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Kerry Addresses Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Aired September 3, 2013 - 15:30   ET

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


SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I appreciate that. And I appreciate the response about chemical weapons and possibility of securing them in our national security interests as well as our allies, but I do think we'll have to work on language that makes it clear that this is an overriding issue, that I think that members as well as American people want to know.

Let me ask you, what -- you mentioned it in your remarks. What do you think is the calculus of Iran or North Korea if we fail to act and of our allies if we fail to act?

KERRY: If we fail to act, we'll have fewer allies and fewer people who count on us in the region. We have huge doubts right now, I hear them. I mean, I have the privilege of talking with many of the leaders of these countries with respect to what they may or may not be inclined to do. I've heard their warnings very clearly about what is at stake, not just for them but for us in the region. And I think that it's fair to say that our interests would be seriously set back in many respects if we are viewed as not capable or willing, most important, to follow through on the things that we say matter to us.

As I said earlier in my testimony, this really is not President Obama's red line. The president drew a line that anyone should draw with respect to this convention that we have signed up to and which has been in place since the horrors of world war I and the truth is through all of world war ii and Vietnam and Korea, and both gulf wars and through Afghanistan, through Iraq, that the combatants in those efforts have never resorted to this use. So, I think that it's clear with those two prior usages that I referred to, that we would be opening Pandora's box with respect to a whole set of dangerous consequences as a result of t the United States not keeping its word. And it would be make our life very, very difficult with respect to North Korea and Iran. There's no question in my mind, that those countries are watching the mullahs and many others are watching what we're doing now with great interest. And that's why even the quality of this debate and nature of this debate are very important.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

Senator Corker?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), RANKING MEMBER, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for your testimony, again.

I want to first thank you for bringing this to Congress. I think our foreign policy through the years has been far too focused on the administration. I don't think Congress has played the role that it should play in foreign poll I want to thank you for bringing it here and giving us the opportunity to have the debate in advance.

I want to focus a little bit on our strategy with the vetted opposition. I don't know how anybody -- as a matter of fact, I know of no one who's been to the area and spent time with opposition that isn't incredibly dismayed at the lack of progress that is occurring there.

I know there's a lot of capacity that has to be built. I know there are interagency discussions about whether we should move to industrial strength training, more away from the kind of activities that are taking place now to build capacity more quickly.

I would like for which ever one wants to respond, to talk with us, those of us who have been to the region and do believe that Syria is important, who are watching what is happening in Iraq as this sectarian issues moves into there and into Lebanon and destabilized in Jordan, why have we been so slow, so inept in so many ways at helping build capacity of this opposition that we have said publicly that we support?

KERRY: Well, Senator, it's a worthy and important question. I've had a number of different meetings with the opposition over the course of the months now since I came in February, beginning with a meeting in Rome and subsequently in Istanbul and Amman, Jordan.

The opposition, one has to remember, as little as a year ago, there was no great clarity to the structure of that opposition or to who they were, and they certainly had had no experience in this kind of an endeavor.

Over the course of that year, they have evolved, I would say significantly, are they where they need to be? Not completely but they have changed markedly over the last couple of months.

At our insistence, when I say our insistence, the insistence of all our supporters, the so-called "London 11," they reached out and expanded significantly their base within Syria.

They elected new leadership and brought in a much broader base of Syria representation, including women and minorities and Christians and others.

They've built up a much more competent leadership --

CORKER: I've only got a few minutes. I'm very aware of those things.

What I'm unaware of is why it is so slow and helping them with lethal support, why has that been so slow?

KERRY: I think, Senator, we need to have that discussion tomorrow in classified session. We can talk about some components of that.

Suffice it to say, I want General Dempsey to speak to this, maybe Secretary Hagel, that is increasing significantly. It has increased in its competency. I think it's made leaps and bounds over the course of the last few months.

Secretary Hagel, do you -- or General do you want --

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I would only add that it was June of this year that the president made a decision to support lethal assistance to the opposition.

As you all know, we have been very supportive with hundreds of millions of dollars of nonlethal assistance, the vetting process as Secretary Kerry has noted has been significant.

But I'll ask General Dempsey if he wants to add anything, but we, Department of Defense, have not been directly involved in this. This is, as you know, a covert action.

And as Secretary Kerry noted, probably to go into much more detail would require a closed or classified hearing.

General Dempsey?

CORKER: As he's answering that, if you could be fairly brief. Is there anything about the authorization that you're asking that in any way takes away from our stated strategy of empowering the vetted opposition to have the capacity over time to join in with a transition government as we have stated from the beginning? There anything that supplements that?

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: To your question about the opposition, the path to the resolution of the Syrian conflict is through a developed capable, moderate opposition and we know how to do that.

Secondly, there's nothing in this resolution that would limit what we're doing now but we're very focused on the response to the chemical weapons. I think that subsequent to that, we would probably return to have a discussion about what we might do with the moderate opposition in a more overt way.

CORKER: I'm very sympathetic to the situation of wear warfare and what this means to the U.S. credibility and the fact that people are watching in the region and this will have an impact.

I want to say, I'm not sympathetic regarding the lack of effort that is taking place in my opinion on the ground as it relates to the vetted opposition. And I hope the end state that you imagine here is something that while we'll be surgical, is something that enhances the strategy that we've already laid in place. I hope you'll answer that yes or no at this time.

DEMPSEY: The answer to whether I support additional support for the moderate opposition is yes.

CORKER: And this authorization will support those activities in addition to responding to the weapons of mass destruction. DEMPSEY: I don't know how the resolution will evolve, but I support --

CORKER: What you're seeking. What is it you're seeking.

DEMPSEY: I can't answer that.

KERRY: The action -- if it is authorized, the answer is as I said in my opening comments, that a consequence of degrading his chemical capacity, inevitably will also have downstream impact on his military capacity.

CORKER: Is this authorization is only about weapons of mass destruction?

KERRY: That's correct. This authorization is a limited targeted effort to focus on deterring and degrading the chemical weapons capacity of the Assad regime.

CORKER: Is that against any other enemies other than the Assad regime?

KERRY: No, Senator.

CORKER: Is it to be utilized in any other country except inside Syria?

KERRY: No, Senator.

CORKER: I will say in response to your answer to Senator Menendez, I didn't find that a very appropriate response regarding boots on the ground.

And I do want to say that that's an important element to me. and I hope that as we together work through this, we work through something that's much clearer than the answer that you gave.

I don't think while we're all -- we all feel the actions by the Assad regime are reprehensible, I don't think there are any of us willing to support the possibility of having combat boots on the ground.

And I do hope as we move through this the administration will be very clear.

KERRY: Let me be very clear now because I don't want anything coming out of this hearing that leaves any door open to any possibility, so let's shut that down now as tight as we can.

All I did was raise a hypothetical question about some possibility and I'm thinking out loud about how to protect America's interest, but if you want to know whether there's any -- the answer is, whatever prohibition clarifies it to Congress and American people, there will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.

CORKER: Thank you.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

Senator Boxer? SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA: Mr. Chairman and Senator Corker, thank you so much for holding this hearing on a vote of conscience. I ask unanimous consent that my full statement be entered.

MENENDEZ: Without objection.

BOXER: I'll make a brief statement because a lot of people have been asking me on how I view this and then I'll ask questions about the intel, if I can.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for showing us those images of children because even though it's really hard to look at, we have to look at it. Children gasping for air and young bodies lined up in a row should shock the world.

And the failure to act, I think, gives license to the Syrian president to use these weapons again. And it sends a terrible signal to other brutal regimes like North Korea, and can I thank you, Secretary Hagel, for bringing up the issue of North Korea and Mr. Kerry for your bringing it up.

How many of us have been there to the line where we see thousands of our troops standing there just a stone's throw away from North Korea? We need to think about it. Maybe it's because I'm from California I tend to look at Asia, but this is very serious. We've seen that danger up close when we go to that line.

Now, since I came to the Senate, I voted against the Iraq war, but I did vote for the use of force against Osama bin Laden. I voted to support air strikes against Serbia but vocally opposed the military surge in Afghanistan. I approached this issue in the same way I approach those, with a very heavy heart and very independent mind.

I've heard some of my colleagues compare President Obama's position on Syria to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. I thank Senator Kerry for discussing this because I believe it's a totally false comparison, and I know it's been mentioned before. You drew that line again.

In Iraq the Bush administration prepared to invade an occupied country with well over a hundred thousand troops. In this case the president has been clear, no ground invasion, no occupation. We'll have that in our resolution.

Why should we take any targeted action against Syria? Not only is it important to keep North Korea in mind, but also allowing the continued use of chemical weapons to go unanswered makes it much more likely that we'll see it used again in Syria, and we'll see it used maybe elsewhere.

And terrorists could obtain those and use them on America or our allies or troops, use them, for example, against Israel and other friends.

It makes it more likely, and this is key, that Iran will view us as a paper tiger when it comes to their nuclear program and that is dangerous, not only for us and our friends but for the world. Now, in 1997, the Senate supported a ban on chemical weapons by a vote of 74-26. Shouldn't an overwhelming vote like that mean something? Shouldn't the Senate stand behind its words and actions?

And then in '03, we passed the Syria Accountability Act by a vote of 89-4. I wrote that bill with Senator Santorum. We had a huge vote in favor of it.

This is what it says, "Acquisitions of weapons of mass destruction threaten the security of the Middle East and the national security of the United States." Shouldn't an overwhelming vote like that mean something? Shouldn't the Senate stand behind its words and its actions?

So I believe as Secretary Kerry said and so I'll reiterate it, not only has our president drawn a line, a red line, on the use of chemical weapons and not only has the world done so, but we in the senate, we did so.

Now, I know there's tremendous reluctance to get involved in another military effort. And sometimes the easiest thing to do is to walk away.

Well, I believe we cannot close our eyes to this clear violation of longstanding international norms. I believe America's morality and reputation and America's credibility are on the line.

I applaud this administration and our president for coming to Congress. I applaud those who asked him to come to Congress. It's the right thing to do.

And I will support a targeted effort but not a blank check respond to Syria's unspeakable deeds to gas its own people to death.

Now, my question involves the intel here. I don't know how much you can give us. I'm going to try to make this pretty broad so you can answer it, whoever feels more comfortable.

A lot of people are fearful because of what happened in Iraq. That there might be disagreement between the intel agencies, and we have a lot of intelligence agencies, 17 in all, all over the place.

I don't know how many were involved, whether it was four or six or eight. I don't know whether you can disclose that.

My question is, was there any argument about this fact that they agree that there's high confidence that these weapons were used by the Assad regime? Was there any debate -- there was debate. Was there any dissension between the various agencies?

KERRY: The intelligence community represented by DNI Clapper has released a public document, unclassified, available for all to see in which they make their judgment with high confidence that the facts are as they have set forth. You know, I think that speaks for itself.

BOXER: I'm going to press just a little bit harder here, John, Mr. Secretary, if I can.

Out of all of the different agencies, because I remember in Iraq, sure, eventually the word came down and everyone agreed, but then we found out there was disagreement.

To your knowledge, did they all come to the same conclusion, the various intelligence agencies?

KERRY: To my knowledge I have no knowledge of any agency that was a dissenter or any -- who had an alternate theory.

They had a whole scenario to test the theory to see if they could come up with an alternative view and the answer was they cannot.

BOXER: OK, last question on intel and Russia, I read -- and I don't know if it is true or false, but I read in one of the publications today that members of the Russian parliament are going to here to lobby colleagues here, to tell colleagues here that there is no such intelligence, that there is no proof.

I myself met with the Russian ambassador several times on this matter, and I knew right away a long time ago they were going to do nothing to help us.

But what are they clinging to here? How could they make that case, given what you've said?

KERRY: I -- honestly, I don't know. I mean, there's no way for me to (inaudible) what it is. I think that I've had personal conversations with the foreign minister. They make an argument to some effect that we don't have evidence and that the opposition did it. No matter what you show, that's the argument they take.

Now as to why they do that or what the rationale is, I'm not going to speculate. The president, as you know, is leaving this evening to go to St. Petersburg for the summit. He will have ample opportunity to hear firsthand from President Putin, and I'm confident they'll have a discussion about it.

BOXER: Thank you.

Thank you.

MENENDEZ: Senator Risch?

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R), IDAHO: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

KERRY: Can I just say, I want to add, though, our Russian, you know, the Russians, I think it's important for us not to get into an unnecessary, struggle over some of this, for a lot of reasons.

The Russians are working with us and cooperating on this effort to try to make is negotiated process this work, and I think they're serious about trying to find a way forward with that, number one.

Number two, on major issues, like START, North Korea, Iran, the Russians are cooperating, so I think, you know, we have to sort of deal with this thoughtfully and let's hope that the summit might produce some change of heart, as the president makes the evidence available to president Putin.

RISCH: Mr. Chairman, first of all, let me say that, I've seen the pictures of what happened and I've been seeing pictures for 14 months or more, two years, I guess, of what's going on over there, and you can't have an ounce of compassion in you and not be moved tremendously by what's happening there.

It's awful. It's horrendous. There's been almost 100,000 people killed there. And we all know, I guess in an unclassified setting, we can say that these people have used gas on multiple occasions.

But the deaths have only been in the hundreds and not in the thousands. But all of this is moving and there's no question about it. I do -- nonetheless, I am reluctant.

If there was one American -- if this was an attack against any American, against any American interest, this would be a no-brainer for me, but I'm reluctant, at this point, and a part of it stems from where this is going to go, as to the limit that we're going to put on it.

Secretary Kerry, you said you've met with your -- with the -- your counterpart, from Russian. And first of all, you say they're cooperating with us on all major issues. I view this as a major issue, and I don't view them as cooperating with us.

They're printing their currency. They're providing them with information. They're providing them with technology. They've provided them with a tremendous amount of military power.

And so the question I have is, what's your counterpart telling you as to what they're going to do when and if America pulls the trigger?

KERRY: Senator, look, I understand anybody's reluctance about this, but, again, I would ask you the confront the greater reality about this if we don't do something.

If you think it's bad today, what they're doing, just think about what happens if they confirm their suspicion that the United States isn't going to do anything.

One of the reasons Assad has been using these materials is because they have, up until now, made the calculation that the West, writ large, and the United States, particularly, are not going to do anything about it.

Impunity is already working to kill a lot of people and to make things more dangerous.

Now, I guarantee you that is in their assessment, so, if we make it worse by not being willing to do something, those terrible images you see are going to be. But worse than that, our interests will be set back. Israel will be at greater risk. Jordan will be at greater risk. The longer that this conflict goes on and particularly with Assad's ability to be able to use chemical weapons, the more you will see the humanitarian crisis grow.

We are already the largest contributor, thanks to the, you know, generosity to have the American people and the willingness of Congress to move, we're already the largest contributor to refugee camps on the borders. Many of you have been to them.

You want to see them grow? You want to see Jordan, which is already fragile -- many of you have met with the king. You know king Abdullah's judgment is that he's at risk because of what is happening.

So I believe the best way to curb that and reduce the threat is by acting.

RISCH: And I don't disagree -- I don't disagree with anything you've said, but let's take that and try to expand on that.

We need the credibility. There is no question about it, but are we really going to be giving them credibility if we go in with a limited strike, and the day after or the week after or the month after, Assad crawls out of his rat hole and says, look, I stood up to the strongest power on the face of this earth and I won, so now it's business as usual here.

And he may say, by the way, I'm not going to use chemical weapons anymore, because I don't like what just happened, but I'm going to continue to use conventional weapons, and we're going to go on with business as usual and the refugees are going to continue and thousands are going to be killed.

And our allies are going to say, what's the matter with the United States? You said you'd do something about this. You did a limited strike, but you didn't finish Assad off, and the problem is just as bad as it was.

What does that do to our credibility? You know, that concerns me.

KERRY: Well, Senator, let me speak to that. It's a good question.

First of all, I think General Dempsey will tell you, Assad may be able to crawl out of the hole and say, look, I survived, but there's no way that with reality and other assessments, he's going to be able to say he's better off.

There is no question that whatever choices are made by the president, that he and his military effort will not be better off, number one, and the opposition will know that and the people in Syria will know that.

Already today, just with the threat that action may be taken, defections have gone up and people in Syria are reconsidering whether Assad is a long-term bet. Moreover, General Dempsey has made it clear and Secretary Hagel has made it clear and the president's made it clear that there will be additional support to the opposition, which is only now in its third month of receiving the overt support or about to receive, in fairness, Senator McCain and others know that there are other things that haven't gotten there yet, but that process the in place and that will increase.

So I believe --

RISCH: My time's almost up, Senator Kerry. Let me -- I really want to get a handle on this.

I think all of us feel strongly about this, and I need my -- I need to be reassured on this. The other thing that really troubles me about this is what happens if this things gets away from us?

I mean, what happens -- you've been on the border between Israel and Lebanon, as I have. And since the last war, I mean, they have really -- Hezbollah has really beefed that up.

What happens if they get into it with Israel? What's our response to that going to be?

KERRY: Well, I talked with Prime Minister Netanyahu just yesterday, and he made it pretty clear to me that Israel feels very confident about Israel's ability to be able to deal, as they have previously, with a miscalculation by Assad.

And the rest of the community, Turks, the Jordanians, the Saudis, the United States, France, others all have a capacity. So as I said in my statement, you all have to make a kind of calculation here, just as Assad does.

If he's foolish enough to respond to the world's enforcement against his criminal activity, if he does, he will invite something far worse and, I believe, something absolutely unsustainable for him.

That doesn't mean the United States of America is going to war. As I said in my comments, there are plenty of options here.

Let me finish one other comment because it's important to the earlier question. Russian does not have an ideological commitment here. This is a geopolitical, transactional commitment, and our indications are that in many regards that that's the way we view it. There may be more weapons to sell as a result of weapons sold, but it's not going to illicit some type of major confrontation.

Now, let me go further. They have condemned the use of chemical weapons, the Russians have. The Iranians have. And as the proof of the use becomes even more clear in the course of this debate, I think it is going to be very difficult for Iran or Russian to decide against all that evidence that there's something worth defending here.

So this is the kind of calculation you have to make, but I'd measure that against the calculation of what happens if we don't respond. If we don't respond, we're going to be back here, asking you to respond to some greater confrontation, with greater potential for damage and danger, because somebody miscalculated as a result of believing the United States isn't good for what it says.