass destruction.

That it sends of message to other foes of America that, you know what, maybe you should try us because we may not actually come back to you with any consequences. That is a real concern of this administration and I think there is a sense from the administration that they certainly don't want to go this alone. He doesn't want to be doing this alone. But I think there is a sense that they need to act to send a message -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Brianna Keilar, Mark Preston, Secretary Cohen, thanks to all of you for your insight. We appreciate it. NEWSROOM will be right back.


COSTELLO: All right, just moments ago we showed you that picture from inside the White House where the president was meeting with the House speaker and also Nancy Pelosi, and he was meeting with other lawmakers serving on powerful congressional committees to talk about Syria. That meeting is now over.

Another meeting is about to begin because the White House is sending its heavy hitters to Capitol Hill in a few hours to try to sell this strike against Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chair General Martin Dempsey, all preparing to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that's later this afternoon, around 2:00 Eastern Time.

So what can we expect as the White House makes this hard push for military intervention? CNN's Erin McPike joins us live on Capitol Hill to tell us. Good morning, Erin.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPODENT: Good morning, Carol. Well, what we know so far is that the brunt of this will fall on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. He will be making the case that the U.S. should use a military strike against Syria. That is going to be his job. Now Joint of Chiefs chair Martin Dempsey will be the one to answer questions from members about what that military strike will look like.

It's his job to say essentially that whatever the president orders, the military will be able to carry out. And the last is Secretary of State John Kerry and he's going to warn that the failure to act could mean that weapons in Syria could get into the hands of others and that there's an urgency to do that right now.

I want to point out something that the president said today which was in that meeting you just showed before the break, he said we have a high confidence there were chemical weapons used in Syria. The problem with that is that the lot of the members in the hearing want to hear that the intelligence was sound and chemical weapons were indeed used in Syria.

That's the first problem. They also want to know what the limited military strike looks like. They want to know when the end game is and want to see what the U.S. strategy will look like. They don't want any questions about that, Carol. That's what we're going to hear from a lot of the members today.

COSTELLO: It should be an interesting meeting? Erin McPike reporting live for us today. You can watch this afternoon's Senate hearing right here on CNN. It starts at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Of course, CNN will have specific coverage for you before then.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM, the Obama administration is putting that full court press on lawmakers to support intervention in Syria. I'll talk to one of the lawmakers. He's trying to bring onboard.


COSTELLO: Welcome back. This is a live picture of the White House. You see all those microphones put into place, well, those microphones are awaiting member of Congress and the Senate to come out of that White House meeting with President Obama to make a few comments about what went on inside those walls. As soon as those lawmakers appear, of course we'll take you back live to the White House.

Joining me now by phone though, one member of Congress who will have to vote yes or no to any kind of attack, he is Republican Congressman Charles Boustany of Louisiana. Good morning, sir.

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY (R), LOUISIANA (via telephone): Good morning. It's great to be with you.

COSTELLO: It's great to have you. Thank you so much. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will be testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee later this afternoon. Of course, you will be watching and listening with great interest. What do you want to hear?

BOUSTANY: Well, I'm very interested in knowing what exactly is being planned with regard to military action and understanding what is the utility of military force at this point in time to achieve -- in order to achieve other political and diplomatic ends that we're looking for. You know, there's no military solution to this very complex civil war. And there are bad actors on both sides.

We're trying to understand what exactly is the best approach the U.S. at this stage? I do believe we have a strategic interest in what's happening and in the outcome of this and so it's important that we get whatever we do right. And so the military piece to this has to fit into a larger strategy in my mind.

COSTELLO: Some people are calling the president weak because he went to Congress. In your mind did the president do the right thing?

BOUSTANY: Absolutely. I was one of a number of members of the house who were pushing for the president to get authorization, prior authorization from Congress. For the president to take military action here, we need broad support. And if we can't get the broad support from Congress and the American people, then the prospects for success are not good. And so I firmly believe the president did the right thing from a constitutional standpoint, but also it was the prudent step to take.

COSTELLO: Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham also have met with the president and they seem to be on his side, as far as military action goes. In fact, Senator John McCain talked to CNN's "NEW DAY" program earlier this morning. Can you listen to his comments and then talk about it on the other side?


COSTELLO: Here it goes.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The credibility of the United States is at stake here. Not just the president. The president announced two years ago that Bashar Al-Assad had to go. A year ago, he said that it would be a red line if they use chemical weapons. They already did several times and now this big use of it has put American credibility on the line.