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Kerry Addresses House Committee on Foreign Relations

Aired September 4, 2013 - 15:30   ET


JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I should also point out if I could for a moment, Brooke --


YELLIN: -- I can tell you that while the president is overseas and going to deal with this on an international level, he has a lot of people back home who I can report to you have been working exceptionally hard to get these votes and to make sure that this is a success on Capitol Hill.

We often talk about how bad the president's relations are with Congress and how little work the White House does to smooth over hurt feelings on Capitol Hill and make things work there.

They are taking extraordinary measures and doing everything they can to make sure it does pass. You are seeing it go rather smoothly right now.

This is the first hurdle to overcome. They are reaching out to very senior officials, formerly in the government, to reach out to people who are currently in cong Congress to get yes votes and get this over the finish line.

So far this has gone very smoothly for them.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: It is the yeas and the nays, the majority yeas, as Dana Bash was reporting, saying yes to this resolution. It was just passed in this key committee, the Senate foreign relations committee on Capitol Hill.

Jessica Yellin, thank you. Dana Bash, thank you.

We continue to watch this play out on the House side as we keep watching this incredibly important hearing with these three men, these three, General Martin Dempsey, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary Chuck Hagel being grilled.

Quick break. Back in a moment.


BALDWIN: Want to take you back to the Senate foreign relations committee.

As we have just heard, Dana Bash, our chief congressional correspondent, broke the news. They have authorized, this key hearing has authorized U.S. intervention in Syria.

This is Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat. Listen.

SENATOR BOB MENENDEZ (D), CHAIRMAN, SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Is there any other member that wishes to be heard?

Senator Coons?

SENATOR CHRISTOPHER COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Chairman Menendez.

And I would like to thank my colleagues on this committee for the way that this debate has been conducted.

As Secretary Kerry said it's not just important what we decide as a body but how we decide it, and I think the cautious and thorough and deliberate discussion of this authorization of the use of force is one that meets expectations of the American people, that the outcome is not predictable based on partisanship,. but is instead a reflection of the values and insights of each member of this committee.

As this authorization moves to debate in the full Congress, I continue to be mindful that I represent a state, as do many of us, that is weary of war and where input from my home state has been to strongly caution against a repeat of some of the issues spoken to by other colleagues that conflict of Iraq brings to the fore.

I personally, having reviewed in detail the intelligence offered by the administration, am convinced that the administration of Bashar al- Assad, his regime, has used chemical weapons not once but likely repeatedly, but that attack two weeks ago in Damascus suburbs massacred more than 1,000 innocent civilians and, given the steady escalation, steadily rising crescendo of death in Syria over the last two years that has graduated from using snipers and helicopters and jet fighters to using cluster bombs and SCUD missiles and now chemical weapons, in the absence of action by the United States to reinforce a global red line that has been enshrined in American statute and in global treaties for decades, in the absence of that action, Assad will use these weapons again and we will be less safe and our regional allies will be less safe.

There are, I think, risks to action, but I've been persuaded that risks of inaction are greater.

This has been a difficult debate, and I think we will have even more to discuss on the floor of the Senate, but I'm grateful for the process through which we achieved it.

I'm grateful for my colleagues such as Senator Shaheen, Senator McCain and others who have worked with me to craft amendments that I think have clarified and improved the overall context and it is my hope that we will ultimately approve this authorization.

This is not an act I take with any lightness of heart and with a full recognition of the potential difficulties ahead, but I'm persuaded that this is an important step that the United States must take.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Senator.

Senator Udall?

SENATOR TOM UDALL (D), NEW MEXICO: Thank you, Chairman Menendez, and let me thank you --

BALDWIN: All right, a little bit of post-game, post-vote, as we've been reporting, the key committee here, Senate foreign relations committee authorizing U.S. use of force in Syria.

As this is ending and, of course, this then goes on to a full U.S. Senate vote possibly as early as next week, want to go to break and, when we come back, we watch the grilling from U.S. lawmakers on three key administration officials.

Here they are, joint chiefs of staff General Martin Dempsey, Chuck Hagel, defense secretary and Secretary of State John Kerry.

We'll be right back with special CNN coverage.


BALDWIN: And we continue our special CNN coverage of the "Crisis in Syria." Back to Capitol Hill we go as we watch these different lawmakers, members of the House foreign affairs committee, grilling Chuck Hagel, General Martin Dempsey and John Kerry.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: With respect to the limited strike not achieving the objective, I think the general has spoken to that earlier that he has confidence that we have the ability to achieve our objective if not in the first volley certainly we have the ability to achieve that objective.

And, secondly, you said would it inadvertently or would it not, in fact, help the opposition? And I have said many times as a collateral component of this, any degradation of Assad's military will, of course, be of benefit to the opposition, but that's not the fundamental purpose of the initiative the president is asking you to engage in.


REPRESENTATIVE RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, thanks to all the witnesses, and thank you all for your service, particularly military service.

Secretary Kerry, you spoke about how use of this gas breached the norms of civilized behavior, international norms, and that we need to enforce this norm kind of like you would enforce lessons learned by children and bullies, I think, that you'd said.

And I know you got irritated about the Benghazi issue. It was not on your watch and you're not responsible, but as I look at this, that same line of reasoning should have applied to Benghazi.

The assassination of a diplomat breaches norms that were recognized probably far longer than norms against use of Sarin gas and yet the U.S. has not acted to avenge the deaths of the four Americans, including our ambassador who were massacred in Benghazi.

And that lack of response, I think, using the same line of reasoning could embolden terrorists groups and Islamic malcontents that they can do this and that we may not respond forcefully.

Now that's not -- you're not responsible for that. but there is a frustration among some of my constituents about how we've handled that, not on your watch, but I just wanted to clear up how some of us view that.

KERRY: Congressman, let me speak to it because I appreciate completely. I think it's a little different from the earlier question so to speak.

I appreciate and respect completely the need for justice to be done and, believe me, we have this discussion in the State Department and in the White House about the steps that are being taken.

And there are steps being taken. That is not a back burner issue. And in an appropriate setting I would be delighted to share with you exactly what is going on, but that accountability is a priority for the president , it's a priority for us --

DESANTIS: We appreciate that, and we are waiting for that.

Secretary Kerry, do you think that striking Syria for Assad using poison gas will have an effect on whether Iran decides to continue with its nuclear program or abandon it?

KERRY: I think whether or not the United States stands up at this moment, as I have described earlier, to enforce this almost-century- old prohibition on the use of weapons will in fact affect not only Iran, but loads of people's thinking about whether the United States is good for its word.

DESANTIS: So you think that it is possible that Iran, seeing a limited strike against Assad, that they will actually decide to abandon their nuclear weapons?

KERRY: No, I didn't say that. I said it would affect their thinking about how serious the United States is.

I can't predict what they're going to decide to do or whether they'll abandon it or not, but I tell you this, it will enter into their calculation about what we might or might not be prepared to do.

And if we don't do anything, I absolutely guarantee you that too will enter into their calculation.

DESANTIS: I guess my fear is that they've already made their determination and they're going to continue with it, but I guess we will find out.

In terms of these opposition groups, and I think it's true that when you degrade Assad, you are benefiting the opposition groups, and I think that the bulk of that energy right now is with Sunni supremacists and al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, but I just -- it is difficult to kind of figure out where everybody is on all this.

And there was a quote that you had given about when we were evaluating Libyan opposition. You said we didn't know who people were in eastern Europe either.

We don't always know who they all are, if you asked Lafayette the question if he knew everyone over here when he helped us during the American Revolution, what he'd say. I think that you have to kind of have a sense of the course of history and what they're fighting for.

Is that pretty much -- do you stand by that quote and kind of the difficulty in evaluating?

And I ask that because we've seen with the Arab Spring, we've seen the reaction to us going into Afghanistan and Iraq and kind of what is the animating impulse in these Muslim countries?

And there was a comment about we would like to see a pro-Western government take the place of Assad.

And I have not seen any evidence to suggest that that's what would be the primary impulse motivating the people in a post-Assad Syria.

Indeed, I fear that what would motivate them would be the Muslim Brotherhood, Sunni Islamism, of course, al Qaeda-type terror groups, and so that's the sense of history that a lot of us see.

And that's why when we're looking at a potential strike, how that could affect the civil war, we don't want to do something that's going to lead to an outcome that's as bad as having Assad or potentially even worse.

KERRY: Congressman, a very good question, and the answer is there are some really bad actors in some of these groups in Syria. Al Nusra is not the worst, but they're really bad.

And there are a couple of other groups that some people characterize as worse, but one of the things that is concentrating the president's thinking about Syria and the reason for supporting the moderate opposition is to have a buttress against those folks who, if Syria continues to move in the direction it's going, if there's an implosion, they will be strengthened. There will be more of them.

This is, in fact, something that does bring Russia and the United States together. When I was in Russia and met with Putin, he discussed specifically their concerns about the extremists.

But Syria, traditionally, historically, in the recent years, has been a secular country, and the vast majority of opposition, 75 percent, 70 percent of it, is hopeful to have a very different Syria, a free Syria, a Syria that has minority rights protected, that is inclusive, and that's what the opposition has in written form committed themselves to and is talking about wherever they go in the world.

So I hope you will recognize that the best way to isolate that extremist opposition, the extremist components of the Syrian fabric, is to more rapidly build up the opposition and diminish Assad's capacity to prolong this.

ROYCE: Joaquin Castro of Texas?

BALDWIN: Will the U.S. Congress vote ultimately to authorize U.S. intervention in Syria? There are a lot of questions, as you're hearing.

Quick break. More on this House foreign affairs committee hearing and questions being thrown at the secretary of state, defense and the general, Martin Dempsey, joint chiefs of staff chairman.

Back after this.


BALDWIN: And we are back with our special CNN coverage of the "Crisis in Syria."

Let me show you, two boxes, left side of your screen, this is the Senate foreign relations committee.

In case you are just joining us and missed our breaking news, huge, huge news this past hour, as we have learned this key committee here has voted in favor of authorizing use of force, U.S. use of force in terms of intervening in Syria.

So now that that has happened, they have voted yes to this resolution, that then goes on to the full Senate, possibly next week, for a full vote.

On the right side of your screen, you have the House foreign affairs committee, and they, the different members here on both sides of the aisle, asking some pretty tough, pretty pointed questions at three key people who are answering.

From left to right here at this table, you have the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey. In the middle there is the secretary of defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel. Also, former senator, now Secretary of State John Kerry.

Let's go back.

KERRY: I caution you, politely and humbly, I believe very, very deeply it will invite other contests of conflict that will put us to the test and potentially with much graver consequences.


We go to Mr. Doug Collins of Georgia. REPRESENTATIVE DOUG COLLINS (R), GEORGIA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I appreciate it, and I thank you for being here.

I thank you for your service, and I associate myself with the representative from Hawaii in serving in Iraq and knowing the issues going on.

One of the benefits of sitting down here on the bottom row is you get to listen. You hear a lot of things. You can get a lot of questions asked. I'm not going to steal the thunder of orders that may come, but there is some -- what I have heard today still concerns me greatly.

I walked into this hearing concerned and very deeply concerned about the actions we're taking. I'm still there.

Many of those have to do with military questions, and the questions that come from the statements such as Secretary Hagel, you made, that there's no clarity on the ground, that there's no good options in Syria.

These kind of things that lead me to an understanding of what happens is, you know, the limited involvement nature, which has been talked about over and over here, and the high confidence that that limited nature would be affected, but if it would not, your statement just a moment ago, well, after the first volley, leaves an open-ending. There's another volley and another volley that would come if it did not achieve the end.

I want to just, though, for a few questions on this issue. According to the unclassified assessment that was given, there were information that suggested that a possible chemical attack was imminent on October -- on August 21st.

In fact what was said was from August 18th, Sunday, through Wednesday the 21st there were Syrian chemical weapons personnel operating in the area.

The report goes on to say that three days prior to the attack there were strains of human signal and geospatial intelligence gathered showing Assad regime preparing for a chemical attack.

With over 48 hours' notice and the recent history of chemical weapons being used in Syria, did the U.S. military not take action or quickly enough to convene the United States -- U.N. Security Council?

Why did they we not act, knowing the history, and I'm going to come back to this part later, as quickly as possible? Why was there nothing done at that point?

KERRY: Because that information isn't real-time in terms of the way it comes in. It goes through a process, so there wasn't time.

COLLINS: And I appreciate that answer, but you've really concerned me even more that our intelligence operation, without getting into it in this setting, a discussion of this, that if it was not real-time, we're finding out after the fact. Then some of my concern General Dempsey would be that the limited engagement to, as you said, take out the operation or the engagement of the chemical weapons and not destroy all the weapons, how come -- what is the confidence level, although you have stated high, why should I or anybody else on this committee say that there's a concern that our intelligence is not real-time enough to answer your question?

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Different kinds of intelligence, sir.

The -- as you probably know, and thanks for your service, too, by the way, so there's signals intelligence, which is what you're referring to. There's full-motion video. There's national technical means that allow us to establish pattern of life.

It's different kinds of intelligence.

COLLINS: But with the movements, there is a concern that the initial assessment could be wrong and there would be --

BALDWIN: A quick break, we will resume our live coverage of the House foreign affairs committee hearing here on Capitol Hill after this.


BALDWIN: All right, while I have you in this final minute and you're tuning in and you're wondering, what's the deal with all these hearings?

You saw a blank screen because we just learned that the Senate, specifically the Senate foreign relations committee, who had been meeting and there was news broken there, they have just adjourned.

But so the news we learned from the Senate side, just this past hour, it was pretty key here in terms of possible use of force, possible military intervention in the "Crisis in Syria," and that is that this committee, the Senate foreign relations committee, voted 10-to-seven yea versus nay in terms of use of force.

So they have officially approved that resolution and that was huge. So that's the Senate side. Now that they have that marked up, and that was amended, and that has now been authorized, that Senate version, that Senate resolution then goes on to the full U.S. Senate.

Keep in mind that Congress is technically still in recess. They're not supposed to be back until Monday. That's when everyone reconvenes and this thing really gets going.

On the House side, and we've been watching this for the last couple of hours, members of the House foreign affairs committee, they've gone ping-ponging back and forth, different questions to these three key members as far as why we should go to war, possible retaliation, showing pictures of children.

That's what's happening on Capitol Hill.

I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Let's go to Jake Tapper. "THE LEAD" starts now.