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Senate's Syria Hearing

Aired September 3, 2013 - 14:30   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's bring in two of the new hosts of the brand-new "CROSSFIRE," who were listening attentively, Newt Gingrich is joining us. Van Jones is joining us. Newt, first, to you. Who's right, Ron Paul or Barack Obama?

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": I don't know I want to be caught in quite that --

BLITZER: You're a blunt guy. Are you more inclined to go along with the president of the United States and a limited retaliatory strike or do you want to stay out of Syria as much as Ron Paul does?

GINGRICH: I don't think I want to stay out as much as Ron Paul does, but I think in today's hearing is an important first step to this. The Congress doesn't have to choose yes or no. The Congress has been invited by the president to think about a major national security problem and to render a judgment. I think it's very important to watch this. You currently have Senator Leahy for bombing as long as it's very narrow and Senator McCain, who is for bombing as long as it is really broad. Now those are pretty broad difference --

BLITZER: Where do you stand?

GINGRICH: I would be opposed to actions that get us involved in Syria right now because I think there's no evidence that we're going to be effective and there's every evidence that after we're done, Assad is still going to be the dictator and going to say, what did that prove? I think we'll end up after we bomb we're going to end up still looking weak.

BLITZER: So it sounds to me you're a little bit closer to Ron Paul. Don't get involved at all -- not necessarily totally aligned with him but not with Patrick Leahy. You don't even want a limited strike.

GINGRICH: No. I think there's no point to a limited strike because it in fact sends exactly the wrong signal.

BLITZER: On this issue, Van Jones, do you agree with the speaker?

VAN JONES, CO-HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": I do. You know, last week when I saw those children gassed and that kind of thing, let's go light these guys up. We need to send a clear message. I'm glad the president was wise enough to create a break in the action. He is trying to crowd source wisdom from the U.S. Congress. Let wisdom come forward. I think as you look at this now, we'll look back and say we're on verge of another ground war in the Middle East. This idea that we can sit back here and throw bombs --

BLITZER: When the president says this is not going to be Iraq, this is not going to be Afghanistan, no boots on the ground --

JONES: Look at what --

BLITZER: So you say the president is --

JONES: I'm saying the president has not put that in writing. This authorization is as broad as the authorization to go in Iraq.

BLITZER: Forget about the language of the authorization, what he says he just said it today when he met with the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House, no boots on ground, no Iraq war, no Afghanistan --

VONES: He's done the magic words, but he's not a magician.

BLITZER: What you're saying there are unintended consequences he's not thinking about it --

VONES: He may be thinking about it, but one last thing. We're jumping up and down in a pogo stick in a roomful of banana peels. We do not know what's going to happen going forward here and I think what happens is, we do something to Assad. They do something back, we do, and they do and we're in a ground war and need to take a big step back.

BLITZER: Do you agree with Van Jones from the right and he's on the left.

GINGRICH: I agree in this sense and I think most of the country agrees. We've learned out of the last 12 years, you don't know what happens next. We had a terrific 23-day campaign to replace Saddam Hussein and then we got stuck in sticking around for another seven or eight years --

BLITZER: Exactly 10 years.

GINGRICH: All of the casualties came after we won. We went in very light in Afghanistan and thought we were very clever and you don't know with Iranians engaged in Syria, the Russians protecting Syria, the Russians have more ships in the Mediterranean than any time since the cold war. We have no idea how this could suddenly -- always ask the question and then what. We fire off the first wave of missiles and then what. We fire off a wave of missiles and Assad deliberately uses weapons to say, you didn't bother me. What do we do then? Once you start down this road, it's very dangerous.

JONES: The other thing we haven't talked about enough, there are other options. For instance, we could be fighting right now for an arms embargo or trying to get some sort of peace summit or could go to the U.N., even though China and Russia right now are on the wrong side in the U.N. We had not even made our case. Listen, I hate to praise George W. Bush, but he had a bigger coalition going into Iraq than this president would go with these strikes. George H.W. Bush, but he spent months and months building a big global coalition.

BLITZER: In the first Gulf War.

JONES: In the first Gulf War. We are now as Democrats being asked to support president Obama going with no global coalition and no U.N. mandate and no real plan to win the war or peace. I don't think this makes sense. Congress should -- if they pass something, put real conditions and exhaust every peaceful option, no boots on the ground. Put it in writing. We cannot do a repeat of the Iraq war.

BLITZER: We've got two co-hosts of "CROSSFIRE" from the left and right agreeing on this, very interesting. Stand by. The speaker, one of your successors, John Boehner, he camse out today and totally endorsed what the president is going to do. We have a lot more to discuss. Members of the Foreign Relations Committee are now there. We'll wait to see who else -- there's John Kerry, the secretary of state shaking hands.

They are getting ready, Chuck Hagel is there, Martin Dempsey and chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Let's take a quick break, our special coverage continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is getting ready for a critically important hearing. Three top officials representing the Obama administration are about to testify. Here's what's going to happen. The chairman of the senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, he will bring this hearing to order and make a statement.

The ranking Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee will make a statement. Then we'll hear from the secretaries of state and defense, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey. They will make statements and all of the members of the committee, the Democrats and Republicans will have a chance to grill these three officials.

There's Bob Menendez -- I think he just gavelled the session to order. Let's listen in.

SENATOR BOB MENENDEZ (D), CHAIRMAN, SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: This hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will come to order. Let me first say that other actions of approval and disapproval from the audience. We welcome you to be here on this important occasion, but we welcome you to be observers of this important occasion. And the chair will not tolerate actions that are in violation of committee rules.

Let me welcome Secretary Kerry back to the committee he chaired, Secretary Hagel and the committee he served on and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey to the committee. We convene this hearing as we have convened many before, to make one of the most difficult decisions we are asked and tasked to make, the authorization of the use of American military power this time in Syria to respond to the horrific chemical attack of August 21st that took the lives of 1,429 Syrians, including at least 426 children.

The images of that day are sickening. In my view of the world cannot endure the inhumanity and horror of this act. I do not take our responsibility to authorize military force lightly or make such decisions easily. I voted against the war in Iraq and strongly have supported a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But today I support the president's decision to use military force in the face of this horrific crime against humanity.

Yes, there are risks to action but the consequences of inaction are greater and graver still, further humanitarian disaster in Syria and regional instability and loss of American credibility around the world and in both Iran and North Korea and disintegration of international law. This decision will be one of the most difficult any of us is asked to make, but it is our role as representatives of the American people to make it, to put aside political differences and personal ideologies, to forget partisanship and preconceptions, to forget the polls and politics and even personal consequences.

It is a moment for a profile in courage and to do what one knows is right. It is our responsibility to evaluate the facts, assess the intelligence we have and debate the wisdom and scope fully and publicly understanding the geopolitical ramifications and fully aware of the consequences. At the end of the day, each of us will decide whether to vote for or against a resolution for military action based on our assessments of the facts and on conscience.

The decision rests with us. It is not political. It is a policy decision that must be based, I believe, on what we believe is in the national security interest of the United States. To be clear, the authorization we will ultimately seek is for focused action with a clear understanding that American troops will not be on the ground in combat and the language before us is but a starting point.

The president has decided to ask Congress for our support. Now the eyes of the world are upon us. A decision we make and resolution we present to the Senate and the votes we take will reverberate around the world. Our friends and allies await our decision as Pyongyang and Ayatollas of Tehran and terrorist groups wherever they may be. What we do in the face of the chemical attack by the Assad regime against innocent civilians will send a message to the world that such violations cannot be used with impunity.

The question is, will we send a message that the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world by anyone for any reason? Will we in the name of all that is human and decent authorize the use of American military power against the inexcusable, indiscriminate and immoral use of chemical weapons or will we stand down? What message do we send to the world when such a crime goes unpunished?

Will those who have these weapons use them again and use them more widely and kill more children or against our allies or troops or embassies or give them or sell them to terrorists who would use them against us here at home? Are we willing to watch a slaughter just because the patrons of that slaughter are willing to use their vote toe at the United Nations to allow it to happen so their beneficiary can stay in power?

Are we so tired of war we're willing to silence our conscience and accept the consequences that flow from the silence to our national interest? We will hear the arguments and options presented to us today and look at the facts as we know them according to the declassified assessment released last Friday that Secretary Kerry has so passionately presented to the nation.

According to that assessment, we know with high confidence from the intelligence community that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21st. We know that the Assad regime has stock piled chemical agents including mustard sarin and VX gas, and has thousands of ammunitions capable of delivering them. We know that President Bashar Al Assad makes decisions when it comes to the stockpile chemical agents and that personnel involved in the program are carefully vetted to ensure loyalty to the regime and security of the program.

We have evidence that chemical weapons have been used on a smaller scale against the opposition on several occasions in the past year, including in the Damascus suburbs and sarin gas has been used on some of those occasions and it was not the opposition that used it. We know that chemical weapons personnel from the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, subordinate to the regime's Ministry of Defense operating in the Damascus suburb of Adra from Sunday August 18th until early in the morning August 21st near an area the regime uses to mix chemical weapons including sarin.

Human intelligence as well signal and geo special intelligence have shown regime activity in the preparation of chemicals prior to the attack including the distribution and use of gas masks. We have multiple streams of intelligence to show they launched a rocket attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21st and satellite collaboration of the attacks were launched from a regime controlled area and struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred.

Clearly tying the pieces together, that is what we know in terms of who deployed these weapons. More evidence is available and we will be looking at all of the classified information in a closed session of the committee tomorrow that more clearly establishes the use of chemical weapons by the regime, military response is available to us and results we expect from those responses.

As of now, in my view, there is a preponderance of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Assad's forces wilfully targeted civilians with chemical weapons. Having said that, at the end of the day, the chemical weapons attack against innocent civilians in Syria is an indirect attack on America's security with broader implications for the region and the world. If chemical weapons can be used with impunity, crafted by the League of Nations and signed by the United States in 1925, in fact signed by Syria itself in 1968, they can be used without fear of reprisal anywhere by anyone.

And in my view such heinous and immoral violations demand a clear response. We are at a cross roads moment. A precedent will be set either for the unfettered use of chemical weapons or a precedent will be set for the deterrence of the use of such weapons through the limited use of military force that sends a message that the world will not stand down. We will either send a message to Syria, Iran, North Korea and Hezbollah, al Qaeda or any other non-state actors that the world will not tolerate the senseless use of chemical weapons by anyone or we will choose to stand silent in the face of horrific human suffering.

We need to consider the consequences of not acting. Our silence would be a message to the ayatollah that America and the world are not serious about stopping the march to acquiring nuclear weapons. Israel would no longer believe that we have their back and hard stressed to retrain itself. The silence would embolden Kim Jong-Un who has a large chemical weapons cache and would send a message that we are not serious about protecting South Korea and the region from nuclear chemical weapons and would embolden Hezbollah and Hamas to re-double their efforts to acquire chemical weapons and they might succeed.

Clearly at the end of the day, our national security is at stake. I want to thank our distinguished witnesses who will present the facts as they know them and evaluate them and debate a resolution and at the end of the day, each of us will decide whether to send a message to the world that there are lines we cannot cross as civilized human beings or stand silent and risk in threats.

Let me say before I turn to Senator Corker for his opening statement, the president is asking for an authorization for the use of limited force. It is not his intention or ours to involve ourselves fully in Syria's civil war. What is before us is a request and I quote, "to prevent or deter the use or proliferation of chemical or biological weapons within too or from Syria and to protect the United States and allies against the threat posed by such weapons."

This is not a declaration of war but a declaration of our values to the world. A declaration that says we are willing to use our military power when necessary against anyone who turns such heinous weapons on innocent civilians anywhere in the world. We know the facts and hear the arguments and have the debate and then it will be up to each of us to search our conscience and make a decision on behalf of the American people.

I trust that we can achieve that in a bipartisan way. I have been working with Senator Corker as we move towards a resolution, but I hope we get broad bipartisan support. Before I turn to him, I just want to acknowledge the presence, we're thrilled to see her here today, Theresa Hines Kerry to join us in this momentous occasion. I'm glad to see you so well and being here with us and with that Senator Corker.

SENATOR BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Mr. Chairman, I thank you for your comments and time we spent together recently. I want to thank witnesses not only for the service to the country in the current capacity, but in their service every way for many, many years. I thank you for being here.

Today, you're beginning the formal request of asking each of us to make the most important decision many of us will make during our tenure in the United States Senate. Everybody here and those who are not take that decision very seriously. I've noticed a distinct sense of humility as we've gone through the conference calls and various meetings today and this week.

And I know every member here knows whether they decide to support an authorization for the use of military force or not, they are making a decision about our country's national interest. And I know everybody is going to be taking that decision very, very seriously. One of the issues that many members will have is the fact is that should we support an authorization for the use of military force and I think that everyone here knows that I am very generally inclined to do so and working closely with Senator Menendez for something that will be a starting point for this committee's discussions and I know each member will have its input and have its imprint on what it is that we end up deciding to vote upon.

One of the problems that members have and I think this hearing and tomorrow's hearing is important to answer is while we make policy, you implement. And the implementation of this is very, very important. And I think there have been mixed signals about what that implementation actually is going to mean. And the effect it's going to have on the country that we're involved in. I want to say I was just in the region as I know many people have been.

And I am still totally dismayed at the lack of support we are given -- given to the vetted moderate opposition. We've publicly stated what that support is going to be, even though it's being carried out in a covert way. But it is to some degree humiliating to be in a refugee camp when our policy has been that we're going to train. We're going to equip. We're going to give humanitarian aid to the vetted opposition. Yet, when you sit down with the people coalescing around, very little of that has occurred.

So I know today's focus is going to be largely on the issue of chemical war fair and the case has to be made and each of us have had the opportunity to hear that case, to see intelligence, to understand on what basis these claims have been made. And my guess is most everyone here fully believes that chemical weapons have been used on civilians to a large degree. So I know that case is going to be made to the American people today as you're making it to us.

But it's my hope that a big part of what you're going to do here today -- and I know we talked about this earlier this morning at the White House, but as to make a case as to why Syria is important to our national interest, why Syria matters to the region. Why it's important for us to carry out this strategy and how we're going to continue to carry out that stated strategy.

One of the things that I do not want to see in this authorization, if it's authorized and force takes place, I want to see us continue to carry out the strategy that has been stated and that is building the capacity of the vetted moderate opposition. I would like to have you address that. I would like to have you today also address how this use of military force supports that strategy, how it's going to affect the region in the aftermath. I thank you for being here today. I know a big part of what we're discerning today and what we're making decisions upon is the credibility of the United States of America. I know that people in the region are watching. I know that we've been hesitant to move on with many of the activities that we've stated we're going to be carrying out. Today I hope that each of you will bring clarity to this and I know we're going to talk about chemical warfare.

But I hope you'll give us more clarity about the opposition strengthening and how this is going to affect us overall. And I hope we'll all leave here today with a clear understanding of how this strategy is going to be carried out. I thank you and look forward to your testimony.

MENENDEZ: Secretary Kerry.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, Ranking Member Corker, thank you very, very much for having us here today. We look forward to this opportunity to be able to share with you President Obama's vision with respect to not just this action, but as Senator Corker has inquired appropriately, about Syria itself and the course of action in the Middle East.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for welcoming Theresa, this is her first public event since early July. So we're all happy she's here. As we convene for this debate, it's not an exaggeration to say to you, all of you, my former colleagues, that the world is watching not just to see what we decide, but it's watching to see how we make this decision. Whether in a dangerous world we can still make our government speak with one voice. They want to know if America will rise to this moment and make a difference.

And the question of whether to authorize our nation to take military action is as you have said, Mr. Chairman and you've echoed Mr. Ranking Member, this is obviously one of the most important decisions and most important responsibilities of this committee or of any senator in the course of a career. The president and the administration appreciate that you have returned quickly to the nation's capital to address it and quickly beginning a process of focusing with great care and great precision, which is the only way to approach the potential use of military power.

Ranking Member Corker, I know you want to discuss why Syria matters to our national security and strategic interest beyond the compelling humanitarian reasons and I look forward with Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey to laying that out here this afternoon. But first, it is important to explain to the American people why we're here. It's important for people who may not have caught every component of the news over the course of the Labor Day weekend to join us, all of us in focusing in on what is at stake here.

That's why the president of the United States made the decision as he did contrary to what many people thought he would do of asking the Congress to join in this decision. We are stronger as a nation when we do that. We're here because against multiple warnings from the president of the United States, from the Congress, from our friends and allies around the world, even from Russia and Iran, the Assad regime and only undeniably the Assad regime unleashed an outrageous chemical attack against its own citizens.

We're here because a dictator and his family's personal enterprise in their lust to hold on to power, were willing to infect the air of Damascus with a poison that killed innocent mothers and fathers and hundreds of their children, their lives all snuffed out by gas in the early morning of August 21st. Now, some people here and there amazingly have questioned the evidence of this assault on conscience.

I repeat here again today that only the most wilful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen and the Assad regime did it. I remember Iraq. Secretary Hagel remembers Iraq. General Dempsey especially remembers Iraq, but Secretary Hagel and I and many of you sitting remember Iraq in the special way because we were here for that vote. We voted.

And so we are especially sensitive, Chuck and I, to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence, that is why our intelligence community has scrubbed and rescrubbed the evidence. We have declassified unprecedented amounts of information. We ask the American people and rest of the world to judge that information. We can tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that our evidence proves the Assad regime prepared for this attack, issued instructions to prepare for this attack, and warned its own forces to use gas masks.

That we have physical evidence of where the rockets came from and when, not one rocket landed in regime controlled territory. Not one. All of them landed in opposition controlled or contested territory. We have a map, physical evidence, showing every geographical point of impact and that is concrete. Within minutes of the attack, 90, to be precise, maybe slightly shorter, the social media exploded --