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Obama: World Set Red Line; House Debates Strikes on Syria.

Aired September 4, 2013 - 13:30   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama first used those words, "the red line," last summer setting the bar for what could bring the U.S. into direct military conflict. It was in the White House news conference that the White House spoke of a red line.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've 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 will change my calculus. That will change my equation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president later said it would be a game changer as far as he's concerned.

He also said he hopes Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin, will change his mind, Russians will change their minds and support international action. The Russians, however, say that's not necessarily going to happen. They say it's a possibility if they were to see actual, hard proof that Syrian troops used chemical weapons against civilians. They Russians insist they have not seen that kind of proof.

Let's bring back Gloria Borger, our chief political analyst.

Gloria, the secretaries of State and Defense are continuing to testify together with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. But on this sensitive issue of drawing red line, what did you make of what the president had to say today in contrast to what he said a year ago.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think he's trying to depersonalize the issue, Wolf. He's come under a lot of criticism in this country, a lot of skepticism saying this is all about you. President Obama, you drew that red line. We didn't draw that red line. This is your credibility at stake. This is not our credibility at stake. And I think what the president was trying to say was it's not just about me. However, as you played that clip, he did personally draw that red line. What he did say in this news conference, Wolf, and I don't think we can say this strong enough, he said I do think we have to act. And that is a big question here right now because I think -- he says he's got act. If the Congress, if the House, for example, were to go against him, what would occur?

(CROSSTALK) BORGER: What kind of crisis would that set up?

BLITZER: Gloria, hold on a minute. I want to go back to the hearing because there's an important moment going on right now.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: -- use of chemical weapons. And all those people you arm will wind up being the victims of a chemical weapons attack. So with all due respect to Tom Freedman, who is most often correct, I think on this occasion it's absolutely vital that we send the message and deteriorate his capacity.

(CROSSTALK)

REP. STEVE CHABOT, (R), OHIO: We have a short period.

KERRY: And we would have given him impunity with respect to any future use.

CHABOT: Thank you.

Last Friday, all indications were that the president had made the decision to take military action, then things changed and he decided to consult with Congress. What made the president change his mind?

KERRY: Well, you have to ask the president. I don't know completely. I think he --

CHABOT: I assume you discuss this with him.

KERRY: We did discuss it, and what the president said was he felt very strongly it was important for us to be in our strongest posture, that the United States needed to speak with one voice. He knew that you, in the consultations -- I mean, you all asked for consultations. The president began a process of consultation. We heard from you. And many of you said we think it's really important to come to Congress. I know Mike Rogers, in particular, in one conversation talked about the need to not have the display of your -- you've got a group of people here opposed to it and you're sort of fighting the Congress and fighting with your allies and fighting with U.N., try to unify it to the greatest degree you can. I think that was great common sense from Chairman Rogers. And the president decided accordingly to try to put America in the strongest position possible.

CHABOT: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

We need to go to Mr. from New Jersey.

REP. ALBIO SIRES (D), NEW JERSEY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Thank you for being here this afternoon.

Mr. Secretary, one of things that I read today which disturbed me a great deal was, by the end of the year, we're going to have about three million refugees from the Syria conflict. And I'm concerned that the impact that striking Syria will have on increasing the number of refugees. And I'm concerned about how it is going to stabilize our friends in the region. Jordan is already overburdened. Turkey is already experiencing a burden. Are we anticipating, are we making policies to alleviate what is coming, this avalanche of refugees? Because by the end of the year, they expect three million refugees and that could be a bigger destabilizing factor in that region.

KERRY: This is -- this brings you squarely into a confrontation with this question that is fundamental to the choice you're going to make. There are risks of acting. But believe me, it's our judgment collectively and the presidents that the greater risks are not acting. You have 1.6 million to two million refugees today without our acting, and every prediction is that's going to get worse. I guarantee you that if we don't act and Assad is able to rain gas down on his people, you watch the numbers of refugees.

The greater capacity to prevent the numbers of refugees in this catastrophe that's building in the region is frankly to degrade his chemical capacity, help the opposition, and get to a point where you have a state of Syria that's still intact enough to actually have a negotiation for the Geneva One implementation of a transition government. That's the strategy. That's the goal. And we have no chance of getting that if we back off and give him a message of impunity. We will have said to him, nobody cares, gas your people, you do what you need to to stay in office, and we're backing off. That would -- I honestly find that -- I mean, that would be one of those moments in history that will live in infamy, and there are some of those moments. Munich, a ship off the coast of Florida that was sent back filled with Jews who then lost their lives to gas because we didn't receive them. There are moments where you have to make a decision. And I think this is one of those moments.

SIRES: Are we making any new policies? I know that we're already contributing more money than anybody else to assist the refugees.

KERRY: The world needs to step up on this refugee issue. The United States proudly is providing more than anybody else. But this is unsustainable. There are other discussions taking place now as to how we might respond to this ongoing crisis in non-military terms. But I think that there are options available to us but I don't want to get ahead of ourselves.

SIRES: General, this military action that we're taking, I assume we're coordinating with our friends in the region?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: We are, Congress, yes.

SIRES: And do you anticipate them going along in any -- if it increases the need for them to participate?

DEMPSEY: Well, we're reaching out to them. Some will support us directly and some indirectly with basing and overflight.

SIRES: Thank you, Chairman.

REP. ED ROYCE, (R-CA), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Thank you. We're going to go to Mr. Joe Wilson of South Carolina.

REP. JOE WILSON, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your and (INAUDIBLE) long-time leadership to avoid the crisis that we face today.

And General Dempsey, Secretary Hagel, Secretary Kerry, thank you for being here today.

We're here to learn more about a very serious issue, a United States strike on Syria. As a member of this committee, as chairman of the House Armed Services, Military Personnel Subcommittee, as a 31-year veteran myself of the South Carolina National Guard and Army Reserve, but most particularly as the grateful father of four sons currently serving in the United States military, I'm concerned about what we're hearing today. I have many questions concerning the president's proposed strike and the risk to our military, American families and our allies, particularly, neighboring Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

Secretary Hagel, some have characterized the plans for this strike as leaked to the press as, quote, "a pinprick that will not prevent President Assad from resuming his use of chemical weapons." How severely do you intend to degrade his capabilities? What will you do if he resumes chemical weapons? Where did these chemical weapons come from?

CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Congressman, thank you. Thank you for your service and for your sons' service.

I can assure you on the first point you made, I can speak for General Dempsey and all of our military leaders that there's no higher purpose that we all have or no more significant responsibility than the protection of our men and women who serve in uniform. They are our highest priority.

As to your other questions, the president has said, he stated it again yesterday in a meeting in the cabinet room with the leaders of Congress -- and I think Congressman Engel was there, as was Chairman Royce -- this would not be a pinprick. Those were his words. This would be a significant strike that would degrade his capability.

I think the three of us noted, you have all noted and are much aware that any action carries with it risk. Any action carries with it consequence but also does inaction, as Secretary Kerry has noted. I can assure you, as Department of Defense, our leaders have spent days and days going over every option, every contingency, everything you talked about and more -- security of our forces, security of our embassies, consulates, working with the State Department -- everything that we needed to factor in, if we took action. The president insisted on that. He wanted to see those plans, collateral damage, innocent people being hurt. We think that the options that we have given him first would be effective, would, in fact, carry out the intent of what we --

(CROSSTALK)

WILSON: Mr. Secretary, I don't mean to be rude but time is flying. Where did the chemical weapons come from?

HAGEL: Well, there's no secret that the Assad regime has had chemical weapons, significant stockpiles of chemical weapons.

WILSON: From a particular country?

HAGEL: Well, the Russians supply them, others are supplying with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.

WILSON: And, Secretary Kerry, on April 25th, the White House Legislative Director Miguel Rodriguez wrote, quote, "Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons," end of quote. With the president's red line, why was there no call for military response in April? Was it delayed to divert attention today from the Benghazi, IRS, NSA scandals, the failure of Obamacare enforcement, the tragedy of the White House-drafted sequestration or the upcoming debt-limit vote? Again, why was there no call for a military response four months ago when the president's red line was crossed?

KERRY: Well, the reason is very simple. The president made a decision to change his policy but he didn't believe that the evidence was so overwhelming. It was significant. It was clear that it happened but a scale that he felt merited the increase of assistance and the announcements that he made with respect to the type of aid that he would provide the opposition. So he did respond. This is so egregious and now builds on the conclusions of our intel community as to the numbers of times, but such a clear case, so compelling and urgent with respect to the flagrancy of the abuse that the president thinks that it's a matter of conscience, it's a matter of policy, the best route to proceed is through military action.

WILSON: But in April, it was very clear. Chemical weapons are chemical weapons.

(CROSSTALK)

WILSON: Syria was identified. Mr. Secretary, action should have been taken then.

KERRY: But the president didn't believe it was compelling enough case to win the support of the American people as well as the world. This is. The president did respond. He upgraded what we were doing very significantly. He came to Congress. As a matter of fact, many of you know, we have to struggle to get a Congress to agree to let him do the things that he wanted to do to upgrade that effort.

(CROSSTALK)

WILSON: But chemically, we need -- excuse me.

ROYCE: Your time is expired.

We need to go to Mr. Gerry Connolly of Virginia.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY, (D), VIRGINIA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thank you, Mr. Engel, for holding this very important hearing.

And I thank our secretaries of State and Defense and General Dempsey for being here.

Mr. Chairman, late last night, we delivered to all members of Congress, and I physically delivered a copy today, of an alternative resolution very narrowly drawn that actually codifies what the president has said he wishes to accomplish and codifies no boots on the ground to try to make sure that we stay focused on the issue and a response to that issue and possibly provide the White House with a path to authorization here in the Congress. I commend it to both secretaries and urge you to look at it.

Mr. Chairman, I hope we will be able to mark it up.

When I looked at this issue, I used a filter with five aspects to it and commended to my colleagues if they find it helpful. The first was, is the evidence strongly compelling and convincing, if not incontrovertible? Secondly, if so, what action is thereby warranted? Thirdly, what is if efficacy of the proposed action and what are the risks? Fourth, what is the efficacy and what are the risks of doing nothing. And finally, if the latter outweighs the former, how can Congress provide an authorization that narrowly is drawn to ensure no wider involvement but that does two things: it enforces international law with respect to the ban on chemical weapons and it deters future use of such weapons.

All of this is a matter of judgment. Everything I've heard from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle this week has been sincere and heartfelt. And I pray that we proceed on a nonpartisan basis to try to tackle this issue with respecting everybody's ultimate judgment because it is a difficult issue and does not lend itself to basal answers.

I've come to the conclusion myself that the evidence is convincing and compelling. I also believe that the overhang of Iraq has many of us chained. Iraq was based on faulty and shoddy intelligence that was also misused to justify a priori commitment to invade another country. That's not the case here. We're not dealing with a president who is hungering to invade another country or put boots on the ground. In fact, quite obviously, his reluctance to do that is why we're here. We're also not dealing with prospective surmise about whether such weapons exist and whether or not he might use them. There's no doubt the weapons exist, the stockpiles are there, and there's no doubt he used them. The question for us is, what do we do about it.

Mr. Secretary, let me ask one question. If we do nothing -- and Mr. -- Secretary Hagel, I'll you to answer as well. Keeping in mind we have a limited amount of time.

What if -- if we do something, what is the likelihood in your judgment that Bashar al Assad would use weapons as a routine weapon to turn the tide of this civil war?

HAGEL: I think the likelihood is very high he would use them again. CONNOLLY: Mr. Secretary?

KERRY: I agree completely. I might even put it at 100 percent. And I -- well, you should go check the intel on it. I think you'll be convinced. But I'd say probably 100 percent.

CONNOLLY: And, Mr. Secretary, if you're right, it's 100 percent we will see these weapons now used routinely in this civil war to turn the tide if we do nothing, what is the probability that such weapons will also then get into the hands of Hezbollah and other elements supporting the Assad regime and, thus, perhaps proliferate the region against friend and foe alike?

KERRY: I can't give you that probability. I just don't know what it is. I do know this. That there are three principle supporters of Assad and the rest of the world is in horror of what is happening. The three principle supporters are Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. And if Iran and Hezbollah are allowed to both see him stay in power as well as do so with the use of chemical weapons, that is extraordinarily dangerous for Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and our interests.

ROYCE: We need to go to the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Mr. Michael McCaul from Texas.

MICHAEL MCCAUL, (R-TX), CHAIRMAN, HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE: I thank the chairman.

I thank the secretaries for being here.

And, General Dempsey, thank you for being here as well.

Next week, we commemorate the 12th anniversary of 9/11. It was al Qaeda that hit the World Trade Center. It was al Qaeda hit the Pentagon down the street from here. Al Qaeda is the enemy. And before 9/11, al Qaeda was the enemy.

As chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, I want to make sure that never happens again. And I know you share that as well.

I think what gives Congress great pause and the American people great pause is there's no good outcome here. They don't see a good side versus a bad side. They see Assad as a bad actor, who's used chemical weapons. There's no question about that. But then who's the other side? Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefing all the time. And every time I get briefed on this, it gets worse and worse because the majority now of these rebel forces -- and I say majority now -- are radical Islamists, pouring in from all over the world to come to Syria for the fight. And my concern is any strike against this regime, as bad as it is, will empower these radical Islamists and these extremists. And we've seen this movie before. We've seen Afghanistan and we've seen what happened in Egypt. We saw what happened in Libya. We saw what the Arab Springs brought us. It's not good. They fill the vacuum. They have filled a vacuum. So my greatest concern when we look at Syria is who is going to fill the vacuum when the Assad regime falls, which we know that it will. Who is going to fill that vacuum? Are the rebel forces, the extremists, going to take over not only the government but these weapons because they are the ones most likely to use these weapons against Americans and the United States? While those images of children in Damascus are horrific, I do not want to see those images in the United States. That is my grave concern. And this is a very dangerous step that we are taking. And I believe that we have to be very careful in how we proceed.

And so with that and with all due respect, I think this is well intentioned, But I have these concerns and I want to hear from both secretaries and the general as to whether you share these concerns and what you are doing to stop that outcome because that is the absolute worst scenario, worst outcome if it happened.

KERRY: Congressman, I was just trying to make sure -- I apologize for interrupting. I think it would be helpful to you as you were asking the question because I'm very concerned about the foundation of your question, the premise of it. A woman by the name of Elizabeth Bagly, B-A-G-L-Y, just wrote an article -- she works with the Institute of War. She's fluent in Arabic and spent an enormous amount of time studying the opposition and studying Syria. She just published this the other day. Very interesting article, which I commend to you.

The fact is, sitting behind me incidentally is Ambassador Robert Ford. He is our ambassador to Syria. He has spent an enormous amount of time with the opposition working with them and helping us to understand this dynamic.

I just don't agree that a majority are al Qaeda and the bad guys. That's not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists. About somewhere between 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are -- who we would deem to be bad guys. There are many different groups, al Nusra, al Shamra (ph), different entities, and sometimes they are fighting each other, even now.

The general belief, there is a real moderate opposition that exists. General Edres (ph) is running the military arm of that. And our allies in this effort, our friends from the Saudis to Emirates to the Qatars and others are now in a disciplined way funneling assistance through the General Edres (ph) and the moderate opposition and who are getting stronger as a result of that.

MCCAUL: I've got 40 seconds. There are moderates there. But the briefings I've received, unless I have different ones or inaccurate briefings, it's 50 percent and rising.

KERRY: Well --

MCCAUL: The freedom -- these fighters coming globally are not coming in as moderates. They are coming in as jihadists. And that's my concern. And --

(CROSSTALK)

KERRY: There are jihadists.

MCCAUL: Secretary, I want to hear from the secretary and the general as well.

HAGEL: Well, I agree with Secretary Kerry's analysis.

But let me just remind us all -- and you know this very well, Congressman, especially with your responsibilities as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. This is an imperfect situation. There are no good options here. This is complicated. There's no clarity. Every point you made, the complications of various terrorists groups, which we've noted are there. They are in play. This is a specifically difficult part of us trying to sort out who we would support and how we would support them. So I don't question that.

But I do think that Secretary Kerry's points are correct that we are seeing some movement on the inside in the right direction.

MCCAUL: Mr. Chairman --

(CROSSTALK)

ROYCE: Mr. Ted Deutch of Florida.

REP. TED DEUTCH, (R), FLORIDA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Rangel, thank you for calling this very important hearing.

And Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, thanks for being here.

I believe we stand at a pivotal moment where Congress is either going to uphold the duty to protect our national security or we're going to retreat from our moral and strategic obligations. I believe our vote on what will have to be ultimately a very narrowly drawn resolution will determine whether Congress stands up for human rights or puts us on a dangerous path to isolation, whether Congress will increase American influence in the Middle East or allow our power to dramatically shrink.

I stand behind the president's request for limited and targeted strikes without U.S. troops on the ground against a regime that's guilty of heinous chemical weapons attacks on its own people. And I know this is a difficult division. I know that some of my colleagues wish that we had done a lot more before now. And I know that my colleagues, other colleagues wish to do nothing now. And I acknowledge the difficulty of being unable to predict Assad's next move.

Secretary Hagel, you spoke to that.

This is a hard choice. I don't think any of us relish making it. No use of force can ever be taken lightly but inaction here, I believe, will dramatically harm our national security by emboldening a vile Syrian regime, its terrorist proxies and its Iranian patron. I think it's essential that the United States, in an unequivocal message to Assad and other brutal regimes around the world, especially Iran, that when the United States Congress, when the president and when every civilized nation on earth says that you cannot gas innocent children to death, you can't use chemical weapons of mass destruction -- and weapons of mass destruction, then we mean it. I believe America's credibility is on the line in Syria. We all saw the gut-wrenching images of children, of women, of families lying dead cruelly murdered by Assad.

This strike, if it is to occur, is about preventing such atrocities now and in the future, preventing the continued use of chemical weapons in Syria, and preventing those weapons from being used by terrorists groups, like Hezbollah, that threaten our allies and our citizens.

But American credibility is also on the line in Iran. Much like the red line set in Syria, the president has and this committee has in strongly bipartisan fashion set a clear red line that we will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons capability.

If Congress votes down a limited authorization, and to Iran's leaders, our red line against their development of nuclear weapons is meaningless. The sanctions that we passed unanimously out of this committee and 400 members supported on the House floor will be rendered largely worthless because they're not backed up by a credible threat of force.

Secretary Kerry, I believe if we want to do everything in our power to solve the Iranian nuclear issue without military action, then we must support this authorization. By authorizing the use of force against Syria, America will make abundantly clear to the world, including Iran, that using chemical weapons or defying international law in pursuit of nuclear weapons will not be tolerated by this nation.

Make no mistake. This resolution is about Syria and holding Assad accountable. But it's also Iran and whether this Congress will make is more likely or less likely that that nation obtain nuclear weapons.

I haven't come to this decision lightly. I don't want to be in this position. None of us do. But we didn't put ourselves in this position. The president didn't put us in this position. Bashar al Assad put us in this position when he chose to gas his own people.

Now, Secretary Kerry, a lot of people have come up to me and said that they're disgusted by what they see. But the question they ask is, why does America always need to be the world's policemen. So I ask you, why should the U.S. lead this effort? And will we learn which are the 34 nations and organizations who have said they will support our action and how they are prepared to support it?