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Presidential News Conference; Obama Remarks Come as G-20 Summit Ends

Aired September 6, 2013 - 10:30   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It doesn't mean it wasn't the right thing to do. Just means people, you know, are struggling with jobs and bills to pay and they don't want their sons or daughters put in harm's way. These entanglements far away are dangerous and different. You know, to bring the analogy closer to home.

You know, the intervention in Kosovo, very unpopular. But ultimately I think it was the right thing to do. And the international community should be glad that it came together to do it.

When people say that it is a terrible stain on all of us that hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Rwanda, well, imagine if Rwanda was going on right now and we asked should we intervene in Rwanda. I think it's fair to say that it probably wouldn't poll real well.

So, you know, typically when any kind of military action is popular, it's because either there's been a very clear, direct threat to us, 9/11, or an administration uses various hooks to suggest that American interests were directly threatened like in Panama or Grenada. And sometimes those hooks are more persuasive than others, but typically they're not put before Congress.

And, again, we just went through something pretty tough with respect to Iraq. So, all that I guess provides some context for why you might expect people to be resistant here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But your deputy national security adviser said that it is not your intention to attack if Congress doesn't approve it. Is he right?

OBAMA: I don't think that's exactly what he said, but I think I've answered -- I've answered the question. Major Garrett?

MAJOR GARRETT: Thank you, Mr. President. Those of us who remember covering your campaign remember you saying that militarily when the United States acts, it's not just important what it does but how it goes about doing it. And that even when America sets its course it's important to engage international community and listen to different ideas even as it's pursuing that action.

I wonder if you leave here and return to Washington, seeing the skepticism there and hearing it here with any different ideas that might delay military action. For example, some in Congress have suggested giving the Syrian regime 45 days to sign the chemical weapons convention, get rid of its chemical stockpiles, do something that would enhance international sense of accountability for Syria but delay military action. Are you, Mr. President, looking at any of these ideas, or are we on a fast track to military action as soon as Congress renders its judgment one way or the other?

OBAMA: I am listening to all these ideas. And some of them are constructive. And I'm listening to ideas in Congress and I'm listening to ideas here.

Look, I want to repeat here -- my goal is to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons. I want that enforcement to be real. I want it to be serious. I want people to understand that gassing innocent people, you know, delivering chemical weapons against children is not something we do. It's prohibited in active wars between countries. We certainly don't do it against kids. And we've got to stand up for that principle.

If there are tools that we can use to ensure that, obviously my preference would be, again, to act internationally in a serious way and to make sure that Mr. Assad gets the message. I'm not itching for a military action.

Recall, Major, that I have been criticized for the last couple of years by some of the folks who are now saying they would oppose these strikes, for not striking. And I think that I have a well-deserved reputation for taking very seriously and soberly the idea of military engagement.

So, we will look at these ideas. So far at least I have not seen ideas presented that as a practical matter I think would do the job. But, you know, this is a situation where part of the reason I wanted to foster a debate was to make sure that, you know, everybody thought about both the ramifications of action and inaction.

GARRETT: So, currently the only way to enforce this international norm is militarily and even giving the Assad regime extra time would not achieve your goals?

OBAMA: What I'm saying, Major, is that so far what we've seen is an escalation by the Assad regime of chemical weapons use. You'll recall that several months ago I said, we now say with some confidence that at a small level Assad has used chemical weapons. We not only sent warnings to Assad, but we demarched, meaning we sent a strong message through countries that have relationships with Assad, that he should not be doing this. And rather than hold the line, we ended up with what we saw on August 21st.

So, this is not as if we haven't tested the proposition that the guy or at least generals under his charge can show restraint when it comes to this stuff. And they've got one of the largest stockpiles in the world.

But, I want to emphasize, that we continue to consult with our international partners. I'm listening to Congress. I'm not just doing the talking. And if there are good ideas that are worth pursuing, then I'm going to be open to them.

I will take, last question, Tangy (ph), AFP.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Mr. President. Yesterday night you had two unscheduled bilateral meetings with your Brazilian and Mexican counterparts after they voiced very strong concerns about being allegedly targeted by the NSA. What was your message to them and do the relations, the constant stream of relations, this summer, make it harder for you to build confidence with your partners in international forums such as this one?

OBAMA: Good. I did meet with President Rousseff as well as President Pena Nieto of Brazil and Mexico respectively to discuss these allegations that were made in the press about the NSA. I won't share with you all the details of the conversation. But what I said to them is consistent with what I've said publicly.

The United States has an intelligence agency. And our intelligence agency's job is to gather information that's not available through public sources. If they were available through public sources, then they wouldn't be an intelligence agency. In that sense what we do is similar to what countries around the world do with their intelligence services.

But what is true is that, you know, we are bigger, we have greater capabilities, you know, the difference between our capabilities and other countries probably tracks the differences in military capabilities between countries. And what I've said is that because technology's changing so rapidly, because these capabilities are growing, it is important for us to step back and review what it is that we're doing.

Because just because we can get information doesn't necessarily always mean that we should. There may be costs and benefits to doing certain things, and we've got to weigh those. I think that traditionally what's happened over decades is the general assumption was, well, you know, whatever you can get, you just kind of pull in and then you kind of sift through later and try to figure out what's useful.

The nature of technology and the legitimate concerns around privacy and civil liberties means that it's important for us on the front end to say, all right, are we actually going to get useful information here. And if not, or how useful is it, if it's not that important, should we be more constrained in how we use certain technical capabilities?

Now, just more specifically then on Brazil and Mexico, I said that I would look in to the allegations. Part of the problem is we get these through the press and then I've got to go back and find out what's going on with respect to these particular allegations. I don't subscribe to all these newspapers. Although I think the NSA does now at least.

And then what I assured President Rousseff and President Pena Nieto is that they should take -- that I take these allegations very seriously. I understand their concerns. I understand the concerns of the Mexican and Brazilian people and that we will work with their teams to resolve what is a source of tension.

Now, the last thing I'd say about this, though, is just because they're tensions doesn't mean that it overrides all the, you know, incredibly wide-ranging interests that we share with so many of these countries. And, you know, there's a reason why I went to Brazil. And there's a reason why I invited President Rousseff to come to the United States.

Brazil is an incredibly important country. It is an amazing success story in terms of a transition from authoritarianism to democracy. It is one of the most dynamic economies in the world and obviously for the two largest nations in the hemisphere to have a strong relationship that can only be good for the people of our two countries as well as the region. Same is true with Mexico, one of our closest friends, allies and neighbors.

And so, you know, we will work through this particular issue. It does not detract from the larger concerns that we have and the opportunities that we both want to take advantage of.

All right? Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you, St. Petersburg.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: President Obama answering questions from reporters in St. Petersburg, Russia. All the questions, almost, about possible U.S. intervention militarily in Syria; the president making the case action needs to be taken cause because of Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people.

He invoked the slaughter from the 1990s in Rwanda noting that most people today think that action should have been taken but it would probably not poll well, President Obama said, noting how difficult it is. He called it a heavy lift to argue with members of Congress that this is what their constituents want. He said he would be addressing the nation on this issue on Tuesday from the White House.

One big issue discussed at this press conference, would the President act even if Congress does not give him approval. Earlier today the President's deputy national security adviser told National Public Radio, quote, "It's neither his desire nor intention to use that authority absent Congress backing him," but the President begged off answering that question directly today, telling CNN's Brianna Keilar and others there that taking the measure to Congress was not meant as a mere symbolic measure.

Take a listen --


OBAMA: I think it is very important, therefore, for us to work through systematically making the case to every senator and every member of congress. And that's what we're doing. I dispute a little bit, Brianna, the notion that people come out of classified briefings and they're less in favor of it. I think that when they go through the classified briefings, they feel pretty confident that, in fact, chemical weapons were used and that the Assad regime used them.

Where you will see resistance is people being worried about a slippery slope and how effective a limited action might be. And our response, based on my discussions with our military, is that we can have a response that is limited, that is proportional, that -- when I say limited it's both in time and in scope, but that is meaningful and that degrades Assad's capacity to deliver chemical weapons.


TAPPER: Chief domestic correspondent Jessica Yellin is in Washington. Jessica, President Obama arguing that when members of Congress hear in these classified briefings of the evidence that Assad and his regime used chemical weapons against their own people, they do find it compelling. That does square with the interviews I've done with members of Congress.

But he points out the real issue here, the roadblock, is what to do about that fact. You've been talking to members of Congress. What are you hearing in terms of how much their constituents believe that the case has been made that the U.S. Needs to do something about this?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN DOMESTIC AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: They're hearing a lot of discontent from their constituents. Republicans much more willing to say it's outright resistance to going in and Democrats, as you can imagine, saying a lot more war weariness. Not so much, Jake, because they oppose doing something about chemical weapons, but because there's a concern that it's -- not necessarily frankly the U.S. problem and why is the U.S. doing it alone.

And I think you heard that a little bit in the President's remarks when he sort of almost shrugged his shoulders and expressed a little bit of frustration that, you know, the U.S. as the world's superpower is looked on by these littler countries as having a huge burden. You know, part of his role there was to try to shame other nations to come with us. That's part of the reason he's speaking -- part of the way he's speaking out is to pressure other countries to feel the same obligation.

But doing it when, you know, woe is me, we're the world's superpower, isn't necessarily the best way to go. I think he seemed a little bit miserable, too? Didn't you see a look on his face, that's partly exhaustion, but also just unhappiness that he is the guy, who said "I got us elected to get out of wars, not into wars." And he does seem uncomfortable a little bit with being in this position.

TAPPER: Well, I think -- I think without question, Jessica, President Obama feels as though he is trying to do something that the world agrees needs to be done, action needs to be taken against somebody who uses chemical weapons against his own people, allegedly, and he is finding a very difficult time getting support for that.

Obviously, the U.K., the parliament, voted against it and America's number one ally, Great Britain, bowing out of this, not taking a role when it comes to sending troops or supporting military action. And I know that this has also been, as he described, a heavy lift on Congress.

It's still very much up in the air whether or not this would pass. What are your sources in the White House telling you, Jessica, in terms of how important they feel like this address, that President Obama will give on Tuesday, to address the nation, to make his case? How important making the argument to the American people will be?

YELLIN: Well, they are hearing it from outside, that he needs to do this, and they have been told, you know, he's got to give this address -- they know that it's important. I also know, Jake, and you do, too, the fact that this White House is being so aggressive in its outreach. Shows both how crucial this vote is but also how heavy a lift it is. They are not just -- the fact that the President himself is picking up the phone while he is in Russia and calling members back in the United States to lobby them. Remember, this is the guy that we always say has a hard time reaching out to Congress when he's right here on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Now, you know, at home where it's easy to do that. It's a little bit of an overstatement but when he's overseas in Russia, that is a big lift for him. All of his members, senior officials are really working it. They are reaching out to their former cabinet officials and asking them to get involved. I mean this White House is putting on a full-court press. And now on Sunday night I've just learned Vice President Biden is taking a group of Republican senators out to dinner, people they think they can turn potentially into yeses.

So, they're really trying to win them over. I'm told it's the same message privately that they're saying focusing on Iran and Hezbollah and "if we're going to give a pass to Assad, what does that say to the region" is a major theme, but also upholding the chemical weapons convention. One person on Capitol Hill told me they should also add to their message a little bit of begging -- it's that hard.

CNN's chief political analyst Gloria Borger also joins us. Gloria, walk us through the timeline that you see going on here. President Obama will address the nation on Tuesday. We don't know if it will be prime time. I imagine it will be.


TAPPER: When will Congress vote? When would President Obama, assuming it passes at least the Senate, when would he act?

BORGER: You know, that's a big question is Brianna asked him and others asked him repeatedly today, the question is would you go it alone if Congress voted against you. It's very clear, both from the President -- and I was communicating with a senior administration official today, they don't want to go there, Jake because they don't want to throw in the towel before a vote. They don't want to say what they do, remember Rand Paul the other day saying at the congressional hearing, why are we here if you're going to go without us anyway.

I think also you can't consider Congress as a whole. You have to look at the Senate and you have to look at the House. Obviously right now more likely -- although certainly not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination -- more likely that authorization for some kind of use of force -- and again, the language is still not final -- could pass the Senate; more likely the Senate than the house.

Well, if it passed the senate, what would happen in the House? Would the House not vote? Would the President go anyway if the Senate passed authorization? Would he wait for the House to vote if the House said, "Oh well, we're going to wait another couple of weeks."

So, all of this is a really fluid situation that has to play out. And I think the presidential address to the nation will be his best opportunity to convince those constituents that are so nervous about this.

You saw what John McCain went through at his town hall meeting. You played it earlier. So, he's got to talk to the American people. If he can shift public opinion, then he's got a better shot at the Senate, maybe even in the House. But I think right now, the Senate is very key to all of this.

TAPPER: I want to bring in chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash on Capitol Hill. Dana, the President would not answer the question about if he would act without Congress if Congress votes against him. But there was a different part of our colleague Brianna Keilar's question about members of Congress, Democrats, going into these classified briefings and leaving with more concerns than they went into the briefing with.

I know the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Republican, Michael McCaul, he said in the hearing earlier this week with Secretary of State John Kerry, that he has concerns because he goes to these briefings and he hears more and more of the Syrian rebels are extremists, are not moderates, the way that Secretary Kerry has been portraying them.

What's your response to that interaction between President Obama and Brianna about members of Congress and these classified briefings?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as somebody who is part of a team here talking to lots and lots of members of Congress coming out of these briefings, I respectfully disagree with the President disagreeing with Brianna, because that is absolutely what we're hearing. That to me really has been among the most surprising parts of the narrative that we've seen over the past week. And that is the thought was that we're going to have this unprecedented full-court press, flood the zone as the White House said, get members of congress information that they thought would really convince them.

As we've talked about the idea of Bashar al Assad using chemical weapons against his own people pretty much across the board people are convinced of that. What people are not convinced of inside -- from these classified briefings and have even more questions about coming out is, again, the military action and the consequences from military action and the fact that they have questions about whether the administration really has a handle on what to do for all kinds of contingencies.

The other thing I wanted to point out, Jake, you heard Major Garrett ask the President about an idea that's floating around here on Capitol Hill to give Syria 45 days to be a signatory to the chemical weapons convention, which they're not now.

That is something that is being pushed by some moderate Democrats in the Senate who are very reluctant to go along with military action. Senator Joe Manchin, Senator Heidi Heitkamp and others. It's something that they are sort of quietly moving around here to potentially give the President an out if it looks like he's not going to get the support in Congress for military action.

The idea would be to give a little time to try to get the international community more on board if, in fact, they see that Syria presumably would not sign on to this, it might help him get international support that he's looking for which you heard the President say he's happy to find if he can get it. So far it hasn't been successful.

TAPPER: And, of course, Dana Bash, chief congressional correspondent on Capitol Hill, one lesson that the public and we in the media have learned over the last decade is how much at face value we should take it when members of Congress say they've seen intelligence and the intelligence is irrefutable and convincing because we've gone through that and the intelligence has been wrong.

President Obama is still making the case about chemical weapons and what happened in Syria at the end of August. He was doing so earlier today. Let's play some of that sound --


OBAMA: I understand the skepticism. I think it is very important, therefore, for us to work through systematically making the case to every senator and every member of Congress. And that's what we're doing.

I dispute a little bit, Brianna, the notion that people come out of classified briefings and they're less in favor of it. I think that when they go through the classified briefings, they feel pretty confident that, in fact, chemical weapons were used and that the Assad regime used them.

Where you will see resistance is people being worried about a slippery slope and how effective a limited action might be. And our response based on my discussions with our military is that we can have a response that is limited, that is proportional, that -- when I say limited, it's both in time and in scope, but that is meaningful and that degrades Assad's capacity to deliver chemical weapons.


TAPPER: Former undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns joins us now. Mr. Burns, thanks for being with us. Can you explain why it seems as though so many U.S. leaders have been just convinced that 1,400 or more Syrians were killed in this chemical weapon attack, even though some of our allies question those numbers; that Assad is the one, his regime is responsible, even though other countries question that, and why the administration would not necessarily think that we need -- we in the public need more information than just assertions about this horrific incident?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE: Well, Jake, I think it was the most effective statement the President's made, certainly to me in ways the most passionate statement that he's made, focusing on the deaths of those 400 children. You know, to get to your question, the United States has put a lot of time and attention to figuring out what happened.

And I think there is widespread agreement in Europe and in the Arab World that Assad has used chemical weapons -- very little doubt about it. The outliers here are Russia and China. And frankly the Russians are just playing politics with this in the most cynical way. They're protecting Assad. They're looking the other way as he clearly has used chemical weapons.

I don't think in the international debate that I follow that the question is did he use chemical weapons. The question for most countries is what should be done about it and I think the President interestingly focused like a laser on that point today saying "The only justification I'm going to put forward," he said, "is that we need to enforce international law, the prohibition on chemical weapons use." And if the Security Council can't do that the Russians and Chinese are blocking actions, it gives the United States the responsibility to do that.

That's an effective argument I think in Europe. It will be effective in the Arab World. It's not going to affect Putin or Xi Jinping because they have a very different view of this and they don't want us to act.

TAPPER: Ok. So, I understand that people buy the argument about the intelligence and let's put that aside for one second. The coalition that President Obama has put together, not of people who support action but people, countries, who are willing to put skin in the game, seems fairly flimsy right now.

We have France talking about it. We have Turkey talking about it. There are discussions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. I'm talking about actually contributing, not just saying -- signing off on it. Why is there such a difficult -- why is the President having such a tough time putting together an international coalition if he is standing up for this international norm?

BURNS: It's actually not surprising. In fact, I think the President spoke today about a possible widening of that coalition. It could be that one or two Arab countries take part in military action. But look at it this way, Jake, after 9/11, when it was clear what Osama bin Laden has done, we went into Afghanistan in October 7th, 2001, four weeks after the attacks, three and a half weeks after the attacks, with one country beside us at that point, the United Kingdom. We had the support of the entire world -- but that's one thing. Getting countries to commit military force is quite another. So it's not unusual that President Obama would have this problem. President Bush had this problem and President Clinton had this problem as well in Bosnia and to an extent on Kosovo before NATO decided to go in.

So I do think as he said, the weight of the room at the G-20 summit was with the United States, not everybody, but the weight of the room. I do think we have a lot of international support in governments. Where we tend not to have it is in public opinion not just in the United States but public opinion elsewhere in the world in Europe and in the Arab World.

TAPPER: All right, former undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns thanks so much for your views.

BURNS: Thank you.

TAPPER: The crisis in Syria, of course, is spilling over into neighboring countries, that's one of the biggest problems going on right now. The United Nations says more than two million refugees are fleeing the violence in their war-ravaged homeland. That's not including the millions of Syrians who have been displaced within their own countries.

One of the places the refugees are going is to Lebanon and that's where we find CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Sanjay, Lebanon reportedly has the largest number of refugees -- more than 700,000. Give us an idea what you are seeing.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I've heard that same number as well, Jake, and I think the numbers are just going up. We're in Bekaa Valley, literally just walking distance from the border between Lebanon and Syria and we've been to some of the refugee camps trying to figure out how people are being cared for and what they are seeing here specifically.

We're in sort of this secretive clinic, this makeshift clinic, it was actually a mosque. I want to show you something here, Jake, this mosque was actually converted now into sort of this hospital where several of the patients who are sitting here all run this clinic by the Free Syria Army are victims of gunshot wounds and explosions primarily. People shot by snipers, people involved with explosions, and they get their care here -- so, some of the worst injuries being cared for here.

It is not easy and now Jake, I'll tell you what we're hearing and seeing --