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PIERS MORGAN LIVE

Senate Debates Syria Strike Authorization

Aired September 3, 2013 - 21:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hi, I'm Wolf Blitzer in for Piers tonight. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. We're following important breaking news right now. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will take up a bill tomorrow that will authorize the President of the United States to use military force in Syria.

The proposed resolution limits the authorization to 60 days with an option for an additional 30-day deadline with no US troops to be included on the ground in Syria. All of this on the day the crucial hearings began on the power of the presidency. President Obama marshaling his big guns trying to make the case for a strike on Syria.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Forcing Assad to change his calculation about his ability to act with impunity can contribute to his realization that he cannot gas or shoot his way out of his predicament.

CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Assad must be held accountable for using these weapons in defiance of the international community.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So will President Obama gets the votes he needs from the Congress?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARBARA BOXER, (D) CALIFORNIA: I believe we cannot close our eyes to this clear violation of long standing international norms.

SEN. RAND PAUL, (R) KENTUCKY: Let's have a real debate in this country and not a meaningless debate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The clock clearly ticking tonight showdown Syria.

We are going to begin with the big story and critically important news, with one senator who was front and center at the hearings today before the Foreign Relations Committee. Listen to this hidden exchange between Senator Chris Murphy and Secretary of State John Kerry.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: Now, we have this most recent news of weapons of mass destruction in contravention of nearly 100 years of a prohibition against their use.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER MURPHY, D-CONN.: OK, but that's -- I don't think that's the dispute. The dispute is not in correlation with the intelligence --

KERRY: The dispute is what are you going to do about it.

MURPHY: It's the ability of the military to be influenced the reality (inaudible).

KERRY: But first, the dispute is what are you prepared to do about it. That's the dispute.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Senator Murphy is joining us now. Senator Murphy, we have now the text -- the Chairman of the Committee, Chairman Bob Menendez has released his actual text to the resolution you will have to vote on tomorrow. It says the President is authorized subject to what they call section sub B to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in a limited and tailored manner against legitimate military targets in Syria.

Only to one, respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian government in the conflict in Syria. Two, deter Syria's use of such weapons in order to protect the national security interest of the United States and to protect our allies and partners against the use of such weapons. And three, degrade Syria's capacity to use such weapons in the future.

Are you going to vote in favor or against this resolution.

MURPHY: Well, that text is only a few minutes old, so I think I'll take the evening and morning to review it. But as you heard in that exchange with Secretary Kerry, I clearly am skeptic that this is the right way to go. I think Secretary Kerry made a really strong case today. That we have a moral imperative and probably a national security imperative in Syria.

I think the second question that you have to ask is still outstanding for many of us including me. Which is can we really make a difference? Is an air strike actually going to make the situation on the ground better for the Syrians and can we stop that situation from escalating into the region? And ultimately I'm not sure you can answer yes to that second question. And so, I've been a skeptic all a long.

I'm going to take a look at this language overnight, but I'm still yet to be persuaded that we frankly can make a difference even if there is a coherent rationale to get involved.

BLITZER: You heard the Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly say that if this were rejected, if the US did not response to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, it would send a powerful signal to so many of America's enemies. Not only in Syria, but in Iran, in North Korea, Hezbollah, in Lebanon, endangering not only American interest but Jordan, Turkey, Israel. What do you say to that argument?

MURPHY: Well I'd said this to him today, is that I do think that Syria and Iran for instance are very different circumstances. I don't necessarily think that a rejection of a mission in Syria compels us to sit by idly if Iran pursues a nuclear weapon as egregious as what we have seen Syria is.

They are not apples in apples and ultimately we'll make an individual decision on whether to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. I also think the American people have to be consulted here as well. If we ultimately want to rally them around actions to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, then we maybe have to pay attention on what they are saying here.

And I worry that public that is already war-weary over 10 year in Iraq and Afghanistan will get even more tired if we go into Syria and it'll make it much more difficult to rally them to action if we need to take steps to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

BLITZER: The Senator from Arizona, John McCain told me today, he thinks he has a commitment from President Obama and to start sending lethal weapons to the rebels in Syria. President made that a commitment in principle a few months ago, still hasn't started doing it but it looks like that is beginning right now.

Are you on board at least with the United States supplying arms to the rebels?

MURPHY: Well, I'm not in part because I still don't think we have a good hand on who the rebels are. General Dempsey who is part of that panel on the Foreign Relations Committee today has said in open session that the rebel groups are not ready to lead today in part because Al-Qaeda has essentially infiltrated big parts of the opposition alliance. And so I from the very beginning have opposed arming the rebels in part because I think we're going to be arming some people who have very distinct interest from those of the United States, that's Al-Qaeda.

So I think there's still so many questions to be asked here. I think the President's going to get his vote tomorrow. I think the Foreign Relations Committee will vote in approval probably by a wide margin of this resolution. I may not be willing to go along with the majority.

BLITZER: Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Thanks very much for joining us.

MURPHY: Thanks Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's bring in two congressmen now from opposite sides of the aisle.

Democrat Adam Schiff is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He says the current proposal is too broad. Republican Peter King is determined of the Counter Terrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee in the House, he says the President has the authority to act even if Congress votes no.

First of all Congressman King, what do you make of this draft resolution that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has come up with giving the President the authority to strike in a limited way over the next 60 days with an option of adding another 30 days if necessary?

REP. PETER KING (R), COUNTER TERRORISM AND INTELLIGENCE SUBCOMMITTEE: Yes, I have to look at it more carefully but based on what I've heard and seen tonight, I would vote for it. I mean I do support the President taking action.

I'm similar to John McCain to this extent and that I believe thought that if we are going to take action, it has to be meaningful action. Otherwise, it just may have a cosmetic appeal but serve no real long term purpose and actually be kind of objective. So I would support a strong attempt to degrade the weapon's capacity of both chemical weapons and also the delivery systems of Syria.

BLITZER: Congressman Schiff, the language says that the President would be authorized to engage in a limited and tailored manner against legitimate military targets in Syria.

Would you vote for this resolution?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D) HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, I think the said language is certainly a step in the right direction. I'll need to look at it further, and one of the issues that I'm most concerned about and communicate it to the White House is they say, "No boots on the ground." I would want to make sure that the resolution made that abundantly clear unless we're talking about having to rescue someone. I think no one wants to see us turn this into a boots on the ground situation or further entangle us in the civil war.

So I think its moving in the right direction. The other issue I think Wolf is can we put together an international coalition to enforce this international norm? I think it's very important that United States not be seen as acting alone here and I think that there are plenty of international partners who should step forward. But they're still a very open question about whether they will.

BLITZER: Tell us Congressman King why you think it was a mistake for the President even to come to Congress? You would've wanted him just to use his executive authority and get the job done without Congress, is that right?

KING: Well, going back over the last 30, 40 years almost every instance such as this presidents have acted without going to Congress; President Reagan, President Clinton they acted six times, he carried out bombing attacks during his presidency, President Eisenhower go back to the 1950s.

But the point I was really trying to make, excuse me, was that the President do this the last moment. If he knew a year ago that the red line was drawn on chemical weapons, if he intended to bring Congress in, that's sort of implied of his plans from the start. Instead, he said nothing at all about Congress. If Secretary Kerry and Secretary Gage (ph) going out there basically say, "We're ready to go," he gave no indication the Congress is going to be involved. And then at the very last moment, you see might covert for him, he started going to (ph) Congress decides.

So he didn't have to have Congress involved in the first place. If he did intend to have them involved he should have brought us in early on so it didn't look like a last minute flinching on his part. Which to me just causes a lack of credibility on his part and, automatically (ph) on the country's part because he's the Commander- in-Chief. But the shortest way is to use the Constitutional right to launch these attacks.

BLITZER: Congressman Schiff, you want to respond to that?

SCHIFF: I do. I think the President was right to come to the Congress both as a Constitutional manner, as a member of a coequal branch with the power to declare war I think was the right decision. But more than that, I also think that it was the right decision in terms of getting the country behind this action if we undertake it. It's going to be very important that the American people are behind what the President does, that the Congress is behind it that he is not seen as acting alone. I think as he has pointed out that will strengthen his hand in dealing -- in steering down Bashar Assad.

It is difficult. It does pose risks. And here you're going to have a group of libertarian isolationist on one side unwilling to support it. And you have men (ph) a very strongly anti-war Democrats unwilling to support it. So no easy task, but I think an important responsibility the Congress is to weigh this and vote accordingly.

BLITZER: Speaking of libertarian isolationist are not interventionist as they prefer to be called. Senator Rand Paul is one of them. Congressman King is a Republican. Rand Paul might be a Republican presidential candidate 2016. He had a very testy exchange with Secretary Kerry. I'll play the clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: The President is asking for the authority to do a limited action. They will degrade the capacity of a tyrant who has been using chemical weapons to kill his own people.

PAUL: But I think, by doing so you announce --

KERRY: It's a limited -- it's limited.

PAUL: By doing so, you announce in advance that your goal is not winning --

KERRY: But that's not --

PAUL: -- and I think the last 50 years of Secretaries of Defense would say --

KERRY: Senator, when people are asked, "Do you want to go war in Syria?" of course not. Everybody, 100 percent of Americans will say, "No". We say, "No". We don't want to go to war in Syria either. It's not what we're here to ask. The President is not asking you to go to war. He's not asking you to declare war. He's not asking you to send one American troop to war

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: How significant, Congressman King, is the Rand Paul wing now with the Republican Party who basically want to stay out of these Foreign Affairs?

KING: I think it's excruciatingly dangerous isolation's wing in the party. I think it's very dangerous to the party and very dangerous to the country. We can have honest differences of whether we should go to war, whether we should engage in combat. Those are legitimate differences. But Rand Paul is -- he always comes down to the side of the isolationist, withdraw from the world perspective. I thought Republicans got rid of that with Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s.

If I can just mention what Adam said before, "Either (ph) if the President want to get Congress involved. He should have said so from the start because by joining at the last moment, it looked to me as a sense of panic on his part rather than -- all what (inaudible) was saying he did need (ph) Congressional support by joining at the 11th hour, I think it sends a very wrong signal.

BLITZER: You know, on this issue, you can respond and I want you to respond Congressman Schiff. And I'm going to put up a poll, a new ABC News on Washington Post, Paul on launching military strikes against the Syrian government. A lot of Americans are opposed, 59 percent. Take a look at this oppose US launching missile strikes, 36, support. If you're going to do it, you're going to have to convince a lot of Americans that this is the right thing to do because there's an enormous amount of skepticism out there, especially after Iraq, especially after Afghanistan.

SCHIFF: Well, that's absolutely true, Wolf. And I really think that the Administration has a case that they're going to have to take right to the American people, and probably the only -- the President has the capability of doing that. I've been urging the White House to speak directly in a prime time address and outline why this is so important. Why it's important on our national security interest. Why we have to draw bright line when it comes to the use of chemical weapons and hold a dictator who gases his own people accountable.

So that case has yet to be made, and I think those polls are reflective of that. But just to respond to what Peter was saying. I think that in part the President was responding to what a lot of members of Congress were demanding and that is that he come before the Congress, that he consult with us, and more than that, that he bring this to a vote. And it's hard to hold the President at default when so many members of Congress weighed in and said, "This is exactly what we want you to do." So I think it strengthens his hand ultimately if this is approved. And constitutionally, I think it was the right decision and I think he was also responding to what a great many members of the party -- both parties, Democrats and Republicans, were calling on him to do, and that is bring this to a vote.

BLITZER: Yeah. There's going to be a vote that will pass in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tomorrow. And will certainly will pass in the Senate. The key though is the House of Representatives because they are not only Republicans but plenty of Democrats who are very skeptical of this whole affair.

Congressman Schiff, Congressman King, to both of you, thanks very much --

KING: Thank you.

BLITZER: -- for joining us.

Up next. As the President gathers for support on strikes in Syria, does he risk getting drawn into an all-out war? I'll ask a top military man who spent years in Syria later.

What John McCain was really doing during the hearings. Check it out.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you Mr. Secretary.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The American people say no to war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Committee will be in order. Committee will be in order.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ban Ki Moon says no to war. The Pope says no to war. We don't want another war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: May I ask the police to restore order.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That was caught (inaudible) Benjamin at today's hearing as we told you, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will take up a bill tomorrow to authorize military strikes on Syria. That's the Breaking News we're following this hour. Joining us now to discuss what's going on, retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona. He's a CNN military analyst, former air attache in Damascus. He has traveled extensively throughout Syria as an observer of the country's air defense and military operations.

Colonel, thanks very much for joining us. You know, one line in this resolution that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is going to consider tomorrow and I assume it will pass in the committee at least the authority granting in Section 2 does not authorize the use of United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations, for the purpose of combat operations. When you hear that, as a military man, what does that say to you?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think that authorizes him to conduct any kind of covert action he'd like to use. The Central Intelligence Agency, US Special Forces, that sort of thing, but not to put regular US forces on the ground.

BLITZER: And that's what they want to hear. Everybody seems to say no boots on the ground. So that's the language in this draft resolution that will be considered tomorrow that basically makes that point. But here is the question that so many people are worried about. The US will go in with a very limited, tailored operations shall we say, Tomahawk cruise missiles. But what happens if there are some unforeseen developments, what happens if the US has to go in with troops on the ground. Now, that's a possibility isn't it?

FRANCONA: Well, that's always the concern. What happens after the first strike, you don't hit everything you want, you go back for the second strike and then you decide, well, we didn't get everything, we asked to do something different, maybe we then start bringing in manned aircraft, we lose a couple of aircraft, and then do you have to go and rescue the pilots. This has a way of just we call this mission creep, it just has a way of expanding more and more.

So, there's always that risk and that's why I think you're looking at a lot of people saying we want to make sure there is no any -- or anything but just this cruise missile strikes.

BLITZER: When the language in the resolution says that it will be a limited and tailored operation designed to deter serious use of these kinds of weapons and to degrade Syria's capacity to use such weapons in the future, explained from the military perspective what that suggests to you?

FRANCONA: Well that's a very difficult passage because I think the chances of going after the chemical weapon's delivery systems which were rocket launchers and he's got thousands of them all over the country. We're going after the weapons themselves. It's is probably going to be too difficult to do.

The chemical weapons of course are valuable asset for the Syrian regime. They've got them stored in very hardened facilities that a cruise missile is not going to be able to do need bunker busters for that. Or if they moved them to different locations, we probably don't know where they are. There's a lot of places to hide things in Syria. They spent years digging in tunnels and caves. I watched them do this. They are all over the place. It's a show game. They'll move them to where we can't get them.

So, I think we're going to have to pick another target set. And how broad is the definition is -- of systems to deliver or systems that will affect the delivery. Could you extend that to me in air fields? Could that mean air craft? So it just determines -- it just depends on the interpretation of what that language means.

BLITZER: Colonel Francona, thanks very much for joining us.

FRANCONA: Sure.

BLITZER: Joining as now a man who advised three republican presidents. One democratic president as well, Richard Haass is the President of the Council of Foreign Relations. He is the author of the important book "Foreign Policy Begins At Home", the case where putting America's house in order. Richard, what do you make of this draft resolution? I think you've got a chance to go through it turtle (ph) pass in the Foreign Relations Committee almost certainly will pass in the senate but what does it say to you?

RICHARD HAASS, PRESIDENT COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATION COUNCIL PRESIDENT: You know I'm not in favor of the resolution both in principle and in the specifics, well if I --

BLITZER: Why?

HAASS: Well, the President had all the authority he needed. And what this resolution does is introduce real questions. First of all it only allows 90 days then you'd need another resolution. So now, and essentially building in uncertainty into America's staying power. It's going to put all sorts of constraints and what it is we can do. And the price of gaining Congressional support is going to be to remove or dilute the threat that the United States composed to Syria. So there's a tension between what it takes to win in Congress and what it takes if you will to achieve your goals in the theater.

And I also think it establishes our President, not just for President Obama but for all of his successors. And I think in this world we need to have greater flexibility and a greater reliability both to reissue our friends not to threaten our folks.

BLITZER: Because when you say it only allows 90 days, 60 days with an extension of another 30, that's right but most Americans they hear 90 days. They think if this is going to be really tailored and limited, they were under the assumption. I'm sure most Americans were under the assumption you send in a whole bunch of Tomahawk cruise missiles. You can get the job done in a week or 10 days if that would be an extensive operation. 90 days seems like a long time.

HAASS: Well the initial strike would probably less several days and you can get it don quickly but we don't know if there's going to for example be subsequent Syrian chemical weapons use. We don't know what other responses they may take. And what this does again is it ties the President's hands and it raises questions about what the United States were prepare to do say on day 91. Then, is the President going to have to go back to Congress and go through this entire process. Once again, is that the sort of thing we want to institutionalize, I would say not.

BLITZER: What do you think of the people surrounding the President, his national security team, we saw three of them appearing today before the Senate, Foreign Relations Committee, the Secretaries of States and Defense, Chairman Of The Joint Chiefs. But what do you think of that whole national security team, the team that's advising the President.

HAASS: What matters is the President. He is the Commander-in- Chief from all over for --

BLITZER: But he relies on the advice of his top advisers.

HAASS: They're paid to give advice. He's not paid to accept their advice, Wolf. And in this case it seems that most of the initiative or most of the impetus for this 11th hour change in the policy came from the President himself. I can't read his mind. I can't tell you what may have stimulated it. But at the end of the day, this is the decision he made and his aids essentially salute and fall in line.

I think it made a very difficult for a secretary of state who is leaning, as the expression goes, very far forward in his skis (ph) making a passionate case for the importance of the United States underscoring the norm that chemical weapons cannot be used inflicting real pain and hurt on the Syrians. And 24 hours later, what was introduced by the President was now this pause as we see if we can't get a Congressional support.

And you yourself raise the issue even if with the President can't get support for a conditional resolution in the senate. What happens when he moves to the House and then what happens if he can't get support? What is it the United States does? We didn't (ph) have a foreign policy crisis where we have a constitutional crisis, that's not a choice I would welcome.

BLITZER: My own sense says that that the stunning rejection in the British parliament of David Cameron, the Prime Minister's resolution. That was a shock to everyone here in Washington indeed to people and Great Britain around the world that may have had a significant impact on the President's decision to pause, take a deep breath, go back to Congress, discuss it, debate it, see what they want to come up with.

Richard stay with me for a moment. We're going to continue our conversation. We have much more to talk about the strikes on Syria. Potentially, some critics say it could wind up helping Al-Qaeda much more when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: We need to send to Syria and to the world, to dictators and to terrorist, to allies and to civilians alike the unmistakable message, that when the United States of America and the world say never again, we don't mean sometimes. We don't mean somewhere. Never means never.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: A fiery John Kerry today making the case for US military strikes on Syria, very tough talk. But is that the best option? Back with me Richard Haass he's the President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard, what happened to the coalition, the huge coalition that the US would normally like to get involved at another Arab country like Syria?

HAASS: Well, the short answer, as you know, Wolf, is it's not going to happen. The coalition would probably include a few Arab countries, several European countries, possibly France, most likely Turkey, maybe Australia, South Korea, but essentially, it would be a small coalition of the willing without UN backing possibly with some but not even clearly that NATO backing, the Arab League is not going to formally do it.

So the legitimacy, if you will, of this is going to have to be implicit in the crisis itself, essentially people who believed that this use of chemical weapons cannot go on unanswered.

BLITZER: If using chemical weapons against your own people, as the US says Bashar al-Assad did such a huge momentous event in Ameri -- in world's history shall we say, how is it possible that the NATO allies are not united especially when one NATO ally, Turkey, borders Syria.

HAASS: Well, it's a real commentary on what's happened to NATO. It's 25 years after the end of the cold war, the original rationale for the alliance has disappeared. The alliance has been trying to adjust, if you will, to a very different international environment and what you have there as a degree of many countries of war weariness. You also have anti-Americanism. I believe that was central to the British rejection of the vote.

You have all the bad feelings, if you will, that were the results of Iraq and all of it has come together and you simply don't have the kind of natural support that strategic interests and arguments would suggest you would normally have.

BLITZER: How much of what President Obama is doing right now is designed not just to send the signal to Syria but to really send a signal to Iran?

HAASS: Very much. It's to send a signal to any would-be user of any weapon of mass destruction, could be Iran, it could be North Korea, what have you. But in the case of Iran specifically, this is the other country to whom the United States has set a red line. The President, as people know, said several times that our goal is not to contain on Iran with nuclear weapons. It's to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. So, here it is, the President has essentially allowed the red line to Syria to be somewhat ignored. And what he's got to do is find a way to send the message to Iran that you shouldn't read into this. You shouldn't think that we didn't mean what we said when we said things to you.

BLITZER: You know, it's hard to believe but over the past two and a half years during the civil war in Syria, more than a hundred thousand people have been killed. Hundreds of thousands have been injured. Two million refugees have gone to Turkey, to Jordan, elsewhere in the region, Lebanon. For example, two million refugees and millions more displaced internally within Syria and now all of a sudden, two and a half years later, people are starting to really pay attention. Are you surprised it has taken so long for the world to wake up to the horror of what's going on in Syria?

HAASS: Look, there's always been a degree of selective response to these humanitarian crises. And this is where the war weariness really does kick in. But coming back to the basic question of what the United States should do, any air strike against Syria would strengthen the norm against chemical weapons use, but it would also hurt the government.

If for example, the United States took out its ability to use its Air Force, we could do that by attacking the airfields. And if the United States were to make good on its pledge to provide serious arms to the -- to selected elements of the opposition, say Senator McCain and others have advocated, that would gradually I believe have an effect in terms of tilting the battlefield in the direction we want.

But this is going to be a long process and the decision to potentially use force in response to the chemical use, that policy can't bear anything like the full burden of our policy if your goal is to somehow ameliorate the humanitarian nightmare that has become contemporary Syria.

BLITZER: Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard. Thanks for coming in.

HAASS: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit more about tomorrow's vote on the Syria resolution before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Joining us, David Lesch, he's the author of "Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad" and professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio. Also joining us, Marvin Kalb, he's the author for the brand new book "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed". He's a senior adviser to the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution as well.

Thanks to both of you for coming in. David, let me start with you. You know Bashar al-Assad. You met his father. You understand what's going through his mind right now. When he sees this debate unfolding in the United States, how worried should he really be that he's about to get crashed if you will by US Tomahawk cruise missiles?

DAVID LESCH, AUTHOR: Well, I'm not sure I completely understand what he's thinking right now. He's somewhat of a changed person from when I knew him. But I don't think he's panicking. He's obviously quite concerned and I think there -- in the immediate term, I'm thinking about three things. As the Colonel said earlier, you know, getting their assets out of the way to protect them from what they, you know, think is going to be targeted by US strike. Secondly, he seems to have launched something of a public relations campaign which they don't do very well by the way because they see what's happening. As you said in the United States, they see the open debate. They see what happened in Britain. They see the polls of the United States that show that the American public does not really want to intervene in Syria in a meaningful way.

So, they think they can influence that, I don't think they will. But they think they can influence that. And thirdly, we must not forget, he's still fighting an active civil war. And I think they're trying not to focus on the US -- on a US strike more than they necessarily have to because, you know, they have to maintain -- they have to maintain their forces and their posture against the rebel forces.

BLITZER: Marvin, how important are these hearings, the debate that is taking place in the Senate, will start taking place in the House of Representatives, the floor debate, the eventual votes? Give us some historic perspective on what's going on in Washington right now.

MARVIN KALB, AUTHOR: Well, these debates are terribly important and they are important because they provide the American people and the representatives of the American people with an opportunity of moving in on what has been an essentially presidential responsibility to declare war, to act on war and to do it essentially on his own, because really since World War II, one president after another has accumulated power, enormous, awesome power to take the country into war.

He very rarely has stopped to ask the Congress to come along. This president has done that, in much the same way that President Lyndon Johnson did it, the two Bush presidencies did it, but a number of the other presidents did not, including Ronald Reagan. So, as these presidents have accumulated more power, now within all volunteered military force, they are commanders-in-chief. They can do essentially what they want.

This president is now asking the Congress to do what the Constitution had in mind from the very beginning that on the question of war, and that's where we are, Wolf, on the edge of war, all of the people ought to be part of that decision. And that means that congressmen, senators, House of Representatives, everybody has to make up his mind, has to make the decision and do it.

BLITZER: Important historic perspective, you know, David, we heard once again today from the Secretary of State, he said it on the Sunday talk shows, including Gloria Borger on State of the Union, making the comparison between Bashar al-Assad and Hitler. Hitler used the gas to kill Jews, he pointed out Saddam Hussein used gas, poison gas to kill Iranians, Iraqi, Kurds back in the 1980s. And now, Bashar al-Assad has done it over the past few days.

Let me play the little clip for you.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KERRY: It was used by Adolf Hitler to gas millions of Jews. It was used by Saddam Hussein in order to gas Iraqis, and his own people -- Iranians, and his own people. And now it has been used by Bashar al-Assad. Three people in all of history.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: He studied optometry, what, in London for a couple of years and then he sort of thrust into this job when his dad died, Hafez al-Assad. Here's the question to you, David Lesch, as someone who has studied Syria, studied Bashar al-Assad. Is he another Hitler?

LESCH: No, I don't think so. The way we understand it, I think Secretary Kerry is trying to make the case to the American people. And if you compare somebody to Hitler, then that's the other worst comparison you can have, and therefore, trying to influence the debate on this in Congress, and in the polls on the American public. The problem with that is if you compare someone to Hitler or even Saddam Hussein, it's someone that you cannot accept, it's someone that you are compelled now to overthrow.

I know it's hard to reconcile this person that many of us knew at one time and many of us thought was something of a hope for Syria and had a different type of background as you said, he was a licensed ophthalmologist. He was at a modest upbringing, considering he was a son of a president. He was always -- he was considered by everyone who knew him as humble and unpretentious. How did this happen, I think the key is that he became much more comfortable with power which is not a bad thing, but it's an authoritarian system.

And if you become more comfortable with power and authoritarian system, you'd become more comfortable being authoritarian leader. And all that means for accepting the trappings of power, and most importantly maintaining that particular authoritarian system. I think all of us -- many of us, inside and outside Syria hoped he would change the authoritarian system. It appears the authoritarian system changed him.

BLITZER: I'm going to ask David Lesch to standby, Marvin Kalb to standby as well. Marvin, I'm going to ask you how the American news media is handling this story right now, stay with us much more right after this.

Also John McCain takes a gamble on Syria, much more on that as well.

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SEN. TOM UDALL, (D) NEW MEXICO: I don't believe that should have given up so easily on using the United Nations --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We haven't yet enough.

UDALL: -- using us -- yes we have. We haven't taken Russia to task, we haven't taken China to task and that's what we should be pointing out at this point.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Another heated moment from today's debate in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, back with us now, David Lesch. He's a professor. His new book is entitled, "Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad". Also joining us Marvin Kalb "The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed".

Marvin, you studied the American news media for years when you were at Harvard. You used to work for NBC News as a diplomatic correspondent. How do you think the American news media is doing right now in the buildup what could be an escalation of the US military involvement in Syria?

KALB: Well, one of the things that the media tries to do is to simply survive. And that means that you do whatever is necessary to stay with the story, to run with the story even on occasion to push the story.

For me, a central issue right now is the examination of this question. What is a presidential commitment? When a president says something in the current media environment, it becomes the word not only of the President but of the United States of America. What is the President going to do? Does he have the credibility that he think through what he had in mind what he made a commitment. The word itself is loaded and we're at the edge of a war possibly because the president a year or so ago said, "There's a red line and you cannot cross it on the use of chemical weapons." The media is going to do the best it can but this is a tough environment for any journalist.

BLITZER: And David, if Bashar al-Assad were to fall -- no indication he's about to fall any time soon -- but if he were to fall, is there a possibility that Al-Qaeda could emerge as the new leadership of Syria?

LESCH: I don't think right now. Now, the longer this conflict goes on, I think their chances of fishing in troubled waters and gaining an advantage in the -- on the battle field increases but right now, no. I mean Syria, you know, 75 percent Sunni, most of them I think could be described as conservative Muslims, not necessarily Jihadists. I think the Jihadists -- you know, their influence is far out of proportion to their numbers which are often exaggerated right now. I think most the opposition, people to whom I spoke don't really have a concern about that right now but certainly in the future if this starts to fracture in Syria, something like that could happen.

BLITZER: David Lesch, thanks very much for joining us. Marvin Kalb, of course thanks to you as well.

There is one pretty surprising moment during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing today. Camera has actually caught Senator John McCain with something other than Syria on his iPhone. I asked him about it afterward.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: As I much as I like to -- and always listen in wrapped attention constantly with remarks of my colleagues over a three-and-a-half-hour period, occasionally I get a little bored and so I resorted -- but the worst thing about it is I lost thousands of dollars in this game.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He was playing a little poker on his iPhone. And he was joking of course about losing thousands of dollars -- and pretty fake dollars but Senator McCain always blunt coming forward acknowledging he was playing poker, at least a little bit, during that hearing.

Up next, we'll continue to have -- to discuss what's going on in Syria. Also, the unraveling of the mystery of the flag that was raised at Ground Zero. What happened to it after 9/11? I'll talk to New York City's top -- former top firefighter. The banner was there. That's coming up.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tom's photo comes in, and we huddled around the computer. And he brings up this photo.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that popped out because of the flag. Everything had this grayish blue tint to it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And there you saw the red, white, and blue. And I sat there and I said "That's an incredible picture" and Danielle (ph) was standing behind me and she said "That's not a picture, it's an icon."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: An icon indeed from Ground Zero. That flag raised by three firefighters. The subject of a powerful new CNN documentary premiering tomorrow night fittingly entitled "The Flag." Next Wednesday marks 12 year since the terror attacks. But that flag has not been seen since. So where is it now?

Thomas Von Essen was the New York City Fire Commissioner on 9/11, he's joining us right now. Commissioner, thanks very much for coming in.

Now, first of all, what's your most vivid memory of the rubble at the World Trade Center on 9/11 because you were there and that flag certainly became a symbol?

THOMAS VON ESSEN, FMR. COMMISSIONER, NEW YORK CITY FIRE DEPT.: It was the enormity of I think -- when we got there, you know, I came back that night and just started to see the people that were trying to help us with buckets. It reminded me of slaves building the pyramids thousands of years ago. It was just something that until we could get heavy equipment in, which took awhile, the idea of rescuing people which was so important to us was very, very difficult because the stuff was just so heavy and so dense we couldn't move it.

BLITZER: What made that photos the most iconic image, shall we say, the memory of that tragic day in 2001?

VON ESSEN: Well, you know, everybody was looking for the hope. The first night we met with experts who said we'd find no one, that we wouldn't be able to rescue anybody because of the weight, because of the impact of the building collapsing. And we needed hope. And something like that picture came out, I think Thursday after September 11, so two days.

It gave everybody a symbol that we're going to be there, that we're going to be there as long as was necessary and that we're going to rescue people if we could, and if not, we're going to try to do what was right, and recover the remains of not just our heroes but all the folks and innocents that died that day.

BLITZER: A lot of people thought that they saw that flag at Yankee Stadium aboard aircraft carriers. But it wasn't the real flag. Where was that real flag?

VON ESSEN: Well, you know, we'll never know I guess unless you guys figure it out, and you're going to tell us tomorrow. We thought we had it a couple of days after when the Mayor asked us to give it to him, so Admiral Natter could bring it on the aircraft carrier. We thought we sent the right one over the air. Maybe it was the wrong one at the time but even that one has disappeared. The one that they signed and the one that was flown.

So it really is a mystery. I think it was probably an innocent mystery, probably removed by firefighters that didn't want to desecrate it or maybe there was a fire all around it, they were probably trying to just put fire out so they remove the flag, put it somewhere and it certainly wasn't a big priority, wasn't on anyone's mind at that time. You have to remember that was two days before it was in the post.

So, people were worried about rescuing their brothers and rescuing innocent people so it wasn't something that was a big priority at that time. When you look at it now it seems in Congress that you could, you know, lose it but at that time it wasn't any kind of a priority.

BLITZER: Thomas Von Essen, thanks very much for all your help. Thanks for everything you did. Folks you're going to have to watch our documentary tomorrow night, "The Flag." It airs here on CNN 9 p.m. Eastern. We'll be right back.

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BLITZER: That's all for us tonight. One program, you know, Jake Tapper will be back here 11 p.m. Eastern later tonight, an hour from now, with special live report, "Crisis in Syria, The Debate Begins." Anderson Cooper 360 starts right now.