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Obama Meeting with Pelosi, Boehner; Obama Leaves for Russia Tonight; U.S. Warship Leaves Eastern Mediterranean; Syria Dispersing Chemical Weapons.

Aired September 3, 2013 - 10:30   ET



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.


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: So Congressman, you've outlined your concerns just a few minutes ago. Is credibility a good enough reason to launch a military strike?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY (R), LOUISIANA (via telephone): I do believe credibility is on the line. That's why we have to be very smart and strategic in our action at this point in time. I think if we use military force indiscriminately or not wisely or however you want to put it, without understanding how the use of military force fits into a larger strategy, then I do think that we, by doing so, we also put American credibility on the line - as well as potentially American lives.

So I think it's very important for us to have a full debate. We need to understand all aspects of the intelligence and its limitations. And we need to understand what is the utility of force in this situation and how does that help us achieve a longer-term diplomatic and political end game in all of this. That's my concern, because if we jump in without a real plan, that also puts American credibility on the line.

COSTELLO: I think a lot of Americans are with you. Thank you so much for joining us this morning, Congressman Charles Boustany of Louisiana.

BOUSTANY: Thank you. Great to be with you.

: You're welcome. We'll be right back.


COSTELLO: Welcome back. I'm Carol Costello. Happening right now, President Obama has just met with key lawmakers at the White House. He's trying to convince them to support military strikes on Syria and the Assad regimes.

House leaders John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, they were in that closed door meeting along with the chairs of the House and Senate committees. Just a short time ago the White House released some video of that very meeting. I want to play that for you now.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to thank the leaders of both parties for being here today, to discuss what is a very serious issues facing the United States. And the fact that I've had a chance to speak to many of you and Congress as a whole is taking this issue with soberness and seriousness that it deserves is greatly appreciated. And 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 need 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 am 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.

You know, it also fits into a broader strategy 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 the transition that can bring peace and stability 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 it is appropriate that we act deliberately but I also think everybody recognizes the urgency here and that 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 REPORTER: Mr. President, are you prepared to rewrite the authorization if they undercut any of your authority, sir?

OBAMA: You know, 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 in 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 the authorization allows us to do that, you know, I'm confident that we're going to be able to come up with something that hits that mark.

COSTELLO: All right. That's President Obama. And like I said, the microphones are set up at the White House. And soon those lawmakers will be behind those microphones commenting on what the president said in that closed door meeting, or at least partially closed door meeting. We'll bring their remarks to you as soon as they happen.

Also tonight, President Obama boards Air Force One and he travels to Russia for the G-20 Summit. But Syria is likely to loom -- is likely to loom there as well. Russia is Syria's most important ally and Russia's president has made his loyalties all too clear.

Over the weekend President Putin said this. Quote, "We need to remember the number of times the United States has initiated armed conflicts. Has it solved a single problem?" And continuing his criticism of the United States, he said, "Afghanistan, Iraq, after all, there is no peace there, no democracy, which our partners allegedly sought."

CNN's Phil Black is in Moscow.

So, Phil, we -- you couldn't hear it but the president just said that a military conflict in Syria would be nothing at all like Iraq or Afghanistan but Vladimir Putin is saying the opposite.

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the Russians feel strongly about this. And that comment that you just read out from Vladimir Putin really sums up the Russian position really. They do not believe in military action in order to promote democracy or preserve human rights or these sorts of things because they ultimately believe these sorts of military actions are not able to achieve those goals.

And so they point to Iraq, they point to Afghanistan, they point to Libya. And they make the point that in their view, the United States has got it wrong repeatedly. And that is what really fuels the Russian objection to military action in Syria on this issue, and as it has throughout the entire Syrian crisis.

The Russian policy goal has been to block any sort of international military action because it believes, as with all those other examples, it will only destabilize the country and region as well -- Carol.

COSTELLO: But in fairness, Russian sells arms to Syria, doesn't it?

BLACK: Well, there are these other connections between Russia and Syria. And Russia does have other national security interests, as well. It does have interest in this country. But they have to be fair or so be degraded, substantially over the course of the civil conflict. To the point where there are no future arms deals on the table. Whatever business deals strategic, ability or benefits the relationship with Syria brought Russia have pretty much been degraded to being largely worthless.

And a lot of Russian analysts believe this very strongly. Even they talked about the Russian naval base that existed, it's really is not much of a naval base. It's a few ships and a dock. It's more of a logistics center. And it has very little strategic use for Russia. So Russia keeps coming back to the point that its belief is really that the situation could become a whole lot worse.

As bad as things are in Syria right now, Russia thinks that any sort of military strike will only add to greater instability and ultimately greater bloodshed -- Carol.

COSTELLO: All right. Phil Black, reporting live from Moscow.

There's lots of movement out there in the Mediterranean. In fact, one of our destroyers just left the eastern Mediterranean. We don't know exactly what that means but Barbara Starr is on the case. She's our Pentagon reporting. We're going to get to her right after the break. We'll be back.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news. COSTELLO: As I mentioned before the break, the United States is the moving some of its military assets in the Mediterranean Sea.

Our Pentagon reporter Barbara Starr knows all about it.

Tell us, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol. U.S. military officials say that one of the five Navy destroyers that's been in the eastern Mediterranean for several days. Now headed home. Its crew returning to its home port.

They say this is not a big deal, they've got to get the crew home. They still have four missile equipped ships in the Eastern Med and they are ready to go if the order from the president comes.

But what is ready to go really mean right now? Well, the Syrian regime, another U.S. official tells us, is moving its own weapons, its own material and troops around inside Syria a great deal, a good deal of disbursal of Syrian forces are being noticed by U.N. intelligence satellites flying overhead.

That means targeting has to be redone. And it is now, we are told, a continuous process. Updating the targeting, sending those satellite targets to the missiles. The U.S. missiles on those Navy ships. So if the order comes, they will be ready to go.

The strategy the U.S. thinks that the Syrians are engaging in is to disperse their forces and keep them dispersed in anticipation of a U.S. attack but the Pentagon says U.S. military officials say they can deal with that. They will keep reprogramming the targets into the missiles ready to go whenever President Obama orders a strike. That is what the U.S. military will tell Congress today -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Is it possible to completely hide, let's say, the chemical weapons that are in Syria?

STARR: Well, you raise a very good point. The two biggies, if you will, the chemical stockpiles, will the U.S. know exactly where those are? They don't want to hit the chemical agents because that could disburse into the atmosphere and cause a real catastrophe so they've got to keep on top of that.

They are worried that they will know where all of that is. And, of course, the other issue, as this retargeting happens, human shields, civilian casualties. They need to make sure as much as they can that they will not inadvertently strike any target with human shields or civilians.

The Pentagon is going to tell Congress that they are going to put the burden of that right back on the al-Assad regime. That it's going to be their responsibility to keep their chemical weapons and their people safe. We will see how all that works out.

COSTELLO: I know, because, you know, the big worry is they'll hide these chemical weapons inside of schools and mosques. Who knows? Who knows at this point.

STARR: Well, that's -- I just want to add very quickly, Carol, what you said is just exactly right. We have seen this in Iraq. We have seen it in other areas around the world. When these critical targets, these critical things are hidden in schools and mosques, hospitals, which the U.S. has a policy of not striking, this becomes a very difficult targeting issue as the days go on.

People will be watching very carefully to see if the Assad regime undertakes this strategy that we have seen so many times around the world already.

COSTELLO: Sadly, yes. Barbara Starr reporting live from the Pentagon. Thanks so much.

We'll be right back.


COSTELLO: All right. The microphones still set up in front of the White House. As you know, President Obama is meeting with key lawmakers to discuss the situation in Syria and what the United States might do about that when those lawmakers exit the meeting. Of course, we will bring you back live to the White House.

Tensions grow as the international community waits for a U.S. response to Syria. And more people are calling on the United States to intervene. CNN is, of course, covering the story from around the world. Our Jim Clancy is in Jerusalem where Israel says it has successfully conducted a missile test in the Mediterranean.

CNN's Atika Shubert is in London where British lawmakers last week said no to military action. And Jim Bitterman is in France where lawmakers there have become a surprising key U.S. ally against Syria.

JIM CLANCY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm Jim Clancy in Jerusalem. Israelis were stunned that in the expected run-up of a missile strike on Syria for its alleged use of chemical arms, U.S. President Barack Obama suddenly hit the pause button. Many Israelis think that sends the wrong message to Damascus and just as important to them, Tehran, that U.S. resolve is wavering.

Israel's prime minister reminded everyone it was a matter of American democracy and numerous reports say Cabinet ministers and other officials have been warned not to criticize Mr. Obama in the run-up to what is expected to be a tight congressional vote.

All of that aside, two out of three Israelis hope the U.S. will strike to underscore opposition to chemical weapons in the region. And the sooner, the better.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm Atika Shubert here in London where British lawmakers last week said no to military action in Syria. And the latest poll shows that 68 percent here agreeing with them. Only 16 percent said no, they should have backed a U.S.-led strike in Syria. But all that could change if substantial new evidence comes out either from U.N. inspectors or in the run-up to the congressional vote. Then British lawmakers may reconsider.

JIM BITTERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Jim Bitterman in Paris. The vast majority of the French are opposed to any military intervention in Syria, according to public opinion polls. And in fact, 58 percent of them said they wouldn't trust their president, Francois Hollande, to conduct an attack against Syria.

It's not so much that there is war weariness here, it's more the fact that the French seem to be in this alone after the vote of the British parliament and the potential vote of the American Congress.

Many here fear that Congress will not approve American action in Syria.

COSTELLO: CNN's Jim Clancy, Atika Shubert and Jim Bitterman. Thanks so much.

Tonight on CNN, more coverage of the Obama administration's push on Syria. But first Erin Burnett takes an in-depth look at a scandal that's engulfed the White House, the IRS.


ANNOUNCER: CNN tonight, at 7:00, an "OUTFRONT" investigation. Is the IRS politically biased? Are certain political groups specifically targeted? We get to the truth about the IRS.

And at 9:00, on "PIERS MORGAN LIVE," what happens while the world waits for Washington to vote on Syria? Wolf Blitzer fills in for Piers with the very latest on the war of words and plans of attack.

It's all CNN tonight, starring with Erin Burnett "OUTFRONT" at 7:00, Anderson Cooper at 360 at 8:00 and Piers Morgan Live at 9:00, tonight on CNN.


COSTELLO: All that for you. It begins tonight, 7:00 eastern.

Thank you so much for joining me today. I'm Carol Costello. "LEGAL VIEW" with Ashleigh Banfield starts after a quick break.