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Boehner, Cantor Back Obama's Plan; Getting Congress On Board On Syria; Interview with Sen. Jeff Flake; Israel Tests Missile In Mediterranean; Senate Committee Meets on Syria; Syrian Refugees; Menendez Backs Plan to Strike Syria; Interview with Sen. Bob Menendez

Aired September 3, 2013 - 13:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Jake Tapper, in for Suzanne Malveaux, for this special edition of CNN NEWSROOM.

A couple of key Republicans are on board with president Obama's Syria plan. House speaker, John Boehner, and House majority leader, Eric Cantor now say they support the president's call for military action. Their support coming just within the past couple of hours after president Obama held talks with speaker Boehner, minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, and the leaders every key national security committee.

And the effort to win over support intensifies next hour. Secretary of state, John Kerry, defense secretary, Chuck Hagel and chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, General Martin Dempsey head to the Senator Foreign Relations Committee this afternoon for the first public hearing on the possible use of force in Syria. The commander in chief is also making his case to the American people.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan. This is a limited proportional step. It 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.


TAPPER: President Obama says he is confident that he will get Congress to back his plan and Congressional leaders from both parties are pushing for their colleagues to vote with the president.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: I am hopeful that the American people are persuaded that this action happened, that Assad did it, that hundreds of -- hundreds of children were killed. This is behavior outside the circle of civilized human behavior and we must respond.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: This is something that the United States as a country needs to do. I'm going to support the president's call for action. I believe that my colleagues should support this call for action.


TAPPER: Dana Bash now joins us from Capitol Hill from the hearing room. In fact, Dana, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is obviously gearing up to hold the first public hearing on the possible use of force in Syria. What do we expect to hear today from secretary of state, John Kerry, and defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, and, of course, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and General Martin Dempsey who has privately and publicly expressed skepticism about U.S. intervention?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as I answer that, let me actually show you where they're actually going to be sitting because we do have a real interesting behind-the-scenes look at where they're going to be. This is the witness table. Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense, will be here. John Kerry, the Secretary of States, will be here and Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be here. We've heard a lot publicly from the man who will be sitting in the middle, John Kerry, making his case.

And I've also been told on the slew of conference calls that he's been doing with members with Congress but he has been perhaps the most out front on saying that this absolutely needs to happen, the most passionate in his defense of the need for military strikes. Chuck Hagel is a maybe little bit more interesting. You remember maybe the first time he was back before his former colleagues, these two men are former senators which is another subplot here, he kind of had a rough go of it for his on confirmation hearing.

And with regard to this particular mission, he's talked some publicly but certainly not a lot. And I think a lot of questions will be directed at Hagel and also at Martin Dempsey because, at least in my reporting talking to a lot of these members of Congress, some of their main questions are about the military action, how they can be sure it really will be as limited in scope as the president is saying.

But before I toss it back to you, I want to also tell you a little bit of news. Ted Baron and I talked to a source familiar with Senator majority leader, Harry Reid's, thinking and he is confident, at this point we are told, that he will have the votes to pass this authorization for military action in Syria through the Senate. They know it is possible, maybe even likely, that they will need 60 votes to overcome a potential filibuster and they even feel confident that they have that.

They are actually, as we speak, making changes to the language of the authorization to make sure that they have everybody on board that it really is the read as limited as they say it's going to be -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Dana, how much -- I always feel skeptical when I hear Senate majority leaders or House speakers talking about, this is going to pass when there are so many undecided voters. How much of that is based on a whip count? Counting members and seeing how they're going to go and how much of that is trying to project confidence so that members of the House and Senate feel like they have to get on the winning team?

BASH: That's a great question. I think it's a combination of both. But I also think that a big part of it is because what they are doing behind the scenes now is trying to build whatever they can legislatively so that they can pass this. He is working with the man who's going to be sitting over here, Bob Menendez who's the chair of this committee, right now to redo the language, as I mentioned. And what they're doing is they're making calls particularly to Democrats and even some Republicans to know exactly how they need to change the language in order to get their votes.

So, it's not that they're just putting this up and saying, you know, will you vote for it? They're trying to get buy in from these members as they rework this language.

TAPPER: All right. Thank you, Dana Bash. Let's now go to the White House where Brianna Keilar joins us. Brianna, the White House is clearly winning over some key lawmakers from both parties but this is a -- very much still an uphill battle for the president to get all the votes he needs from Congress. Where do they think they are right now?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, it's very up in the air. Well, they feel pretty confident and positive, Jake. I've talked to some White House officials that they have the momentum here which I think very clearly they do. Does it mean they have the votes? No. And they're not saying that they have the votes. But they do feel that they have the momentum and that this sort of extraordinary level of outreach between President Obama and his White House and his administration, they think that it is working. Here is some of what he said earlier in this meeting with lawmakers.

OK. Actually, we do not have the sound, Jake, that I was just tossing to. But I thought it was pretty extraordinary when you saw him in the cabinet room meeting with these lawmakers. It wasn't that general sort of perfunctory few sentences that he often times gives when he does have members of Congress over. This was many minutes that he spoke for and he was really laying out his case in what appeared to be a very genuine way. We heard coming out of that meeting from Senator Diane Fienstein as well as the Democratic member of Congress, they felt it was the most effective meeting that they had been to in years is actually what they said coming out of it.

I think though, as you said, it's still not a done deal. Are other members of Congress going to go along with that? That's one of the outstanding questions. If they don't, will the president still decide to strike? If Congress does go along with it, if the president does decide to move forward with the strike, there's also a number of other questions. Has this delay hurt really the efforts of the U.S. to take out those chemical weapons capabilities of the Syrian regime? That's an outstanding question. And are there going to be unforeseen consequences still to be determined -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Thank you, Brianna Keilar from the White House.

Despite public expressions of confidence, President Obama, as we just heard from Brianna, still has his work cut out for him to get Congress on board and the Senate. He'll likely need 60 votes to fend off a potential filibuster. Our count so far shows he only has 20 votes locked in. Seventy-two senators are undecided or their position is unknown. And the House, 218 votes are needed.

Right now, only 16 members have come out in favor of a strike. Forty- seven members of the House are against it. Three hundred seventy-six are undecided or their position is unknown.

One of those undecides in the Senate, Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake. He's on Capitol Hill right now. Thanks for joining us. Speaker Boehner, majority leader, Eric Cantor, say they are with the president on authorizing a military strike in Syria. Your fellow Arizona Republican John McCain seems supportive saying a defeat of the bill would be catastrophic. Where are you? How would you vote if the vote were today?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Well, I'm in the middle of hearings. We have had a couple of classified briefings this morning. Some one on one and another just with a group of senators and members of the House. So, we have a hearing this afternoon, a public hearing, that will be televised. So, I'm obviously going to wait until I've heard all the evidence and the strategy.

TAPPER: When you're at this hearing, the Senator Foreign Relations Committee hearing, today, what do you need to hear from secretaries Kerry and Hagel and General Dempsey?

FLAKE: Well, what I've waited to hear is why waiting is a good idea for a Congressional authorization that was not needed. That's what troubles me and many others. I -- they've said the targets are still there and that we haven't degraded our ability to degrade their ability by waiting. But I don't have a military background but it seems strange to me that you can give a regime a signal that you're waiting and obviously they can move things around in ways that make it more difficult to effect these targets.

TAPPER: But, Senator, weren't many of your fellow Republicans calling for an authorization vote? Isn't this President Obama being responsive to your side of the aisle?

FLAKE: Well, there have been many who were calling for that. I certainly was not one of those calling for authorization before you take action. Obviously, the war powers resolution, the president has 60 days, really 90 days to come to Congress. And I would expect him, if he feels it's in our interest to strike, to do so when it makes sense and then come to Congress for authorization. It just seems a rather strange way to go about it in my view.

TAPPER: Do you think that regime change should be a goal if there are any military strikes?

FLAKE: Oh, certainly that's the desire that we want. But it doesn't have to be a part of the strategy of the strike. The strike can be to degrade their ability to launch chemical weapons. And so, I don't think it has to be but certainly that's a desire that we have and nobody would be disheartened if it happened to speed that process along.

TAPPER: Senator, how confident are you in the intelligence having participated in some of these classified briefings?

FLAKE: Right.

TAPPER: There are -- there are some skeptics out there who say the United States is reporting numbers that our allies are not reporting in terms of 1,400 deaths, that there is this -- it's kind of vague as to how the United States is asserting that sarin gas was definitively used. Are you confident in the intelligence?

FLAKE: Well, as to whether or not that chemical weapons were used, I think that even the regime in Syria has acknowledged that. They were trying to put the blame on the opposition or the rebel forces. So, I don't think that's as much in question. There is still come question is was this directly ordered by Assad? Was it a rogue general or others acting without his authority? Obviously, he has to take the heat. He's the president. He's the one in charge there. So, I don't think that's really the question as to whether or not chemical weapons were used.

TAPPER: But are you confident in the intelligence that you're hearing behind closed doors?

FLAKE: It's compelling. It's quite compelling, yes.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. Thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

FLAKE: Oh, yes. Thanks for having me on.

TAPPER: And tune in tonight at 11:00 p.m. Eastern for my live special "CRISIS IN SYRIA, THE DEBATE BEGINS." I'll be interviewing another member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Will he support President Obama's push for military strikes in Syria? We'll have him and a lot more tonight at 11:00 p.m. Eastern.

Here is what we're working on for this hour. Right now, the military is trying to decide where exactly to strike if there will be a strike in Syria. How will a strike help or hurt U.S. national security? We'll take a look at all the scenarios.

It's a startling statistic. Every 15 seconds, a Syrian becomes a refugee in war that's killed more than 100,000 people. We'll go live to a refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon to look at conditions there.

And you're going to hear live from Senator Bob Menendez, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Find out why he supports the president's plan for a strike in Syria.


TAPPER: As the world waits to see what's going to happen in Syria, Israel confirms it carried out a missile test today in the Mediterranean. The Israeli defense ministry says the arrow defense system - you see an arrow missile here -- successfully detected and tracked a sparrow target missile. The U.S. Department of Defense confirms that it provided technical assistance and support for the missile test, but a Pentagon spokesman says the test had nothing to do with any possible U.S. military action in Syria.

In the next hour, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will holds its first hearings on the case for striking Syria. Among those testifying, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Joining me now is a new face on CNN, chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

Jim, first of all, welcome. Good to see you again.

JIM SCIUTTO, CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It's great to be onboard. Look forward to doing a lot of work together.

TAPPER: Absolutely. We're lucky to have you here.

First of all, what do you expect will come out of today's hearing?

SCIUTTO: Well, Secretaries Hagel and Kerry, they're going to be making the deterrent case for an attack, saying that not only will Bashar al- Assad be watching what the U.S. does, but so will Iran, Hezbollah, North Korea, and say, that if the U.S. does not act now, they will be emboldened to use these kinds of weapons, attack U.S. allies and also threaten U.S. interest. Dempsey's going to focus on the military side. He's going to make the case that no matter when the U.S. military strikes, it's going to have value.

TAPPER: How could that possibly be? How could it possibly be the case that giving Syria all this lead time won't affect the strikes and how potentially effective they are?

SCIUTTO: I mean you and I remember, being embedded, operational security was everything.


SCIUTTO: You don't want it telegraph. We have telegraphed here. The Defense Department argument is that they would be adjusting their targets no matter what. Had they started this weekend or two weeks from now, as they begin an attack, Syrian forces respond. They move resources. The Pentagon would be adjusting their targets. So whether they do it today or two weeks from now, they would still have a military effect. It's a difficult case to make because chemical weapons facilities can empty, troops can disperse, missiles can be moved. It's going to be a tough argument.

TAPPER: And Dempsey himself has expressed skepticism both publicly and privately about the effectiveness of this potential attack.

SCIUTTO: Yes. TAPPER: What is he going to say today? Senators are going to bring that up.

SCIUTTO: Yes, he's on the record. He wrote a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee saying that any action would amount to a serious act of war. What the Pentagon is saying now is that he was a skeptic not of a limited strike. A skeptic only of a massive military operation. A no-fly zone, boots on the ground and it's something like the White House is talking about a targeted strike with limitations on timing, targets and certainly no boots on the ground. That he's never been a skeptic of and he's onboard.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, good to have you onboard.

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much.

TAPPER: The U.N. says a Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds. The numbers are staggering. In a minute we'll hear about some of the horrors women refugees are facing.


TAPPER: At the United Nations today, the secretary-general is dealing with the crisis in Syria. Ban Ki-moon is briefing the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council. That session began this morning. The U.N. has been collecting evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Syria and it is being shipped to The Hague for analysis. Secretary of State John Kerry says samples collected from Syria show signatures of sarin gas.

The United Nations says there's another face to the crisis in Syria that the world has to deal with, refugees. A new report says a Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds. The numbers add up quickly. There are now more than two million Syrian refugees. That's ten times more than this time last year. And more than four million others have been displaced from their homes inside the country.

If you want to put that in some context with the U.S. population, it would mean, hypothetically, 30 million Americans becoming refugees. Thirty million. That's almost the entire population of California.

Arwa Damon reports that women refugees have become especially vulnerable.


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hyam (ph) is not this 25-year-old's real name. She is terrified. When she first arrived here in Lebanon's Beca (ph) Valley from Syria, she went to a small, local group that was distributing food.

"They called me back in the evening saying, we have a distribution at 7:00 p.m.," she calls. She says she got there with a friend of hers. Two men then said they had to drive to the warehouse.

"They attacked us. We started to scream and cry," she remembers, speaking softly. She says the men tried to rape them, but they fought back.

"They said, why are you scared. Nothing happened. You are married. Why are you afraid of this? It's not your first time."

There was no one she could turn to. Not even her family.

"They will say, why did you go there. And they aren't going to listen. Either they will kill me or they will send me to my parents and they will kill me. We are a tribal society."

And so the mother of three suffers in silence. The stigma prevents many of the victims of sexual abuse from seeking help. And there is no way to know how widespread such abuses are.

But as the Syrian refugee population grows, so too does the landscape of all forms of exploitation. Rahaf (ph) is just 14. Her mother says she sent her to clean houses to make much needed extra money. One day three teens tried to corner her. She ran home crying.

"They scared me. They made me hate life," she remembers. Her mother adds. "She said mama, I would rather die in our country then have these problems."

At least two million Syrians are now refugees in neighboring countries. And that's just the registered number. In reality, aide groups say it's much, much higher. Host countries simply cannot adequately handle the influx. And even organizations like UNHCR say they have less than 50 percent of the funds required to meet basic refugee needs.

The global community has failed to unite and end the war in Syria, but there's no justification to failing to provide funding for refugees or for protecting the most vulnerable among them.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Beirut.


TAPPER: A sobering report from Arwa Damon.

Senator Bob Menendez, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joins us next to talk about his support for strikes in Syria.


TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN.

The first public hearing on the possible use of force in Syria starts on Capitol Hill in roughly an hour. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey will face the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Our Dana Bash is on Capitol Hill.

Dana, you're there with Senator Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Does he share President Obama's optimism that ultimately this authorization will pass?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, thanks, Jake, very much. And thank you, Senator, Mr. Chairman, for allowing us to come into your committee room an hour down until you start which is what is going to be a very incredibly important moment here.

Jake's first question is a very good one, which is, do you share the president's optimism? Now we're hearing from -- the optimism from the Senate majority leader that this can pass -- authorization can pass the Senate?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: I believe so. And I believe today will be an important part of that. When we have the case made both on the intelligence that clearly shows that the Assad regime committed a heinous act in violation of international law by having chemical weapons attack innocent civilians, including the death of 400 children, and then when we hear the follow on response to what we do in a response to that attack and the consequences of inaction, I think that the Senate will be supportive of a resolution for limited use of force.

BASH: Now you just came this morning from a meeting with the president and a whole group of your colleagues, Democrats and Republicans. But afterwards, you had kind of a little side meeting with the president and your Republican counterpart, Bob Corker. Can you give us a little news about what you discussed with the president?

MENENDEZ: Yes. Well, I think the president wanted to get a sense of how we are looking to proceed. We wanted to get a conversation about the outlines of what the resolution would look like. And - but he said, this is a momentous occasion and I trust both of you working together in a bipartisan fashion to strike the right balance and help the country achieve its goals.

BASH: Now, you are working with the Senate majority leader and others -


BASH: To change the language of this authorization in order to make it more palatable so that people can actually.