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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With New York Congressman Charles Rangel; Congress Debates Syria Action; Paying College Athletes; Supporting the "Moderate" Rebels; An Iran Open to Nuclear Negotiations?

Aired September 5, 2013 - 16:00   ET

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


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Could our cruise missiles be clearing a path for extremists?

I'm John Berman, and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead. Barbaric actions of alleged Syrian rebels on display in another new execution video and raising the question, who would we really be helping if the president ordered a strike?

The national lead, the sharp divide over whether to attack, the blurred lines in Congress and an American public not eager to ride into the fog of another Mideast war. We will hear passionate voices on both sides.

And, later, the sports lead. He celebrates each touchdown with a show me the money sign. Is it time that Johnny Football and other college athletes started getting paid?

I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper today.

It was a handshake worthy of a caption contest, as President Obama arrived at the G20 summit in Russia this morning and greeted Russian president Vladimir Putin. Look, smiles. Still, the meeting pits two leaders with polar opposite views on Syria. "The Guardian" even reports summit organizers reshuffled seating to put the two further apart, like misbehaving sixth-graders, symbolically showing the political rift and hopefully out of spitball range.

Russia says it wants proof that its ally and business partner Bashar al-Assad gassed its own people, more proof than the United States has publicly offered up and more proof than the jarring images from the attack two weeks ago showing scores of dead or dying children.

Well, today, more evidence came to light. Forget signatures of sarin. The Brits now say with certainty a chemical weapon was used in Syria. Just hours ago, we learned that British scientists had confirmed that clothing and soil samples taken from the site of alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21 have tested positive for the deadly nerve gas sarin.

That attack reportedly left more than 1,400 people dead. The British prime minister, who was unable to convince his parliament to act in response to this attack, now says the new evidence may still not be enough to change any minds. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I think for some people there will never be enough evidence. And for some in the debate in the House of Commons, it wasn't about evidence, it wasn't about chemical weapons. It was about how they felt let down over Iraq and it was a deep concern, which I completely understand, of not wanting to get further involved in the difficulties in Syria.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon is live in Beirut for us.

Arwa, the British say they are certain it was sarin. Might this erase any doubts lingering in the Middle East about who was to blame for this attack?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: When it comes to that particular attack, it's such a polarizing issue not just in the Middle East but on a global scale as well. The Russians are not likely to alter their progress just because the British put forward that kind of a conclusion.

With the Russians firmly, as of now, continuing to stand behind the regime, it's not likely going to alter any of the current dynamics we're seeing unfold. When it comes to really swaying the Russian position, they're not just going to want hard evidence that they themselves can actually believe that a chemical weapon was used. They're going to want concrete evidence as to who used it.

At this point in time, it's really up to the United States and how that decision in Washington ends up going. The only thing that is going to possibly begin to possibly alter the battlefield dynamic is if we do see at some point in time air strikes on those key locations, those key regime locations inside Syria, John.

BERMAN: Arwa, sit tight for a second, because there was another major development today, a new disturbing video obtained by "The New York Times" that shows Syrian rebels executing soldiers loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

We're going to show you a short clip. While the video intentionally goes to black during the moment of the executions, we have to warn you the video is still extremely disturbing, grisly, grim, words almost can't describe.

Arwa, tell us where this video allegedly came from and what kinds of questions it raises about the rebels that the U.S. could soon be arming even more.

DAMON: That video emerged from Idlib province, according to "The New York Times."

The rebel commander there, he is nicknamed the Uncle, he's in his late 30s. The motivation for that execution was revenge. This is someone who has vowed to slaughter all of the Alawites. But it also goes to underscore just how criminal and lawless an environment Syria has become, where you have summary executions taking place with no real due process to speak of whatsoever.

The other issue, of course, when it comes to arming the rebels is not just the need to really rein in that carnal desire for revenge, but also dealing with the more extremist elements that do exist inside Syria, and bringing them under control. The problem though, John, in all of this is that even people who I met a year-and-a-half ago who were preaching the need for reconciliation, who really didn't look like they could harm another human being, they have all picked up weapons right now and some of them are even Islamist commanders, which is why we hear warnings that it is time to take action right now, because the longer this drags on, the more bloodthirsty people become, the more difficult it is going to be to rein in their emotions and their desires for revenge.

BERMAN: It absolutely highlights the challenges in that region. Arwa Damon in Beirut, thank you so much. We will have move on that disturbing video a little bit.

But, first, as the president tries to sell a war on the world stage, there's still no guarantee he will get the green light from home. He already has the support of a Senate committee and from leadership on both sides, but a final vote may not come up for another week or later. Many lawmakers who heard an earful over their vacations, they might be a tougher sell.

Joining us now is Congressman Charlie Rangel, Democrat from New York.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: Thanks for having me, John.

BERMAN: Can I ask, have you been down to Washington yet to receive the briefing on Syria?

RANGEL: No. No, I haven't.

BERMAN: Can I ask you why, on an issue that is clearly so important to the president and so important right now to the world, that you haven't gone down for the briefing?

RANGEL: Yes, because I can't imagine anything that I have heard that will persuade me that the conduct of this insane maniac in Syria is doing anything to place my country in danger or to violate our national security, nothing at all.

He's an international monster, and killing children and innocent civilians. It's terrible. But this does not directly or indirectly affect the security of the United States. It does, however, in my opinion, affect the civility of nations internationally.

So, what do I mean by that? It means that this demands an international solution, either the U.N., the Arab League, NATO, European Union. I don't care what it is. But one thing is for certain. I am just fed up with presidents, Democrats and Republicans, taking this nation into war without the consent of the Congress for reasons that even today all we can do is count the dead and the wounded.

BERMAN: Senator Dianne Feinstein is saying she's sensing some skepticism from her constituents, but she did have the classified briefing and she says it did affect her. Listen to what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: They don't know what I know. They haven't heard what I heard. And I like to believe now after 20 years that I have somewhat -- some skill in separating the wheat from the chaff in this thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: So, she's heard the briefing and she seems convinced.

RANGEL: She's a senator from the -- almost the people's republic of California. And I have the utmost respect for her.

But I have been walking my district the last few days. No matter what I heard down there, I don't have the opportunity, if I knew it, to talk to my constituents. Why? They want jobs, they want affordable housing, they want health care, they want education. They don't want cops to arrest our youngsters on nothing. They don't want these long prison terms.

If I had a town-hall meeting, I said, hold it, I have got to run to Washington, and I will take your complaints later, they say, why are you going? I say, because we have an international madman, and Washington and the president wants once again to go to war.

BERMAN: The president seemed to address skepticism like I'm hearing from you in his comments yesterday in Sweden. Let's listen to what the president said.

RANGEL: OK.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If in fact you're outraged by the slaughter of innocent people, what are you doing about it? And if the answer is, well, we should engage diplomatically, well, we have engaged diplomatically. The answer is, well, we should shine the spotlight and shame these governments. Well, these governments oftentimes show no shame.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: So, you call Bashar al-Assad a madman.

RANGEL: Yes.

BERMAN: And you're willing to accept there were atrocities there. (CROSSTALK)

RANGEL: I am not willing to accept that -- we are a leader in the international community. The president can make this a derogatory thing to diplomatically go to the U.N., to NATO, to Great Britain, to the European -- he can do that.

But Charlie Rangel is fed up with our young and women being committed to war because of reasons that my constituents don't go to sleep at night.

BERMAN: Let me ask you one last question. If you are fed up, sir, if Congress follows your lead and votes against authorizing military action, and the president still goes ahead and orders a strike, what would you then do?

RANGEL: Well, I don't even want to think that negatively, because I have the utmost respect for this president and all of our presidents. And I love this country.

What I think you're suggesting is that the president may say he doesn't need the support of the Congress.

BERMAN: He has left the door open for that.

RANGEL: He may have left it open, but as a constitutional scholar, the question is not open.

What has happened is that Congress after Congress since Franklin Roosevelt have ignored the fact that presidents after presidents have violated the Constitution and started many wars, limited wars, something's just going to last two, three days.

BERMAN: You say he would be in violation...

RANGEL: And we're still counting the dead from these wars.

BERMAN: Would he be in violation of the Constitution if he did order a strike?

RANGEL: There is no question in anybody's mind that, if the Constitution does not support the president, he has violated the Constitution.

BERMAN: Would that be an impeachable offense?

RANGEL: I am telling you that I have no question that my president is not going to do that.

BERMAN: Congressman Charlie Rangel...

RANGEL: But I also would like to say that I think the Congress once again is going to ignore the Constitution and do what sounds patriotic. And you know why? They got no skin in the game. They don't have to go to the funerals and their kids are not going to be drafted. BERMAN: Congressman Rangel, a pleasure to talk to you.

RANGEL: Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: I really appreciate it, sir.

RANGEL: Thank you.

BERMAN: And when we come back, I will speak to former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who, from his years with the Bush administration, knows the perils of using military force in the Middle East -- his reaction to Congressman Rangel next.

Plus, is it supposed to taste fizzy? Complaints over strange-tasting Greek yogurt is leading one major brand to pull their product out of stores. Which one? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to the LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman, filling in for Jake Tapper today.

Continuing with our world lead and the crisis in Syria, moments ago, we showed you the shocking video published on "The New York Times"' Web site that shows a group of Syrian rebels executing captured Syrian troops.

Now, compare that to what Secretary of State John Kerry said about the rebels yesterday to a skeptical House Foreign Affairs Committee.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: 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 maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who would be deemed to be bad guys.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: So, that video likely emphasizes why the Obama administration isn't pushing for regime change, as the military objective of strikes in Syria. Still the question is, just who are the Syrian rebels, the side we are supporting in this civil war?

I'm joined by Stephen Hadley. He was the national security adviser to President George W. Bush. He's now with consulting firm Rice, Hadley and Gates, and he is in favor of intervention in Syria.

Mr. Hadley, thanks so much for being with us.

I guess the question a lot of Americans have is what do we know about the rebels? Because the administration does seem willing to provide some more assistance as part of congressional authorization. Can these rebels be trusted?

STEPHEN HADLEY, FMR. NATL. SECURITY ADVISER TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I think the first thing you have to recognize is the rebels are not one undifferentiated whole. There are probably now over a hundred such groups, and the longer this conflict has gone, the more they have been.

I think Secretary Kerry had it about right. There are some of these groups that are al Qaeda linked that we wouldn't have anything to do with and the groups shown in that video are exactly those kind of groups. But there is a core group that is more democratic, that is not allied with terror, that wants more inclusive outcome in Syria that we can work with and should be working with.

And the kind of intervention I've been favoring is not boots on the ground, not even U.S. strikes but simply honoring these elements of the opposition so that they can be the core of a regime that can succeed the Assad regime.

BERMAN: Secretary Kerry says you need to weed out the extremist elements. You seem to support that also. But how do you it? How do you weed out extremists and help the people how think are the good guys?

HADLEY: We have now been dealing with some of these groups for up to two years. And when the administration announced four or five months ago, they were going to begin arming some of these vetted elements of the opposition, they were beginning to say, you know, we know these groups, we know better these groups, we're probably going to make some mistakes. But there is a group that we can begin to work with and arm and should arm, because the goal in this is in a way neither the opposition is going to win, nor, hopefully, Assad is going to win.

What you're going to have is a situation where there is more balance on the ground, elements of the regime split with Assad, he leaves and some elements of the army and business community join with these more democratic opposition groups to form the kind of government, which can then give leadership to all the Syrians but also can take on al Qaeda. Because the groups that I'm talking about and Secretary Kerry is talking about have broken with al Qaeda and in the north are fighting with the al Qaeda elements.

So I think there is much less risk than there might have been six months or a year ago that arms what we would give to these vetted, more democratic, more moderate groups would actually end up in the hands of al Qaeda.

BERMAN: I want to tap into your foreign policy expertise in a slightly different subject right now, because there are a couple of tweets that raised a whole lot of eyebrows from the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. He tweeted this, "Foreign ministry will be in charge of Iran's nuclear negotiations, ready for constructive interaction with the world." He also sent a separate tweet, wishing Jews around the world a happy and blessed Rosh Hashanah, that coming from the president of Iran right now and I think that shocked a lot of people. The nuclear announcement not insignificant at all, if it it's true, takes nuclear negotiations from the supreme leader and puts it under this president.

Explain the significance of these tweets.

HADLEY: Well, we'll have to see what the significance are. Obviously, Rouhani is a different kind of figure than Ahmadinejad. He's a much more experienced diplomat and he's presenting himself in a much more attractive way, both to the Iranian people and to the West.

It is a good thing that the foreign ministry is going to be involved. But remember used the phrase out from under the supreme leader. Nothing in Iran is out from under the supreme leader.

And the question about Rouhani is how much flexibility will he be given by the supreme leader to actually engage into negotiations, which might actually involve Iran giving up this effort to get a nuclear weapon? We don't know. We should test them. We'll have to see.

BERMAN: But it is clear the administration, it was enough to catch their attention today. Stephen Hadley, thanks so much for being with us. I really appreciate the discussion.

HADLEY: Nice to be with you, John.

BERMAN: Coming up next, in the national lead -- after nearly three weeks, the massive Rim wildfire still burning. Now investigators have finally figured out what started it.

And later, President Obama face-to-face with Vladimir Putin. Just how tense was their initial meeting and what do they discuss since? I will ask one of the president's top advisers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

Our national lead today, a California mystery might be solved. The monster Rim Fire, the fourth biggest in the state's history, investigators saying a hunter who lost control of his illegal camp fire is to blame for the whole thing starting. Forest Service officials say they know who the hunter is, but so far hasn't filed charges. The fire has been burning for nearly three weeks and eaten up nearly 240,000 acres inside Yosemite National Park. Firefighters have it about 80 percent contained right now.

And my big fat Greek yogurt. The Chobani Company has taken some of its products off of store shelves. Customers were complaining their yogurt cups were swollen or bloated. Some people apparently ate it anyway and got sick. The company says it found mold in a small amount of product in its facility in Idaho. If you think you have some of the moldy, bloated, bad batch. Chobani says to e-mail them and they'll set things right.

Let's check in now with our political panel. They are on set right now.

Ana Navarro, I want to ask you about Senator Ed Markey, from the greatest state of Massachusetts. He voted present in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the issue of Syria. Now, present is a polite way to reply to a high school attendants role call.

What does it say to you when a senator votes present on the issue involving a civil war?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think his name should be "Ed Malarkey." I think he is rehearsing for an award in profiles of lack of courage. And he should go sit on a fence somewhere and leave the Senate for grownups.

BERMAN: When we come back, Ana will tell us what she really thinks.

The politics lead is next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

The world lead -- it could have been as awkward as an elevator ride between Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston. President Obama comes face to face with a man his top cabinet member just called a liar, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The sports lead. They help their schools rake in millions. Their images are used to sell video games and sports memorabilia. But college athletes don't get to see a penny and some say the NCAA's rules just aren't hypocritical but costing these players six-figure salaries.

And the pop culture lead. Move over Ms. Middleton. Even in death, it's Diana who remains the world's most beloved princess. As a new movie about her life debuts in London, we wonder are there any royal secrets left to reveal?

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