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Striking Syria

Aired September 4, 2013 - 15:00   ET

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


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm going to take things from here. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You are watching a special CNN coverage of the crisis in Syria and we are watching really play by play here of what's happening pretty heated exchange at points of this hearing happening on Capitol Hill, the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

Let me just set the scene for you in case you are just joining us. This is similar to what we saw yesterday on the Senate side. This is the House side. You see the three men at a table. You have Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and on the far right, Secretary of State John Kerry. They are each being questioned here by different members of course both political parties, House Foreign Affairs Committee, everything from folks showing pictures of gassed Syrian children to one congressman quoting Niche. It has been compelling. Let's go back.

REP. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: We have not acted previously on uses of chemical weapons. And I do believe the world is watching.

And the day the United States does not act is not just the day that Bashar al-Assad knows it is open season for chemical weapons, but also the day Kim Jong-un knows that, and most ominously the day that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, spins his centrifuges into overdrive, which starts the clock ticking to the less-than-two-year moment when those nuclear warheads on intercontinental missiles could hit our constituents here in the United States.

I agree with what my colleague Adam Kinzinger said, that we have a vital interest in maintaining the international taboo against chemical weapons. All of you, like me, have been in training I suspect where you have been exposed to gas and you know that no one benefits from that taboo more than do American troops.

I'm also deeply worried that our inaction is destabilizing the Middle East, in particular our allies in Israel and Jordan as well as Turkey, and emboldening Iran, one of our most implacable enemies, as they send thousands of troops to fight in Syria along with Hezbollah, its terrorist proxy from Lebanon.

So that is why, miracle of miracles, I am in support of the president's call for action in Syria. I am urging my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this action as well. However, the president's stated policy was not just a red line against chemical weapons which as Mr. Sherman said occurred without any objection from members of Congress and occurred before he was reelected by the American people. It was also a stated policy of regime change, so I would like to ask you, what is the president planning that could lead not just to punishment for this use of chemical weapons, but also an ultimate victory in Syria, which is a change in the nature of the regime, so they will not use chemical weapons, and so that a pro-western moderate native Syrian government can take its place?

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, Congressman, thank you for a very clear and compelling statement and thank you for the support for the president's initiative for the interest of the country.

With respect to the longer term, you're absolutely correct. But I want to separate here. This is very important in terms of what the president is asking the Congress for. Yes, the president's policy is that Assad must go and there should be a regime change. And the president is committed to additional efforts in support of the opposition together with friends and allies in the region in a coordinated way in order to achieve that with the understanding that the ultimate transition will come and can come through a negotiated settlement, a political resolution, not a military -- he doesn't believe -- we don't believe there's a military solution.

But this action -- because nobody should be confused, Americans should not be confused, and I said earlier, you know, this is not an effort to take over Syria's civil war. It is an effort to uphold this standard and the action the president is asking the Congress to approve is not -- is a singular military action to uphold that standard with respect to chemical weapons.

On a separate track is the political track, which the president is seeking support for through appropriate channels here in Congress, which is in effect now to help the opposition in order to ultimately see Assad leave.

But don't -- we don't want to confuse the two in the context. Is there a downstream collateral benefit to what will happen in terms of the enforcement of the chemical weapons effort? The answer is yes. It will degrade his military capacity.

It will for sure have downstream impact but that is not the primary calculation of what brings us here, and nobody should confuse the two in this effort.

(CROSSTALK)

KERRY: What I would like to do, Congressman, is really in classified session, we should have the discussion about the other things the president would like to see us do to support the opposition.

COTTON: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Juan Vargas of California.

REP. JUAN VARGAS (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and thank you, Secretaries, for being here, and General. First of all, I would like to say before I ask an embarrassing question, I have the greatest respect for all of you. I think -- Secretary of State Kerry, I think I first heard of you from Dan Berrigan back in 1985 when I was in the Jesuits, at a Jesuit house, and he had great respect for you because of your activities after Vietnam.

And I know that, Secretary Hagel, that you were so reluctant going to war that you almost weren't approved by the Senate. In fact, I think you were the only secretary ever to be filibustered, so I know you're not anxiously running into war, and the president of course ran on not getting us into war.

I'm certainly someone who is very reluctant to get into any kind of war like this. On Saturday, however, I had the opportunity to speak to a small group of veterans in my district in San Diego before I flew here for the classified briefing on Sunday. And they asked a question I think I -- and I told them I would ask. I first told them I wouldn't. But then they convinced me it was a good question.

That is that one of them has a son in the military today. And he believes that last time that we went running off to war that the facts that were given were lies or misleading. And what he wanted is just one thing. And I told him that all I had read and certainly now all that I have read does lead me to believe that chemical weapons were used and that children were gassed and because of that we do have to act.

But he wanted you to promise that the facts that you have given us are true, to the best of your ability, that you're not lying, that you're not holding anything back, that what we have seen and what I have read -- and I read everything that they have given to us. I have been back twice now to make sure that I have read everything. I want to make sure that you promise us that you're telling the truth.

KERRY: Congressman, I am proud and perfectly willing to tell you that everything that I have said is the truth and based on the information as it's been presented to me, and as I have based on my own experience in war, which I resolved to do if I ever was in a position to make any choices in the future, fully vetted, and I'm comfortable with it.

And I wouldn't -- wouldn't possibly make this recommendation if I weren't comfortable with it. I believe we have vetted this. We have double-checked it. We asked the intel people to re-scrub. We have even had a separate team created that had -- independent from the original to totally vet, check all of the analysis, find out if it could have been an opposition or anything else.

And in every case, I would say for myself and everybody that we have sat around a table with, there is a comfort level with this that is rare in this kind of situation. I wouldn't have said you could prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt if I didn't believe it.

VARGAS: Thank you.

Secretary Hagel, again, I apologize for the insulting question, but I think it has to be asked.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: No, I think it's a very important question. And we ought to ask more questions like that.

I don't know how I would improve on my former Senate colleague's question and answer back to you. I feel exactly the same way. I know that the three of us wouldn't be sitting here today saying the things we're saying if we didn't absolutely believe it. We have all three been through too much and our experiences guide us. Thank you.

VARGAS: Mr. Chairman, I still have a lot of time left, but that was my only question.

BALDWIN: All right, we will take a quick break, as you have been watching the back and forth Q&A between members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and those three gentlemen there representing the administration, Joint Chiefs of Staff, also the secretary of defense and secretary of state, on possible U.S. military intervention in Syria.

Special, special coverage here on CNN. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. You're watching special CNN coverage of the crisis in Syria and possible U.S. military intervention in that country.

Again, they are going on now hour four inside this hearing room on Capitol Hill. Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee asking questions of the secretary of defense, secretary of state and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Let's go back.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: ... this resolution starts a process that you or the president lose control of.

REP. GEORGE HOLDING (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Militarily speaking, is Russia still a superpower?

DEMPSEY: I think the answer to that question is when you look at instruments of power, look at ourselves. So, it's a combination of military, diplomatic and economic power that defines us as a -- quote, unquote -- "superpower."

I think that Russia possesses elements that would qualify them to join the club of superpowers. They still have an incredible strategic arsenal. But, conventionally, I wouldn't put them in that class. And so I think there's parts of their apparatus that rise to that level.

HOLDING: Well, obviously, we all know that Syria and Russia are close allies. Syria is Russia's last ally in the Middle East. Syria has the only Russian military base outside of Russia.

If Russia decided to strike at us in that theater, what are the top three options that they would have to strike us in retaliation for us striking their closest ally?

DEMPSEY: You know, Congressman, I'm going to suggest that it wouldn't be helpful in this setting to have a discussion about that kind of hypothetical. But I do have some views about it that I could share in a classified environment.

HOLDING: Well, we can certainly say that Russia would have options to strike us in that theater in retaliation for us striking...

(CROSSTALK)

DEMPSEY: Russia has capabilities that range from the asymmetric, including cyber, all the way up through strategic nuclear weapons. And again it wouldn't be helpful in this setting to speculate about that.

HOLDING: Yes, sir. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Brad Schneider of Illinois.

REP. BRAD SCHNEIDER (D), ILLINOIS: Thank you.

And I want to thank you all again first, of course, for the service to our country, but also for the time spent with us today, as well as, Ambassador Ford, for the time you spent with us earlier in the year. This is without a doubt the biggest decision, one of the biggest decisions we can possibly make and one I think we all take very seriously.

It's why I came Sunday for the classified briefing. I have read the classified report. I have listened in on the teleconference we had on Monday. And I'm grateful to have the time with you here. I also recognize the angst of my constituents, of the country, as there is a worry and a legitimate concern.

But, Secretary Kerry, you -- I don't want to put words in your mouth. But you said, if we do nothing, the likelihood of Assad using chemical weapons again is I will say approaching 100 percent. Is that fair?

KERRY: Fair.

SCHNEIDER: And with that, I want to turn -- I'm sorry -- to General Dempsey, because you said in escalation, you can't get the risk of escalation down to zero. But I wonder if there is a risk of escalation if we do nothing.

DEMPSEY: There is absolutely a risk of escalation in the use of chemical weapons if we do nothing.

SCHNEIDER: And if that approaches 100 percent, if we do stand down now, is there a likelihood that we're back at this same question again a month or six months from now at a higher level with a greater risk?

DEMPSEY: I believe so.

HAGEL: I think so. SCHNEIDER: So I guess as I evaluate the decision we have to make, the first thing I wanted to see was the evidence. And I think without a doubt, as you have said, beyond any reasonable doubt the Assad regime has planned, perpetrated and even tried to cover up this massive use of chemical weapons, weapons of mass destruction.

One of my questions was a question of national interest. And, General Dempsey, you have said without a doubt for our soldiers who are here at home and our interests around the world, this is a threat to our national interests. Is that fair as we go through the decision process?

DEMPSEY: It is, because of essentially establishing kind of -- it's an overused phrase -- but a new norm. And I haven't lived in a world where militarily chemical weapons were routinely used. And I don't want to live in that world.

SCHNEIDER: From an international standpoint, I guess I come to -- if we have the interest in our national interest, the authority -- clearly, I reviewed the Chemical Weapons Convention. The United Nations is the authority here, but, Secretary Kerry, you said the United Nations is not available to us.

If it was, would we be on a different strategy? Or is this all that is left to us?

KERRY: If Russians were to join in and be willing to pass this with the Chinese, I guarantee you the president would want to see it passed.

SCHNEIDER: All right, thanks. Thank you.

KERRY: Can I just also -- Congressman Holding left a question on the table that I want to make sure it's not hanging out there.

SCHNEIDER: Please.

KERRY: Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia has made it clear -- quote -- I pretty much -- paraphrase -- Russia does not intend to fight a war over Syria.

And I have had personal conversations with President Putin and with the foreign minister that have indicated that Syria doesn't rise to that level of potential conflict. And so I just -- don't their ships are kind of staying out of the way. They're not threatening that. And I don't think that would be what would happen here.

BALDWIN: You are watching live coverage here. This is hour four of the House Foreign Affairs Committee talking about possible U.S. military intervention in Syria. CNN's special coverage returns right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: All right, we want to continue our special CNN coverage of the crisis in Syria. You have been watching this hearing. And let's go back to this live hearing on Capitol Hill as members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are asking all kinds of questions. This has compelling, at times gotten testy between members of this committee and you have the secretary of state, you have the secretary of defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Let's go back.

REP. RANDY WEBER (R), TEXAS: In other words, it's not a very good option.

Number four, you said establish buffer zones. You estimated that at $1 billion a month. Number five, you said control chemical weapons, risk boots on the ground, American women and men, $1 billion a month, which I understand the secretaries of state and defense are not advocating that. But I have a simple question for you.

Everything I read from your summary indicated to me that there was absolutely no guarantee of a lasting peace in Syria or in the region and nor that they are American-friendly after we have a gargantuan outlay of American money, resources and maybe American blood and even lives if they retaliate, absolutely no guarantee. Would you say that's a fair statement?

DEMPSEY: I just would remind you the answer to the letter that I sent to Representative Engel was related to the question that I received, which is, what would it take to tip the balance in favor of the opposition and lead to the overthrow of the Assad regime?

WEBER: OK.

DEMPSEY: So I want to make sure we're separate from what we're doing here today.

WEBER: No, I got that. I appreciate that. I will direct that to Mr. Hagel.

Would you say that's a fair statement? No guarantee of an outcome on the other end?

HAGEL: No guarantee of the outcome...

(CROSSTALK)

WEBER: Of a stable -- of peace in Syria, peace in the region and whoever comes out on the other side will be our friends. No guarantee?

HAGEL: Well, but that's not the stated objective of what we're talking about.

WEBER: Well, that wasn't my question, sir. My question was, would you guarantee that after trying to establish the objective that you're seeking to establish, we still do not have a guarantee on the other end of a stable Syria, a stable region and whoever comes out on the other side would be our friends.

HAGEL: Well, I wouldn't guarantee anything. This is -- as I believe the last three hours have been very clear about, this is unpredictable. It's complicated. It's dangerous. There are many interests that they are surging through the Middle East, in particular Syria.

WEBER: OK.

HAGEL: What we're thinking through diplomatically, militarily, international coalition, all the other factors that we have talked about today are...

WEBER: Forgive me. But I'm running out of time.

HAGEL: ... to get to one thing. And that's a diplomatic settlement.

WEBER: OK.

Secretary Kerry, your response, please?

KERRY: I can't give you a guarantee about the outcome in Syria as a whole, but I can give you a guarantee that the United States of America can make it clear to Assad that it's going to cost him to use chemical weapons and we can have an impact on deterring and degrading his capacity. That guarantee is what I can give you and that's what the president is seeking to do.

WEBER: But at what price, I would add. In my last 15 seconds...

(CROSSTALK)

KERRY: Well, not at the price that you described, absolutely not at the price that you described.

WEBER: Well, let me just say, if American credibility is at stake here, let there be no mistake. If anybody were to attack us, we would -- this Congress in my view would respond, would authorize the full force and fury of our very capable military.

KERRY: But, Congressman -- Mr. Chairman, this is important.

But, Congressman, not everything comes down in terms of threat or potential future threat to our country to somebody attacking us. Lots of things we do, we do in preparation and as a matter of deterrence, and we also do it in context on occasion, as we did in Bosnia, to make peace, to have a settlement, to save lives.

That's what we achieved. And so we have achieved that previously and I believe in the long run it's vital to the United States to assert this principle and to begin to move this troubled part of the world in a different direction.

BALDWIN: OK. I want to pull away from -- you have been listening to Secretary Kerry answering questions from different members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but we have news how. It's a busy day in Washington, incredibly busy here on Capitol Hill, because we will flip from the House to the Senate side, Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They have been meeting. They have been voting on their version of their resolution, their bill to go ahead and potentially intervene militarily in Syria.

I want to go to our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

We have been watching all this back and forth, the marking of the bill, the amendments. Dana Bash, tell me what you know.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The first major hurdle for the president to get this authorization was just cleared inside a very key committee. And that's the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

They just approved authorization for military strikes against Syria. The vote was 10-7. Brooke, only three Republicans voted with the president. A couple of Democrats voted against him. But only three Republicans voted yes, Senator McCain, Senator Flake from Arizona and Senator Corker, who is the top Republican on this committee.

So this -- it was changed a little bit from what we have been reporting were already changes that the Senate put together in a bipartisan way to really narrow the scope of what this authorization would be. It has a time limit on it, 60 days with an extension possible for the president for 30 more days, and specifically says no boots on the ground. John McCain added some language that he said it makes him feel better that what the president insists is his policy to try to stop the momentum of Assad militarily is codified now.

It would be in this bill. So this is now going to go forward to the full Senate likely to take a vote next week in the Senate. This is again the first major step for the process, which is just beginning, but still an important hurdle for the president.

BALDWIN: We have this approval from this key committee, as you mentioned. One of the committee members here, this is Senator Marco Rubio, Republican Florida. Let's take a listen.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: ... in both parties to disengage the United States from issues throughout the world.

And it is true that we cannot solve every crisis on this planet, but if we follow the advice of those who seek to disengage us from global issues, in the long run, we will pay a terrible price because America is not just another country. It is an exceptional one, the most influential, the most powerful and the most inspirational nation on Earth.

We must recognize that the world is a safer place when America is the strongest country in the world. When America doesn't lead, chaos follows. And, eventually, that chaos forces us to deal with these problems in the most expensive and in the most dangerous ways imaginable. Just because we ignore global problems doesn't mean they will ignore us.

Instead, they become bigger and harder to solve. And, sadly, Syria is just the latest example of that fundamental truth. Had we forcefully engaged in empowering moderate rebels earlier in this conflict, today we would have more and better options before us. But instead, unfortunately, the president, with the support of some voices in my party, chose to let others lead instead, and now we're dealing with the consequences of that action. Thank you.

BALDWIN: So, to be clear, as Dana mentioned, it was a 10-7 vote. You had three Republicans voting yes. That included a huge vote from Senator John McCain. We heard him outside the White House the other day saying it would be catastrophic if Congress does not authorize this intervention, although, as she mentioned, there was an amendment on his behalf, Marco Rubio voting no.

This is what is happening. This is huge. This is on the Senate side. And so what we're watching here in the Senate is similar to what will be happening on the House side. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing happened yesterday with the same three guys that we see today, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey.

I want to go to our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Jessica Yellin, who, as we know, has covered the White House for a number of years.

Jessica, just put this in perspective. As we have all of this happening on Capitol Hill, the president of the United States as we speak in Stockholm, Sweden, at some point hopping on a plane to head to Russia, Russia, a good buddy of Syria's. Just put this all in perspective for us.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, the president and Russian President Putin have no love lost between them.

The president and White House always emphasize that it's not about the personal relationship between the two of them that matters the most. But, certainly, if they had a great bond, that wouldn't hurt matters. So, there -- it will be fascinating to watch the two of them interact.