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Pelosi, Boehner Speak on Syria; 5 Ships Remain in Mediterranean; Russia Keeps Eye on U.S. Forces; Obama Changing Rules on War.

Aired September 3, 2013 - 11:30   ET


REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: So you're absolutely right, there's work to be done. But it's not a question of whipping, it's a question of discussing with our member, hearing their views. Some won't ever be comfortable with it. I myself, from a humanitarian standpoint, think that waiting for the U.N. and waiting for Putin, the slowest ship in the convoy of reacting to use of weapons of -- the chemical weapons by Assad, is a luxury that we cannot afford.

I have to go. Thank you all very much.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You said never again --


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: The House minority leader now walking from the stakeout position at the White House. Let's listen again.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can the president proceed if Congress rejects?

PELOSI: I don't think Congress will reject. But I do want to remind you because I've been reading some of what some of you have written and said that the president is never going forward if Congress does not approved when it has taken up the issue.

I remind you that in 1999 president Clinton brought us all together, similar to this meeting here, but over a period of time, to talk about going into the Balkans. And the vote was 213-213. 187 Republicans voted no, 180 Democrats voted yes. About 30 on each side, something like that, went in a different way than the majority of their party. And that was when the planes were really ready to go into Bosnia. He went. And you know what happened there. So I don't -- I don't think that the congressional authorization is necessary. I do think it's a good thing. And I hope that we can achieve it. I feel pretty confident on the evidence, the intelligence, the national interests that is at stake, that we have a good conversation to have with our members.

I myself -- I'll tell you this story and then I really do have to go. My 5-year-old grandson, as I was leaving San Francisco yesterday, he said to me, Mimi -- my name -- Mimi, war with Syria, are you yes war with Syria, no war with Syria? He's 5 years old. War, he says war. We're not talking about war but an action. Yes war with Syria, no war with Syria. I said, what do you think? He said, I think no war. I said, well, I generally agree with that but, you know, they've killed hundreds of children there. They've killed hundreds of children. And he said, 5 years old, were these children in the United States? And I said, well, no, but they're children wherever they are. So I don't know what news he's listening to or what --


-- but even a 5-year-old child has to, you know, with the wisdom of our interests, how does it affect our interests. Well, it affects our interests because of the, again, outside the circle of civilized behavior, it was humanity drew a line decades ago that I think if we ignore, we do so to the peril of many other people who could suffer. So in any event, I just go back to the point, in the Balkans, Congress 213-213, failed for lack of a majority of President Clinton.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Democrats need to tight the authorization be rewritten to be more narrowly focused?

PELOSI: I think that's a subject of discussion. Some people want it more broader and some people want it more narrower. I think that's a matter of discussion.


PELOSI: I want to hear what my members have to say. Thank you.


BANFIELD: OK. So one of those key questions that a member of the press corp yelled out as the minority leader was walking away: If Congress votes this down, can/will the president do it anyway. And she referenced that 1999, 213-213 vote, regarding Kosovo. It happened. President Clinton went in and did attack in Kosovo. It was the second time in the Yugoslav campaign that that happened, where Air Forces were used. In this particular campaign, it's not likely at this point anyone is discussing anything about Air Force. This is just instead these cruise missile attacks from the Mediterranean Sea by which there are now four destroyers. One has left. Clearly, there are the asset there's. It's just whether they're going to be used or not.

Nancy Pelosi was the second to come out to that stakeout position of the White House to give her thoughts post-Obama meeting this morning. But the speaker of the House, John Boehner, spoke just before her. We're able to give you those comments now via tape. Have a listen to what he said regarding the meeting.


JOHN BOEHNER, (R-), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The use of chemical weapons is a barbarous act. NATO not likely to take action. The United States, for our entire history, has stood up for democracy and freedom for people around the world. The use of these weapons have to be responded to, and only the United States has the capability and the capacity to stop Assad and to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated.


BANFIELD: There you have it, two of the most powerful politicians who have just emerged from their meetings with their thoughts. And clearly, you heard Nancy Pelosi say this is not a matter of whipping people into -- that is a term that's politically actually accurate when they talk about the whip mentality. Getting people onboard. This is a matter of discussing with members. In fact, that was just a short portion of what the House speaker had to say.

Here's a little bit more in-depth comment from house speaker, John Boehner. Have a listen.


BOEHNER: Good morning to all of you.

The use of chemical weapons is a barbarous act. It's pretty clearly to me the United Nations is unable to take action. NATO not likely to take action. The United States, for our entire history, has stood up for democracy and freedom for people around the world. The use of these weapons have to be responded to and only the United States has the capability and the capacity to stops a Assad and to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated.

I appreciate the president reaching out to me and my colleagues in the Congress over the last couple of weeks. I also appreciate the president asking the Congress to support him in this action.

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 my colleagues should support this call for action. We have enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it's necessary.

Thank you all.



BANFIELD: There you are. The House speaker taking no questions. We thought it was prudent of us to air both of those tapes for you. One was a short version and the other was a longer version, the complete version of what the House speaker had to say.

And right now, most members of the House and the Senate are saying that they're undecided on just how they'll cast their vote on granting the president authorization for a military strike against Syria. But CNN is counting votes basically on which way these lawmakers might go as of present time. You can check out the tally for both the House and the Senate by going to And coming up, we've got a couple of other things that have been developing. Some of the intelligence on what's going on inside Syria because, clearly, the Syrians are aware of the conversations going on here and around the world in real-time, in fact, and it may be that even the Russians are giving them advance information on what's going on in the Mediterranean just off their stores. We're going to tap into Barbara Starr and find out what the picture might look like.

There you have it, the Red Sea. That is a destroyer battle group moving up the Red Sea on the left-hand upper-most part of your picture. That is the Mediterranean coast. We're going to give you the full military picture of what could happen, what might happen, and what the intelligence is saying Bashar al-Assad is doing right now, knowing all of that.

Back in a moment.


BANFIELD: Welcome back. As we continue our coverage of the crisis in Syria, there is a lot obviously of movement going on off of the coast of Syria in advance of any possible prosecution of an attack, a United States-led attack. So far, those are the destroyers that are lined up, American assets offshore and up the Red Sea as well. What does that mean for Bashar al-Assad? What might he be doing?

I'm going to bring in CNN's Barbara Starr, who gets a lot of advance knowledge on some of this intelligence.

My friend, I don't know how you get it but you do know of some dispersal of his assets inside Syria. Can you break down for me what you found out?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Ashleigh, you know, what U.S. Officials are telling us is that they are seeing this, they call it a lot of dispersal of Syrian assets by the Assad regime. What are we talking about? Troops, weapons, artillery, mortars, rockets, aircraft, that sort of thing. And why is that so important? Because, of course, you would expect them to do that. If he thinks he's going to get attacked he's going to move things around to try and keep them hidden or make it tougher for the U.S. to target him.

The reason it's so important is now it, in fact, does put the U.S. in the position of having to continuously retarget. Those tomahawk missiles that the U.S. has, of course, are guided to their targets by satellite coordinates, GPS coordinates, just like in your car. So they have to have a specific spot programmed in. If that artillery piece is moving around, they're going to have to keep reprogramming the new location, the new location, and keep doing it. Now, the military tells us they know very well how to do this. They keep satellites overhead. That is public knowledge. And they keep a very close watch on what the Syrian regime is up to.

But you know, they're going to -- I mean, the more the days go on, the more retargeting you do, the more he hides his things, possibly as chemical weapons, possibly moves in civilians into areas that the U.S. might not be aware of. Puts weapons in schools, hospitals, and mosques. This becomes a more and more complex targeting problem. And I think you're going to hear a lot about this at the hearings on Capitol Hill this afternoon.

BANFIELD: It's well-known, human shields. We've seen dictators do it many a time. Sometimes live human shields like Saddam Hussein did in 1991, showed us all of his on TV.

Barbara Starr, I'm going to have to leave it there but thank you for that.

Luckily that you said that, Barbara, because my next guest after the break is going to talk about those assets that Barbara Starr just referred to. It has been well-known for a long time that Bashar al- Assad has a very robust military. A very robust Air Force. Is that still the case? Honestly, we're going to talk to somebody who knows a lot about that, coming up next.


BANFIELD: One of the interesting parts of this crisis in Syria is what's not happening inside Syria and that is that Barbara Starr has brought to our attention. There's not a lot of defections going on among the high-level military commanders under Bashar al-Assad. Does that mean anything in particular? And just what about their assets, just how good are the forces of Bashar al-Assad?

Joining me now is Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, who is the U.S. military attache.

How about that question, Colonel? How good are Assad's assets? We've heard terrific and then we're starting to hear maybe not so much.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, U.S. MILITARY ATTACHE & CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They were terrific, given the context of where he's operating. He's operating against his own people. Regionally, he's not that strong. Internally, he's the only game in town. So he's been able to take quite a toll on his own people.

You talked about defections. We saw a slew of defections at the beginning of this but it has slowly tapered off. And a lot of the reason for that is he has contained a lot of the people to the bases that many of these people when they do defect we find out that they're prisoners on their own bases. He's had a real problem keeping the morale up, a problem with resupplying his own forces. But if you're the only army in town you still retain immense capability, overwhelming firepower against the rebels.

BANFIELD: So let me ask you this. As we look at the movements of assets of the United States right now, there's a heavy presence of an aircraft carrier and a battle group moving out the Red Sea and the four destroyers just off the coast of Syria.

And then there are those Russians. They have sent Russian reconnaissance ships that have come in kind of behind the American destroyers. So that might give pause to a lot of people if they see Russians sandwiching in the Americans. Are those Russians there for offensive purpose or are they just there to spy?

FRANCONA: Well, they're there for a show of force. They're letting us know the Syrians are allies. It's a very sophisticated ship. It has the ability to monitor the communication, emissions of our vessels. The Israelis conducted a missile test today. The Russians were the first to pick that up and notify the Syrians. When we get prepared to do any action, it's almost inevitable that the Syrians will know ahead of time that we're coming.

BANFIELD: Thank you. There's a lot of real-time reaction we're getting from you. We appreciate you bringing us up to speed on this.

Not only that, the United States president have not made a habit of asking for approval before going to war in the last several decades. But President Obama may just be bucking that decision asking Congress for approval to launch any kind of strike on Syria. Will that set a new precedent? Is there something significant to this that might affect future presidents down the line? More on that in a moment.


BANFIELD: The first major hearing on Syria since the president asked Congress to sign off on military action will start in a couple of hours. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will get the full lineup. Secretary of State John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey are all going to be present to testify. And earlier today, the powerhouse line up continued because the president met with members of Congress at the White House, including the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, and House speaker, John Boehner, both of whom confirmed they are on board with the president's plan.

Going to Congress to OK military action is not exactly the path that presidents have been taking over and over the last several decades. For example, think back to Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, Iraq in 1998, the Kosovo campaign in 1999 and the bombing of Libya in 2011. And this isn't the complete list.

I'm joined by presidential historian, Doug Brinkley.

Doug, one of the criticisms that's coming with regard to what the president is doing now and that is seeking Congress before acting is that all of those erosions of the constitution that gave Congress the power to OK war are actually now snapping back. The president has done more to turn that around than any other president since Truman in the days of Korea. Do you see that as a viable critique?

DOUG BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: It's an interesting critique. President Obama's working by expediency now. He's doing what he needs to do to confront Syria. Had it not been for the British parliament rejecting the idea, I doubt the president would have gone this way. The United States would have had Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and could have done it without the U.N., NATO. He felt he needed to go to Congress.

Just minutes ago, when Speaker Boehner vigorously supported the strategy, I think you see the president gaining real momentum for the case of striking on Syria. Because unlike John McCain or Lindsey Graham, there were no slaps at President Obama from Boehner. He came on as if his best friend and ally was Barack Obama. You'll now see in Congress a fight between the Rand Paul Tea Party Libertarians and John Boehner and the conservative Republicans.

BANFIELD: As question await the answer, just a quick answer, if they so, does that give leaders around the world to do what they want to their people?

As Nancy Pelosi said chemical weapons. It was not Barack Obama's red line. It was the world's. The gassing of these children and the fact people are going to do nothing and the president needs to do a better case of explaining what is at stake. There's a Cold War going on in the Middle East. We have allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and on the other side, there's Russia and Iran, and it's all playing out in Syria. I think you're seeing the president argue the geopolitical case to these congressmen, and so far he's getting the key Republicans on board.

BANFIELD: Doug Brinkley, thank you. The images are just harrowing. We were seeing some of them as you were stating your case and giving us your insight.

Thank you, Doug Brinkley. It's good to see you. We appreciate that.

I should also let you know a bit of additional breaking news. Eric Cantor has now come on board as well. Now you've heard from three of the most powerful people on Congress. They are on board with the president. But that doesn't necessarily mean the rest of Congress is. Each stating their own case as they emerge from the intelligence meeting.

That's all the time I have. Thank you for joining us. Do stay tuned. Continue to watch CNN. We're not stepping away from it. A very critical moment regarding Syria. AROUND THE WORLD with Suanne Malveaux and Michael Holmes is coming back after this quick break.



MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Michael Holmes. Thank you for your company.

MALVEAUX: Well, of course, we start here. President Obama starts full-speed ahead. A campaign for military intervention in Syria.