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House Hearing Concerning Striking Syria; Interview with Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland

Aired September 4, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're watching key members of President Obama's inner circle, including Secretaries John Kerry and Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It's been compelling, at times contentious.

Later this hour, we will have some extensive analysis, but, for now, let's go back to the hearing and listen in live.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: ... say to you the president's...

REP. MARK MEADOWS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Would that be covered under his authorization?


The president's authorization does not apply to Iran or Hezbollah or other entities. It's not entity-specific. It's with respect to the Assad regime's capacity with respect to chemical weapons. And it is solely focused on the degrading and the preventing of the use by the Assad regime.

MEADOWS: So what are -- are we actively engaged to make sure that Hezbollah is not gaining access to these chemical weapons to be used in another theater?

KERRY: Well, General, do you want to -- I mean...

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: Yes. We really -- we do know a little bit about that, whether they even want a part of chemical weapons, and if so, what might be the instrument. I can tell you our regional partners are very interested in that question, but it really would be classified.


So you're saying, then, if Syria transferred their chemical weapons to Iran, to a state-controlled entity, the receiving of those chemical weapons would not be one that would dictate action from us?

KERRY: No, it is not. These are not externally focused at all. And I want to emphasize that. I will add that there is evidence that both Iran and Hezbollah have opposed the use of chemical weapons.

MEADOWS: OK. So let me go on further, because I think, Secretary Kerry, your quote was is, do we mean what we say? And so I think that's a critical question today, because is this a new departure? Are we going to start a new foreign policy, where we truly mean what we say?

Because about six minutes into his your testimony, you mentioned that there was 11 other events where gas or chemical weapons was used there in Syria, and yet we have done nothing. And so when we start to look at that, is this a new day for foreign policy, where we're going to start to say something and mean it and draw a red line that truly is a red line?

KERRY: Well, let me say, with respect to those other incidents, this is an intelligence community assessment.

MEADOWS: But there is not new intelligence. We have known this for many months.


KERRY: No, no, no. No, I know this, Congressman. Congressman, I know this because I have been forefront -- I was here.

MEADOWS: I have read your reports.

KERRY: ... arguing this and talking about it last year, too.

The problem is -- was again with many of those the quality of evidence, the level of the event, and people were uncomfortable with the nothing that that in fact -- it called for action, but it didn't necessarily rise to the level of what the president has decided.

MEADOWS: So, what is that level? Is it 1,000 deaths?

KERRY: No, it's not based on deaths. It's based on, I think an exhaustive...


MEADOWS: Either use requires action or it doesn't?

KERRY: I beg your pardon?

MEADOWS: Either...


KERRY: Well, I don't know. What was the date when the president drew the red line publicly? I don't recall that. I think some of those events were prior to that, and so I think there's been a steady...

(CROSSTALK) MEADOWS: We go back all the way to August of last year.

KERRY: And I think there was a steady effort by the administration and others to try to send messages, and they were sent very powerfully, I might add. Messages were sent to the Russians. They were sent directly through to Iranians. The messages were sent.


MEADOWS: But today we're talking about military action.

KERRY: Now I think there's a sense of those efforts all having been exhausted, and this, therefore, being a remedy of last resort.

MEADOWS: OK. So when do we ultimately get that -- when can our enemies and our allies depend on us to take action when we have these kind of things that happen?


KERRY: When the House of Representatives passes the president's request for this resolution.

MEADOWS: As it relates to Syria and everybody else? Because this is just Syria, but I'm talking about internationally.

KERRY: Well, internationally, Congressman, I think we have been proving our word good on everything the president has said he's going to do. He's drawn down in Iraq. He's drawing down on Afghanistan. We're working on the Middle East peace process. We have been involved with Egypt and many other countries.

We're continuing to prosecute al Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere. We decimated al Qaeda in Pakistan. We're working on the bilateral security arrangement with Afghanistan. We're working -- I mean, these are things that are all going on, and I think, you know, these broad, sweeping assessments don't actually do justice to what is happening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to Ted Yoho of Florida.

REP. TED YOHO (R), FLORIDA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, gentlemen, for the enduring the length of time here.

And I hope you men are men of prayer and that we seek guidance and wisdom as we work through this. And I agree with many of my colleagues that our foreign policy is confusing to the world, our allies, and to the American people. And that is why I think we're sitting here today. The primary role of the U.S. government according to our Constitution is national security.

I do not see a direct threat to the U.S. from the internal civil war in Syria, as deplorable as it is. We have got 14,000 to 2,000 people killed by chemical weapons. I think that's despicable, but about what the 108,000 that have been killed by conventional warfare? Is that just not as despicable? I cannot, I will not nor shall not support intervention in this conflict. Our action would be one of attacking a sovereign nation, a nation that did not attack us, and after war -- and if we start war, we invite war, do we not? And I view this as unconstitutional to attack a country that did not attack us.

I and the people I represent said, not just no, but something like heck no. Don't get involved in this. And the same thing I hear over and over. The CWC agreement signed by 189 countries states that any country that produces, transports, sells or uses chemical weapons are in violation of that agreement.

Who are those countries? You have got North Korea, possibly Russia, as Secretary Hagel said, was supplying Syria with possible chemical weapons. Maybe Iran or China, the U.S. There are probably other countries. So if we act now against Syria, does that mean we act against other nations? And do we act in totality? And do we act now?

Where does this stop? Once you cross a red line -- and this goes back to our confusing foreign policies. It was a red line? It wasn't a red line? I just think we need clarity in this. And I want to know where the 188 countries are that signed the agreement, the U.N., the Arab League and NATO demanding that we come to the table on one side and Mr. Assad on the other side.

I implore you guys and the administration to find a diplomatic solution, because all I have heard is military intervention. And I know you guys have talked about diplomatic solutions, but the clout of the United States and that we supply the majority of the foreign aid around the world, that we need to bring people and demand people come to the table. And this is a moment in time in history where we, America, can lead a new direction, in a new direction, a direction where we can bring together a coalition of countries that the other 188 that signed the CWC agreement and negotiate a political and diplomatic solution.

It's a time for a new direction in our foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, and that we can win this and it be done and won with diplomacy and not with guns and bombs.

Senator Kerry, you said yesterday that you could not guarantee that U.S. troops would not be on the ground.

KERRY: No, I did guarantee that they wouldn't be, and I guaranteed it again today.

YOHO: I have got the transcripts here.


KERRY: I think if you read the whole transcript, I said clearly there will be no troops on the ground.

YOHO: All right, even if the weapons fell into the hands of the bad people?

KERRY: There's nothing in this resolution whatsoever that would put troops on the ground. Nothing.


YOHO: I just want to clarify that. Thank you.

General Dempsey, you stated that we would need thousands of support troops on the ground, you didn't say in Syria, but close by. Where would they be?

DEMPSEY: Not related to this resolution. That's related to whether we took a decision to support the opposition.

YOHO: OK. Well, the way I read this briefing out of the CRS, as of two days ago, it said in Syria, if we attack Syria.

DEMPSEY: No. No, sir.

YOHO: OK. Do we have support and authorization from Turkey to use their air bases? Or can that not be divulged?

DEMPSEY: That is something we should talk about in a classified setting, same with Jordan and other places.

YOHO: Does the CWC, or according to you, Mr. -- Secretary Kerry, the world's resolve or the international community, is there a doctrine that the U.S. should lead in world conflicts like this? Why is it always America out front? I know we have got the best military and I'm very proud of that, but why are we out leading this again?

KERRY: Well, let me answer that.

And, Mr. Chairman, I have to take more than 40 seconds to do it, because -- but it's a vial, vital questions for Americans and for this issue.

Congressman, I wish the world were a little more simple. I grew up in the Cold War. I think all of us did. And it was pretty East/West, communism, you know, the West. That's not the world we live in today. When the Berlin Wall fell, so did all of the things that tamped down a lot of sectarian, religious and other kinds of conflict in the world.

And the truth is, we're one week away from 9/11 commemoration; 9/11 happened because there were ungoverned spaces in which people who wanted to fight the West, who are culturally and historically opposed to modernity, want to attack us, and they did. I think most people, in making judgments about how to keep our country safe, make the judgment that there are a lot of folks out there who are committed to violent acts against lots of different people, because that's what they want to do.

And we have to defend ourselves differently today and work to deal with these issues in a different way than we ever have before. Now, I will just say to you, you know, we do have direct interests in what's happening in Syria. There is a direct interest in our credibility with respect to this issue. And you asked the question, you know, why does the United States have to be out there? Well, because what our forbearers, and, you know, what those -- what have -- you ever been to the cemetery in France, you know, above those beaches? Why did those guys have to go do that? Because we were standing up with people for a set of values, and fighting for freedom, and no country has liberated as much land or fought as many battles as the United States of America and turned around and given it back to the people who live there and who can own it and run it.

We are the indispensable nation. This is because of who we are and what we have achieved. And we should be proud of it. And we have a great tradition to try to live up to in terms of trying to help people to see a peaceful road, not a road of jihadism.

A lot of people out in the Middle East count on us, moderate Arab world, not religious extremists. They count on us to help them be able to transition. That's part of what the Arab spring is about. And it's not going to end quickly. It's not going to be over just like that. Our own struggle for freedom took a long time.

So I think we have to have a longer view here. And I think we have to think about the ways in which we can protect ourselves. I guarantee you, if we don't stand up against chemical weapons in this instance, we are not serving our national security interests.

TAPPER: We're going to take a quick break. And we will be right back with more live coverage of the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on whether or not the U.S. should militarily intervene in Syria -- back after this.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

You're watching the House Foreign Affairs Committee's hearings on whether or not the U.S. should militarily intervene in Syria. We're down to the last questioner, we believe. Let's take a listen as this hearing winds down.

REP. LUKE MESSER (R), INDIANA: What move can be done to further communicate with the American people? For example, will the president make a speech from the Oval Office to the American people in one of the coming evenings?

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I have no doubt the president will.

MESSER: Thank you. I have no further questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A minute remaining.

KERRY: Well, Mr. Chairman, I think for all of us, we just want to thank you. We thank again the colleagues for taking the time to come back. It is serious.

We're not going to disagree that we don't need to take advantage of these next days to communicate to our fellow Americans about why this is so critical. I would just leave you with this. You know, I think look, General Dempsey and I could -- you know, he's correct when he says something may technically be an act of war, I understand what he's saying, but I don't believe we're going to war. I just don't believe that. Going to war is mobilizing force, asking people to join up fighting a long campaign, committing your troops on the ground, fighting to win, and so forth. That's not what we're doing here.

We're asking for permission, the president is asking for permission to take a limited military action, yes, but one that does not put Americans in the middle of the battle. No boots will be on the ground, whereby we enforce a standard of behavior that's critical to our troops, critical to our country, critical to the world, and most importantly. I mean, if you look at what the option is, if you don't want more extremism, you should vote for this, because to not vote for it, is to guarantee a continuation of this kind of struggle that will encourage extremists, that will even encourage some friends of ours to support them in order to achieve their goal of removing Assad.

And that will make that region far, far more dangerous. It will increase the humanitarian crisis. You will see more refugees, more pressure on our friends, Jordanians particularly, who are reeling under that pressure today, and more threat to Israel in the process, more threat to Lebanon in the process.

So, I would simply urge, you know, do not sent a message to somebody like Bashar al Assad that he will have impunity now, because the one country that can lead this effort, that is the indispensable nation, is going to walk away from its responsibility, and I -- I think the American people know -- and you said, you want to go to war in Syria? No, of course, that should be 100 percent. We don't want to go to war in Syria. We're not going to war in Syria.

We're taking an action that is in our interests, in our national security interests, in order to enforce a longtime standard. And if that is not enforced, the world will be less safe, and our citizens, no matter where you live in this country, will be less safe, because the likelihood is greater that somebody somewhere will get their hands on those materials as a result of our inaction.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. On behalf of the committee, I want to thank all three of you for what's been a long, productive, and certainly a necessary hearing --

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: You've been listening to key members of the Obama administration testify about why Congress should approve U.S. strikes in Syria.

Joining us now live is Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. He co-authored a House resolution that would put limits on the administration's authority.

Before we talk about that proposal, Congressman, I want your reaction to the fact that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution 10-7, bipartisan vote, both for and against, and while doing it, they added an amendment from Senators McCain and Coons that would make it U.S. policy to change the momentum. That is, in effect, increasing the authority of what the U.S. should do, whereas your legislation is hemming it in quite a bit.

Does it make -- does this make it more difficult for you to pass something in the House that would coincide -- that would align with what passed in the Senate committee today?

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: So the issue, Jake, is whether that legislation that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put in this bill authorizes the president to use military force for those purposes that he said was to try to change the balance in the Syrian civil war. That is not the purpose that the president has articulated, so that should not be the purpose of the authorization of force. What I don't know, because I haven't seen the whole thing in context, is whether it's an authorization to use force for this purpose, or it's a separate statement of U.S. policy.

After all, the president has said that our objective ultimately is to get rid of the Assad regime, but he's been very clear, the president, that that's not the purpose of this military intervention. He wants to use it by supporting some of the rebel groups (INAUDIBLE).

So I have to look at this in context.

TAPPER: In context, absolutely.

Your bill, and correct me if I'm wrong, it would essentially make it illegal for the U.S. to deploy troops on the ground.


TAPPER: It would also limit the president's authority to one round of strikes carried out over a 60-day period. And there's also some limit on what kind of military action U.S. could rely on to stop Syria's regime from using chemical weapons.

It's hemming in the president's authority to wage war, even though they initially requested, the White House, as every White House does, fairly expansive powers.

VAN HOLLEN: Yes, they were really looking for a partial blank check. As you said, presidents tend to do that. Just one clarification, because there separate restrictions.

TAPPER: Please.

VAN HOLLEN: Yes, we have a 60-day expiration date, but we also have another important provision. It says after the initial use of military force, after the additional punitive attacks, if Assad regime does not use chemical weapons again, if the president cannot certify to Congress that he's used chemical weapons against, then we may -- then we're not able to take exist -- follow on military action.

In other words, the purpose as articulated clearly by the president, deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons. If after the initial military strike, Assad does not use chemical weapons, what we're proposing is there'd be no authority to continue American military action.

TAPPER: You heard Secretary Kerry say this is not war. I interviewed two generals yesterday who said, well, you know, we haven't formally declared war since World War II, but Korea, Iraq 1, Iraq 2, Afghanistan, you can call them whatever you want, they're wars. This is an act of war against a sovereign country, attacking them with missiles, whatever the reason.

Do you buy this explanation, this statement from the administration that this is not war?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I accept what Secretary Kerry said, which is this is certainly not war in the sense that we're mobilizing all the forces of the United States to go after, replace a government or anything like that. This is much more like the Libya action.

In fact, I envision, at least based on the president's comments today, that the military action taken in Syria would be much more confined in both scope and time than the Libya action.

So our resolution that Connolly and I, Congressman Connolly, put forward, is designed to make sure that that is the exclusive purpose, that it is designed only to achieve the mission articulated by the president and limit that scope of action.

TAPPER: Can a war resolution get through this House?

VAN HOLLEN: I don't think anybody knows right now, Jake. I think you've been listening to these hearings, you hear lots of views.

TAPPER: Lots of skepticism on the left and the right, both.

VAN HOLLEN: And it's understandable. And a lot of this is the shadow overhanging from the Iraq situation, where we both went to war on false pretenses, that there were chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction, and the fact that we ended up being there for a long period of time at great cost. The evidence is very different in this case. It's very clear that the Assad regime use chemical weapons, and the whole purpose of the amendments, the way to change the president's resolution that we're proposing is to make sure that there's no way we get engaged in large-scale military activity in Syria.

TAPPER: All right. Congressman Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland -- thank so much. Thanks for coming in.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD: we work, we argue. Vladimir Putin sums up his relationship with President Obama. So, can these two come to an agreement on Syria?


VAN HOLLEN: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, General Martin Dempsey, spent two days testifying in front of members of the House and Senate, all of them repeating the case that chemical weapons were used, slaughtered children and other innocents and the Bashar al-Assad regime did it and must pay.

Meanwhile, big breaking news out of the Senate -- the Senate committee that heard testimony yesterday has sided with the president, passing a resolution that allows 60 days of limited military strikes with an option for an additional 30 days, but no boots on the ground.

Joining us to break down today's testimony on the Hill, chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash and CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

Gloria, you've been listening to this testimony for two days, as have I. Have the administration representatives, Kerry, Hagel, Dempsey, have they made their case?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think they have made their case. It's very clear from me listening to these two days that the problem that members of Congress have is more about the mission than about the evidence that they presented in classified hearings. If you listened to this House hearing today, it's clear they have a tough slog in the House of Representatives. Questions about, is this in the national interests? And then questions that run the gamut from -- is this too little too late, or should we be doing this at all because we're going to end up mission creep and the law of unintended consequences and we're going to get involved in a war which, by the way, John Kerry says this is never --

TAPPER: It's not a war.

BORGER: -- a war. Right.

So I think right now it's very hard to count votes in the House. You have the House Republican leaders for it, but you're going to have Democrats who defect, and you're going to have the "hell no" caucus of Republicans who don't support the president.

So I think it's a very fluid situation right now in the House.