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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Congress Holds Hearings on Syria Action

Aired September 3, 2013 - 15:00   ET

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


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Within minutes of the attack, 90, I think, to be precise, maybe slightly shorter, the social media exploded with horrific images of the damage that had been caused, men and women, the elderly and children sprawled on a hospital floor with no wounds, no blood, but all dead.

Those scenes of human chaos and desperation were not contrived. They were real. No one could contrive such a scene. We are certain that none of the opposition has the weapons or capacity to effect a strike of this scale, particularly from the heart of regime territory.

Just think about it in logical terms, common sense. With high confidence, our intelligence community tells us that after the strike, the regime issued orders to stop and then fretted openly, we know, about the possibility of U.N. inspectors discovering evidence.

So then they began to systemically try to destroy it. Contrary to my discussion with their foreign minister, who said, we have nothing to hide. I said, if you have nothing to hide, then let the inspectors in today and let it be unrestricted.

It wasn't. They didn't. It took four days of shelling before they finally allowed them in under a constrained, prearranged structure. And we now have learned that the hair and blood samples from first- responders in East Damascus has tested positive for signatures of sarin.

So , my colleagues, we know what happened. For all the lawyers, for all the former prosecutors, for all those who have sat on a jury, I can tell you that we know these things beyond the reasonable doubt that is the standard by which we send people to jail for the rest of their lives.

So we're here because of what happened two weeks ago. But we're also here because of what happened nearly a century ago in the darkest moments of World War I and after the horror of gas warfare, when the vast majority of the world came together to declare in no uncertain terms that chemical weapons crossed a line of conscience and they must be banned from use forever.

Over the years that followed, over 180 countries, including Iran, Iraq, and Russia, agreed and they joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. Even countries with whom we agree on little agreed on that conviction.

Now, some have tried to suggest that the debate we're having today is about President Obama's red line. I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world's red line. It's about humanity's red line. And it's a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.

This debate is also about Congress' own red line. You, the United States Congress, agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention. You, the United States Congress, passed the Syria Accountability Act, which says Syria's chemical weapons are -- quote -- "threaten the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States."

You, the Congress, have spoken out about grave consequences if Assad in particular used chemical weapons. So, I say to you, Senator Corker, that is one of the reasons why Syria is important. And as we debate and the world watches, as you decide and the world wonders not whether Assad regime's executed the world's worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century -- that fact, I think, is now beyond question.

The world wonders whether the United States of America will consent through silence to standing aside while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence.

In the nearly 100 years since the first global commitment against chemical weapons, only two tyrants dared to cross the world's brightest line. Now Bashar al-Assad has become the third. And I think all of you know that history holds nothing but infamy for those criminals. And history reserves also very little sympathy for their enablers.

So the reality is the gravity of this moment. That is the importance of the decision that this Congress faces and that the world is waiting to learn about in these next days.

Now, Ranking Member Corker asked a central question. Why should Americans care, beyond what I have just said, which ought to be enough, in the judgment of the president and this administration? Well, it is clear that in addition to what I have just mentioned about the Syria Accountability Act and the threat to the Middle East, we cannot overlook the impact of chemical weapons and the danger that they pose to a particularly volatile area of the world in which we have been deeply invested for years, because we have great friends there.

We have allies there. We have deep interests there. Since President Obama's policy is that Assad must go, it is not insignificant that to deprive him of the capacity to use chemical weapons or to degrade the capacity to use those chemical weapons actually deprives him of a lethal weapon in this ongoing civil war, and that has an impact. That can help to stabilize the region, ultimately.

In addition, we have other important strategic national security interests, not just in the prevention of the proliferation of chemical weapons, but to avoid the creation of a safe haven in Syria or a base of operations for extremists to use these weapons against our friends. All of us know that the extremes of both sides are there waiting in the wings, working and pushing and fighting. They'd be desperate to get their hands on these materials. And the fact is that if nothing happens to begin to change the equation or the current calculation, that area can become even more so an area of ungoverned space where those extremists threaten even the United States and, more immediately, if they get their hands on those weapon, allies and friends of ours like Jordan or Israel or Lebanon or others.

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. And, as I think you know, it has been the president's primary goal to achieve a negotiated resolution, but you got to have parties prepared to negotiate to achieve that.

Syria is also important because, quite simply -- I can't put this to you more -- more plainly than to just ask each of you to ask yourselves, if you're Assad or if you're any one of the other despots in that region and the United States steps back from this moment, together with our other allies and friends, what is the message?

The message is that he has been granted impunity, the freedom to choose to use the weapons again or force us to go through this cycle again with who knows what outcome after once refusing it. We would have granted him the capacity to use these weapons against more people with greater levels of damage because we would have stood and stepped away.

As confidently as we know what happened in Damascus, my friends, on August 21, we know that Assad would read our stepping away or our silence as an invitation to use those weapons with impunity. And, in creating impunity, we will be creating opportunity, the opportunity for other dictators and/or terrorists to pursue their own weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.

I will tell you there are some people hoping that the United States Congress doesn't vote for this very limited request the president has put before you. Iran is hoping you look the other way. Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not to put it to the test. Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail.

North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day. They are all listening for our silence. And if we don't answer Assad today, we will erode a standard that has existed for those hundred years. In fact, we will erode a standard that has protected our own troops in war.

And we will invite even more dangerous tests down the road. Our allies and our partners are also counting on us in this situation. The people of Israel, of Jordan, of Turkey each look next door, and they see that they're one stiff breeze away from the potential of being hurt, of their civilians being killed as a consequence of choices Assad might take in the absence of action.

They anxiously await our assurance that our word means something. They await the assurance that, if the children lined up in unbloodied burial shrouds were their own children, that we would keep the world's promise. That's what they're hoping.

So the authorization that President Obama seeks is definitively in our national security interests. We need to send to Syria, to the world, to dictators and to terrorists, to allies and 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.

So this is a vote for accountability. Norms and laws that keep the civilized world civil mean nothing if they're not enforced. As Justice Jackson said in his opening argument at the Nuremberg trials, the ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, which are inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is to make statesmen responsible to the law.

If the world's worst despots see that they can flout with impunity prohibitions against the world's worst weapons, then those prohibitions are just pieces of paper. That is what we mean by accountability, and that is what we mean by, we cannot be silent.

So let me be clear. President Obama is not asking America to go to war. And I say that sitting next to two men, Secretary Hagel and Chairman Dempsey, who know what war is. Senator McCain knows what war is. They know the difference between going to war and what President Obama is requesting now.

We all agree there will be no American boots on the ground. The president has made crystal clear we have no intention of assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war. He's asking only for the power to make clear, to make certain that the United States means what we say, that the world, when we join together in a multilateral statement, mean what we say.

He's asking for authorization to degrade and deter Bashar al-Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons. Now, some will undoubtedly ask, and I think appropriately, what about the unintended consequences of action? Some fear a retaliation that leads to a larger conflict.

Well, let me put it bluntly. If Assad is arrogant enough, and I would say foolish enough, to retaliate to the consequences of his own criminal activity, the United States and our allies have ample ways to make him regret that decision without going to war.

Even Assad supporters Russia and Iran say publicly that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. Now, some will also question the extent of our responsibility. To them I say, when someone kills hundreds of children with a weapon the world has banned, we are all responsible.

That is true because of treaties like the Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, and, for us, the Syria Accountability Act. But it's also true because we share a common humanity and a common decency. This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence. We have spoken up against unspeakable horror many times in the past. Now we must stand up and act. And we must protect our security, protect our values, and lead the world with conviction that is clear about our responsibility.

Thank you.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

(SHOUTING)

MENENDEZ: Committee will be in order. The committee will be in order.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We don't want another war!

(CROSSTALK)

MENENDEZ: -- ask the police to restore order.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nobody wants this (INAUDIBLE) cruise missiles -- launching cruise missiles means another war. The American people do not want this.

MENENDEZ: Secretary Hagel.

KERRY: Can I just say before he speaks, you know, the first time I testified before this committee when I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester.

And I would just say that is exactly why it is so important that we are all here having this debate, talking about these things before the country, and that the Congress itself will act representing the American people. And I think we all can respect those who have a different point of view, and we do.

MENENDEZ: Secretary Hagel.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Mr. Chairman, thank you.

Chairman Menendez and Ranking Member Corker, members of the committee, as we all know, in the coming days, Congress will debate how to respond to the most recent chemical weapons attack in Syria, a large- scale sarin gas assault perpetrated by the Syrian government against its own people.

As a former senator and member of this committee, I welcome this debate, and I strongly support President Obama's decision to seek congressional authorization for the use of force in Syria.

As each of us knows, committing the country to using military force is the most difficult decision America's leaders can make, as Ranking Member Corker noted. All of those who are privileged to serve our nation have a responsibility to ask tough questions before that commitment is made. The American people must be assured that their leaders are acting according to U.S. national interests, with well-defined military objectives, with an understanding of the risks and the consequences involved.

The president, along with his entire national security team, asked those tough questions before we concluded that the United States should take military action against Syria because of what the Assad regime has done.

I want to address how we reached this decision by clarifying the U.S. interests at stake, our military objectives and the risk of not acting at this critical juncture.

As President Obama said, the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only an assault on humanity. It is a serious threat to America's national security interests and those of our closest allies.

The Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons poses grave risk to our friends and partners along Syria's borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. If Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people, we have to be concerned that terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which has forces in Syria supporting the Assad regime, would acquire them and would use them.

That risk of chemical weapons proliferation poses a direct threat to our friends, our partners, and to U.S. personnel in the region. We cannot afford for Hezbollah or any terrorist group determined to strike the United States to have incentives to acquire or use chemical weapons.

The Syrian regime's actions risk eroding the nearly century-old international norm against the use of chemical weapons, which Secretary Kerry has noted, a norm that has helped protect -- helped protect the United States homeland and American forces operating across the globe from those terrible weapons.

Weakening this norm could embolden other regimes to acquire or use chemical weapons. For example, North Korea maintains a massive stockpile of chemical weapons that threatens our treaty ally the Republic of Korea and the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed there.

I have just returned from Asia, where I had a very serious and long conversation with South Korea's defense minister about the threat, the real threat, that North Korea's stockpile of chemical weapons presents to them.

Our allies throughout the world must be assured that the United States will fulfill its security commitments. Given these threats to our national security, the United States must demonstrate through our actions that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.

The president has made clear that our military objectives in Syria would be to hold the Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks, and deter the regime from further use of chemical weapons.

The Department of Defense has developed military options to achieve these objectives, and we have positioned U.S. assets throughout the region to successfully execute this mission. We believe we can achieve them with a military action that would be limited in duration and scope.

General Dempsey and I have assured the president that U.S. forces will be ready to act whenever the president gives the order. We are also working with our allies and our partners in this effort, key partners, including France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. And friends in the region have assured us of their strong support of U.S. action.

In defining our military objectives, we made clear that we are not seeking to resolve the underlying conflict in Syria through direct military force. Instead, we are contemplating actions that are tailored to respond to the use of chemical weapons. A political solution created by the Syrian people is the only way to ultimately end the violence in Syria.

And Secretary Kerry is leading international efforts to help the parties in Syria move toward a negotiated transition, a transition that means a free and inclusive Syria.

We're also committed to doing more to assist the Syrian opposition, but Assad must be held accountable for using these weapons, in defiance of the international community. Having defined America's interests and our military objectives, we also must examine the risks and the consequences of action, as well as the consequences of inaction.

There are always risks in taking action. The Assad regime, under increasing pressure by the Syrian opposition, could feel empowered to carry out even more devastating chemical weapons attacks without a response. Chemical weapons make no distinction between combatants and innocent civilians and inflict the worst kind of indiscriminate suffering, as we have recently seen.

A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitments, including the president's commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The word of the United States must mean something. It is vital currency in foreign relations and international and allied commitments.

Every witness here today, Secretary Kerry, General Dempsey and myself, has served in uniform, fought in war, and seen its ugly realities up close, as has already been noted, Senator McCain. We understand that a country faces few decisions as grave as using military force. We are not unaware of the costs and ravages of war.

But we also understand that America must protect its people and its national interests. That is our highest responsibility. All of us who have the privilege and responsibility of serving this great nation owe the American people and especially those wearing the uniform of our country a vigorous debate on how America should respond to this horrific chemical weapons attack in Syria.

I know everyone on this committee agrees and takes their responsibility of office just as seriously as the president and everyone sitting at this table.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Secretary Hagel.

And I know that General Dempsey is available to answer questions from the members of the committee.

And in that regard, let me start off by urging members. Tomorrow, there will be an intelligence briefing for the committee on both the issues at hand, as well as potential military action. So, in this setting, we are obviously somewhat constrained about what we might discuss with greater specificity tomorrow.

Mr. Secretary, you make and have made a compelling case. And I think it's important, and I appreciate you reiterating the high degree of confidence that exists in our intelligence assessments. I think those are the conditions precedent to be able to move forward.

This weekend I was at a soccer tournament, and I had a group of moms come up to me and say, Senator, we saw those pictures. They're horrific. We can't imagine the devastation those parents must feel about their children, but why us? Why us?

And so I ask you, would you tell them that we would be more secure or less secure by the actions that are being considered for which the president has asked for the authorization for the use of force?

KERRY: Well, Senator, I would say unequivocally that the president's actions will make us more secure, less likely that Assad can use his weapons or chooses to use his weapons.

And the absence of taking the action the president has asked for will, in fact, be far more threatening and dangerous and potentially ultimately cost lives.

MENENDEZ: And do you consider the consequences of inaction greater than the consequences of action?

KERRY: I do.

MENENDEZ: General Dempsey, what do we envision in broad terms this potential military campaign to be in terms of its effect? What do we expect at the end of any authorized action to see the results look like? What is our expectation?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: Yes, thank you, Chairman.

The task I have been given is to develop military options to deter, that is to say, change the regime's calculus about the use of chemical weapons and degrade his ability to do so, that is to say, both activities directly relate to chemical weapons themselves, but also potentially the means of employing them. And anything further than that, I would prefer to speak about in a classified setting.

MENENDEZ: I understand that.

Let me ask you this. In the process of achieving those two goals that you just outlined, would there not be a collateral consequence to the regime of further degrading its overall capabilities?

DEMPSEY: Yes.

MENENDEZ: Mr. Secretary, we received from the administration a proposed resolution for the authorization of force. And, of course, that is a negotiation between the Congress and the administration.

Would you tell us whether you believe that a prohibition for having American boots on the ground, is that something that the administration would accept as part of a resolution?

KERRY: Mr. Chairman, it would be preferable not to, not because there's any intention or any plan or any desire whatsoever to have boots on the ground. I think the president will give you every assurance in the world, as am I, as is the secretary of defense and the chairman.

But in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of Al- Nusra or someone else, and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French, and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.

So that was the only kind of example. It's the only thing I can think of that would immediately leap to mind to say, you know --

MENENDEZ: Well, if we said that there would be no troops on the ground for combat purposes, that clearly would assume --

KERRY: Well, assuming that in the going to protect those weapons, whether or not they had to answer a shot in order to be secure, I don't want to speak to that.

But the bottom line is this. Can I give you the bottom line?

MENENDEZ: We're going to have to work --

(CROSSTALK)

KERRY: I'm absolutely confident, Mr. Chairman, that it is easy, not that complicated, to work out language that will satisfy the Congress and the American people that there's no door open here through which someone can march in ways that the Congress doesn't want it to while still protecting the national security interests of the country.

I'm confident that can be worked out.

MENENDEZ: Well, I --

KERRY: The bottom line is, the president has no intention and will not and we do not want to put American troops on the ground to fight this or be involved in the fighting of this civil war, period.

MENENDEZ: I -- I appreciate that.