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Obama Talks Syria, Builds U.S. Support; Obama Vows "No Boots On The Ground"; The U.S./Russian Divide Over Syria; Syrian Refugee Crisis Grows

Aired September 4, 2013 - 10:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: He just wrapped up a little while ago, a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden with the prime minister of Sweden. The president is making a strong case for a limited targeted U.S. military strike against various targets in Syria designed to deter and degrade Syria's chemical weapons capability.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Let's go to Stockholm, Sweden right now. Our senior White House correspondent Brianna Keilar is standing by. Brianna, for viewers here in the U.S. and around the world who are just tuning in, give us the most important headlines of what we just heard from President Obama when it comes to Syria.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think the most important headline that we heard, Wolf, was a couple of things actually. He really seemed to be confronting, and I think he had to do this because he is here in Sweden where the prime minister publicly has said he wants to see diplomatic intervention rather than military intervention. You heard President Obama kind of systematically lay out his case for why he thinks there is only way to go and that is military intervention.

He said, you know, do you do something diplomatically? Well, we've done something diplomatically. He said you just shine a spotlight and try to shame someone. There are leaders who have no shame and clearly he things President Assad is one of them. Probably the headline sound bite I think that obviously comes out of this is where he said, this wasn't my -- I didn't set a red line, the international community set a red line, the world set a red line.

He said Congress set a red line when it ratified the treaty that said chemical weapons should be banned in the late '90s. He said my credibility is not on the line, the international community's credibility is on the line. I do think that, Wolf, we have the sound bite from a little over a year ago when President Obama talked about his red line. So I want to play that so that we can talk about sort of whether it is his credibility or it is the international community's red line. Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Brianna, the president obviously remembering what he said then. Later he also said it would be a game changer, if you will, if the Syrians were to do this, the Syrian government doing this. They did it a few times by U.S. intelligence analysis over the last year. The U.S. didn't do anything, but this one was much more significant according to the U.S. government. More than 1,400 people were killed, 400 of whom were children. That was the real red line for the president, earlier accusations of Syrian military use of chemical weapons that didn't draw this kind of ferocious potential response, right?

KEILAR: That's right, back in June was when the administration came out and said they had a high level of confidence that chemical weapons had been used and they were talking specifically about attacks that had happened in March. There wasn't video of that. Americans didn't really see the victims here. They didn't get a sense of the scale it was on. I think if you talk to Americans and ask them, do you know that chemical weapons have been used in Syria? A lot of them wouldn't have any idea.

When this attack happened on August 21st just a couple weeks ago, with the video that came out, with the corroboration coming from doctors without borders talking about the hundreds of people that they saw treated, and who passed away, and they witnessed it happen. Folks did not have any sort of wounds, and it seemed very clear that it was a chemical weapons attack.

I think it became pretty clear as the administration tried to figure out how they were going to deal with whether or not a redline had been crossed. This was certainly something that had been. The president talking about a whole bunch of chemical weapons that certainly met his definition of what crossed his red line and what changed his calculus -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar is traveling with the president in Stockholm, Sweden. She will be heading off to St. Petersburg, Russia for the G- 20 Summit with him tomorrow as well. All right, stand by, Brianna. Let's bring back Gloria Borger, our chief political analyst, David Gergen, our senior political analyst for some analysis.

Let me play this clip because hovering over this entire debate is U.S. credibility and whether the U.S. intelligence community right now has it right when they say they have, quote, "high confidence" that the regime of Bashar Al-Assad used chemical weapons against its own people. Listen to what the president said today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line. And America and Congress' credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important. And when those videos first broke and you saw images of over 400 children subjected to gas, everybody expressed outrage.

I'm very mindful of the fact that around the world and here in Europe in particular, there are still memories of Iraq, weapons of mass destruction accusations, people being concerned about how accurate this information is. Keep in mind, I'm somebody who opposed the war in Iraq and I'm not interested in repeating mistakes of us basing decisions on faulty intelligence. But having done a thorough investigation, the information that is currently available, I can say with high confidence that chemical weapons were used.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, someone who covered the intelligence community over the years, when I hear the president say repeatedly and other U.S. officials, we have high confidence that these chemical weapons were used. High confidence is very significant, but it is not absolute certainty, if you will. It is a little less than that. Is that a problem at all?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it could be a problem, but in talking to people on Capitol Hill, going to those classified briefings, I would have to say that more come out of those classified briefings pretty convinced than those who say that the evidence is pretty thin. There are some who believed that the evidence remains spin.

The one thing in watching that clip, Wolf, that strikes me, is that the president was trying to say to the world this isn't about me and also for domestic political consumption. This isn't about my credibility because that's been the charge domestically. This isn't about my red line because domestically people said why did he use those particular words?

It seemed to me a little bit disingenuous to use David Gergen's words because these were his words. This is his credibility and it may be the world's credibility as well and when you're president of the United States, you know, the buck stops here. If you are taking the high moral ground about the use of these awful chemical weapons, then why not just buy into it and accept it.

And the new talking point seems to be from John Kerry, and Nancy Pelosi, and the president himself, which is that this is the world's red line. Yes, it is, but it was also his.

BLITZER: David Gergen, yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there was an interesting exchange with the Democratic Senator from California, Barbara Boxer. She wanted to know if there was dissension within the U.S. intelligence community about this allegation that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons recalling that in the lead up to the Iraq war ten years ago, there were elements that the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department, there was disagreement.

They didn't think that it was a slam dunk that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein had chemicals or weapons of mass destruction. There were others at the Pentagon, at the CIA, who were dissenting. But in the end, of course, they concluded and Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the U.N. and testified that there were, in fact, weapons of mass destruction. That intelligence assessment proved to be wrong.

When Kerry was asked by Barbara Boxer yesterday, was there any significant decent this time around? He said not that he knows of, which wasn't very decisive as far as I could tell not that he knows of. What did you make of that if you were listening carefully to that exchange between Barbara Boxer and John Kerry?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I must say I think that the Obama administration, Secretary Kerry and the president himself have been much more cautious in their use of language about what they know and don't know. The Bush administration was trying to seize upon the intelligence to win the public and they over dramatized that. But in this case, I think, Wolf, they have been trying to be fairly precise. And the fact that John Kerry doesn't know what was said in the CIA quarters. I think he's been pretty honest about.

The high confidence as you and Gloria know and you basically pointed out is a technical phrase within the intelligence community that says, you know, we don't have a smoking gun, but we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. It is a very high -- it is almost all the way, and it is enough, frankly in the intelligence world where it is very difficult to find smoking guns. That's as good as it gets.

That is a very, very, you know, high amount of evidence, and I think Gloria is right. You know, people who have been seeing it, comes away, saying basically they are convinced. What they not convinced about and why they are still skeptical is that a military strike is a going to do any good.

And where is it going to lead and does that thought through? That's what they are much less convinced about and the president I think at some point has to make that case much, much better than he has. He has to understand that this will make a difference and it will not draw us in.

BLITZER: Does it do it in the oval office addressed to the nation, David, or does he do it before a joint meeting of the Senate and the House?

GERGEN: Well, Wolf, ordinarily in this situation, he is not talking about a big strike. Ordinarily, you would have taken to Congress and you wouldn't even do an oval office address, but because I think I do believe, Gloria is right about -- we all agree. His personal credibility is on the line here. He did draw a red line that sent a message that if you do this, it's going to trigger a military response. That was the interpretation.

They have been trying to knock that back for a whole year now. That's very much out there so his credibility is on the line and because he is commander-in-chief, America's credibility is on the line. So in that sense with some reluctance I must say I would say I think he needs to go before the joint session. He needs to win this. To lose would strip him of a lot of authority and would really undermine his credibility when it comes to Iran.

BORGER: If he were to lose this, Wolf, then at least he will have made his best case to the American people. I mean, I think in this press conference we just saw, we saw a president who was explaining his struggle about how he reached this decision to go to Congress, and talked about the moral imperative that we feel as Americans when we see these kinds of pictures of children, dead. And I think that it is something that he is starting to tell the American people about, and I would agree with David that I think if he were to continue to do that, he might be able to shift public opinion.

BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much. We're going to continue our analysis, but I want to go to Chris Lawrence, our Pentagon correspondent, right now. He is getting some new information on how the U.S. might launch some sort of military strike against Syria. What are you learning, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, in addition to the air strike, the Obama administration has indicated to several senators that it may also increase the aide to the Syrian opposition as part of an overall package so to speak to, you know, go after the Assad regime. I'm hearing now from sources that despite Secretary of State John Kerry's very, very enthusiastic call for increased U.S. aid to those rebels, there is still very deep divisions within the Obama administration over how much trust they can place in the opposition.

One U.S. official told me we do not see the clear divisions between the extremist and the moderates that some have suggested. He says the intelligence assessments that he has looked at show that they are overlapping and interspersed in a lot of areas of the country. He also said that despite Secretary Kerry's very sort of public advocation, and what we heard yesterday in an open session of Congress, he said the intelligence that will be laid out in some of the classified briefings that congressional members are getting will go a lot farther to showing the concern there is over the makeup of some of these opposition forces.

Additionally I have learned from another defense official that the U.S. military is reducing its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. The USS San Antonio, an amphibious ship, has now pulled into port in Haifa in Northern Israel. So from a few days ago when we had five destroyers and an amphibious ship, there are now four destroyers. One of the destroyers went home yesterday and the USS San Antonio has left as well.

Now the San Antonio had helicopters and Marines, and knowing that we will not have manned nights over Syria, its assets probably were not needed. It wasn't part of this original mission. It was supposed to transit through them and late last week, Officials kept it there out of prudent planning when things were heating up at the end of the week, but now the San Antonio has left. So right now, four destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence, thanks very much. Our next guest, a very perfectly William Cohen, the former defense secretary during the Clinton administration, a former Republican senator from the state of Maine for a long time, Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us. What do you make of what's going on right now because it's so complicated and the ramifications are enormous.

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, it is complicated and I think it calls for some prudence here and some clarity. I'm not exactly sure what the president is doing in terms of turning to Congress. I didn't believe that he had to go to Congress in order to get authority and now he wants to put Congress on the line and voting for it, I'm not sure what the president is doing in terms of turning to Congress.

But it seems to me that it is not the officials saying I don't care what the outcome is, whether you support or reject me, I'm going forward anyway. Secondly, I think he has to make a very overwhelmingly persuasive case to members of Congress, the Senate and the House, and then take that evidence to the U.N. I think this is critically important that he still try to persuade the U.N. Security Council with the evidence that we that Assad has in fact perpetrated this crime against humanity.

And if the Russians at that point veto it then I think he can fall back and say I've got authority. That I've gotten from my Congress and we're going to do this, but I think he should make every effort to go to the U.N. to put the Russians on the line and see he can persuade, President Putin, that he should join in this effort to bring Assad to account for this.

BLITZER: So assuming he gets that vote in the Senate and House of Representatives. That's obviously still a big assumption, but assuming he dies, even before a strike, you would then recommend he do, what the Bush administration did, send the secretary of state to the United Nations with the intelligence and the evidence to make the case one last time, is that right?

COHEN: I would, and the reason is, Wolf, even though this is supposed to be a limited strike, once you fire those missiles, you're in it. You are going to kill people, some military but some civilians. So then you can't just say, well, we're just firing a warning shot to punish him and degrade him somewhat. And by the way, degrading him will alter the balance from where it is today.

And I believe that is one of the things that Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator McCain have been insisted upon. Not only have they insisted to beef up the strike itself, but that you arm the Syrians. So there is implicit on this, a desire to alter the balance of power on the ground in favor of the rebels that we're supporting. So I think we have to understand clearly that once you fire those missiles, we're in it whether we like it or not.

BLITZER: One finally question, Mr. Secretary, before I let you. This notion of high confidence, that is a technical term in the intelligence community that they give the commander-in-chief, the president, we have high confidence that something happened. On the scheme of things and you are a recipient of this kind of intelligence for a long time as defense secretary. Is there a category more assertive and more 100 percent certain that high confidence -- how does that go?

COHEN: There will never be a situation where it will be above that. High confidence means that you have multiple sources. Not what we had in the Iraq war where we had curveball who was one source and simply one or two will link up. We have to have multiple sources that are, in fact, coalesce into a pattern that is so overwhelming there is very little doubt left. That is what we should insist upon and hopefully the administration has it before it recommends taking military action.

BLITZER: Well, they say they have high confidence and that is a technical term. I was just curious is there a higher level that they give commander-in-chief?

COHEN: I don't believe I have ever seen that. That is pretty close to a slam dunk. By the way, there was some reports coming out they didn't have slam dunk information or intelligence. That's what that high confidence is, multiple source that's can be integrated, a clear and overwhelming indication of evidence and favor that Assad used chemical weapons.

BLITZER: Yes, and you were referring to the intelligence before the war in Iraq of March of 2003 when the president was told it was a slam dunk that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, stockpiles. And the curve ball was the source that turned out to be totally phoney and they made up all sorts of stuff about mobile transport capabilities for weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Secretary William Cohen, thanks very much for joining us.

COHEN: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: We'll continue the breaking news coverage, we just heard the president of the United States forcefully make the case for a limited targeted military strike in Syria, much more of the special coverage coming up after this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: As much as we are criticized, when bad stuff happens around the world, the first question is what is the United States going to do about it? That's true on every issue. It's true in Rwanda, Libya -- but it's not true in Syria?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're continuing the breaking news coverage coming out of the president's news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, in which he forcefully made the case on moral grounds, political grounds, military ground, to launch targeted, limited military strikes against targets in Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against Syrian civilians. This has been an enormous problem going on for 2.5 years and there has been a refugee crisis over these past two and a half years.

In fact, these refugee crises have put a very heavy strain on neighboring countries taking in those escaping from the civil war in Syria. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees meets today with officials from Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq in an effort to generate more international support for dealing with the refugess.

CNN's Nic Robertson is joining us from Amman, Jordan right now. More than two million refugees have left Syria over the past two and a half years, Nic. I know you have been looking. It's an emotional and heart wrenching development, what is the latest?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's very, very difficult for the refugees coming to these countries. Jordan has over half a million refugees that come from the border with Syria. This refugee camp is now the fourth largest city in Jordan. We have the prime minister in Jordan telling CNN that he is very concerned about the ability of this country, very concerned about the stress being put on the economy by older refugees.

He said the country is not getting enough economic help. There are political tensions here as well and that is just Jordan. Lebanon has half a million, Egypt over 100,000, Iraq about 160,000 refugees, and Lebanon 700,000, Turkey has come to half a million refugees. Those are the numbers that are staggering, but it is individual cases, these families that were low or middle class families living in urban environment houses now crammed into tiny rooms and tents out in the desert.

The situation is so concerning for the U.N. that they have built another refugee camp here in Jordan that will accommodate over 100,000 people. It is empty, but it is ready and waiting because the expectation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson in Jordan for us, thank you. The British Prime Minister David Cameron once again coming under fire in parliament today, he defended his call for military action against Syria after lawmakers dealt a stunning defeat last week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID CAMERON, BRITAIN PRIME MINISTER: We won't get a peace process in Syria unless President Assad realizes that actually his regime is under pressure and threat from just from the rebels, but for the millions of Syrians that want democracy and a better future for themselves and their children. It is them who I wish should be truly on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go to London. Atika Shubert is standing by. Atika, this is an emotional gut wrenching issue for David Cameron, but from the political perspective he is losing this debate.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He has already lost the debate, but the door is being held open for possibly another vote. This is really only if substantial new evidence comes out. Today, the opposition leader said that Britain was not looking in responsibility here. They were just not rushing the door. It seems a remote possibility at this point, but it really depends, again, on the evidence that comes to light, and we're seeing more and more of that intelligence coming out. So it could still happen.

BLITZER: Similarly there is a debate in France. Are you getting any headlines out of there, Atika?

SHUBERT: Yes, it is interesting. The French debate is ongoing. In fact, some of the most detailed intelligence we have seen has been briefed to those French lawmakers. But they're not taking a vote on this. They can go ahead, but it will be interest k to see perhaps later on whether or not a vote is needed. But for now it's really just sort of more of a pr exercise, frankly.

BLITZER: It's an interesting development, the French government more closely aligned with the U.S. government now than the British government. That's not, necessarily, historically speaking. It has always been the case. Atika Shubert is in London for us. Thanks very much.

That's going to wrap it up for me for our special coverage of the president's news conference in Stockholm, Sweden. We're going to have continuing coverage of the latest developments involving the crisis in Syria throughout the day. Carol Costello is in the NEWSROOM to pick up some of the other important stories -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Other important stories plus we'll have more on the situation unfolding in Syria as well. Thank you, Wolf. The first thing we will talk about it Ariel Castro, the man who kidnapped three women and tortured them for years, hangs himself in an Ohio prison.