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THE SITUATION ROOM

Crisis in Syria; Interview with Congressman Cummings

Aired September 6, 2013 - 18:00   ET

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


JOE JOHNS, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Jess.

Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria." President Obama refuses to tip his hand about whether he'll order an attack if he doesn't get a green light from Congress. CNN is leading the way to get answers.

Plus, the Pentagon expands its military options, including plans for a long-range strike against the Syrian regime.

And would Bashar al-Assad and his allies launch a revenge attack against the United States? There are already reports of threats to Americans.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer's off. I'm Joe Johns. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, President Obama is heading home from the G20 summit in Russia, hoping to head off a potential train wreck for his Syria policy. He will address the nation on Tuesday as Congress considers military action to punish the al-Assad regime for that poisonous gas attack. There are huge questions about whether the president will get the approval he's asked for and whether he's prepared to launch an attack anyway.

But the military planning goes on, and we have new information about the options.

Here's our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Joe.

The options are going to include attacks more rigorous than originally advertised. Early on, the thinking had been this would be limited to sea-launched cruise missiles. There are now four destroyers in the U.S., but the U.S. may now also deploy bombers flown from the U.S. with the goal of delivering measurable damage to the Assad regime.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): From the president in Russia today, a growing emphasis on degrading Syria's military capability, rather than a more symbolic shot across the bow.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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, not just this time but also in the future.

SCIUTTO: Pentagon officials describe a White House repeatedly asking for revised options to attack. One of those options is expanding the campaign to include long-range bombers flown from the U.S. and firing the joint air-to-surface standoff missile, which allows bombers to fire outside the range of Syria's extensive air defense systems.

The bombers would complement a blistering barrage of sea-launched cruise missiles. Military officials emphasize no final decisions have been made about which options to employ, and target lists will keep changing as Syrian forces have been given ample time to disperse and conceal troops, military hardware and chemical weapons sites. Still, the president insists the delay has not diminished chances of success.

OBAMA: My military assured me that we could act today, tomorrow, a month from now, that we could do so proportionally, but meaningfully.

SCIUTTO: Today, Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power argued that any military action would be connected to a broader effort to end the civil war.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: This operation combined with ongoing efforts to upgrade the military capabilities of the moderate opposition should reduce the regime's faith that they can kill their way to victory. There is no risk-free door number two that we can choose in this case.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Well, politically and militarily, the Pentagon and the administration has the same Goldilocks problem it's had from the beginning, which is selling an attack that's not too vigorous for skeptics of military action and not too weak and strategically limited for supporters. Ostensibly, it's a virtually impossible balancing act to pull off, but it is what the administration, Joe, is faced with now.

JOHNS: Jim, Samantha Power really seems to have found her voice in this job relatively quickly.

SCIUTTO: She has. She's always been a very powerful voice, one of the chief advocates back before our involvement in Syria and early on for a more vigorous U.S. response to Libya, but also now for a more vigorous response to the Syrian civil war.

So, here she is now, the next advocate after Secretary Kerry saying and pushing that same administration point, that if we don't act, the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of military action.

JOHNS: Jim Sciutto, thanks for that. If the United States goes ahead attacks Syria, Iran reportedly is threatening retaliation in the form of an attack on U.S. Embassy in Iraq, and that's not the only potential danger for Americans.

Our Brian Todd is looking at that.

Good evening, Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Joe.

You know, we have been speaking with security experts about the spectrum of possible retaliation, and when you look at this as a whole, Americans in the region could be vulnerable to a range of attacks from terrorism to mob violence to a conventional military strike.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): If American Tomahawk missiles fly towards Syria in the coming days, what about the blowback?

KIRK LIPPOLD, FORMER COMMANDER, USS COLE: I think the United States needs to be prepared for Syria to respond to an attack. One of the things that they have available to them are Russian missiles.

TODD: Commander Kirk Lippold knows what it's like to be in harm's way. He commanded the USS Cole, hit by terrorists in 2000. Syria's ally Hezbollah managed to hit this Israeli ship with a missile in 2006.

(on camera): Top U.S. commanders say American ships will keep a safe distance, but what could also be in the Syrians' range, U.S. forces deployed in Turkey. Look how close the U.S. base at Incirlik is to the Syrian border, well within the Syrians' missile range.

(voice-over): Still, Rick Francona, a U.S. military attache in Syria, says Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to risk striking Americans militarily.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think the risks associated with this operation are pretty limited.

TODD: But there's an attack risk from forces other than Assad's military.

FRANCONA: To do something against an American interest, an American company, an American family, yes, there are risks involved.

TODD: Last year, U.S. embassies in several Middle East countries were attacked, and the most serious threat of all? Terrorism.

ANDREW TABLER, FELLOW, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism and has been since the list was made in 1979. So, it has ties with a whole host of groups that could carry out attacks against Americans or American installations abroad. TODD: Hezbollah is among the most dangerous of those groups. Also, Iran's top ayatollah threatened that America would -- quote -- "definitely suffer" if it launches a strike. "The Wall Street Journal" reports Iran has instructed militants to attack the U.S. Embassy in Iraq if America strikes Syria. "The Journal" says the order came in a message intercepted by the U.S. from the head of the Quds Force, the unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard known to carry out attacks abroad.

But American officials have this warning for anyone who would try to retaliate, starting with Syria's president.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: If Assad is arrogant enough, and I would say foolish enough, to retaliate to the consequences of his own criminal activity, the United States and our allies have ample ways to make him regret that decision.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Still, precautionary measures are being taken. The U.S. has already evacuated some Americans from its embassy in Lebanon and told people in a consulate in Southern Turkey to be vigilant, Joe.

JOHNS: Already signs of potential blowback.

TODD: That's right.

JOHNS: But I guess the question is whether any of this would be enough to stop the United States from attacking.

TODD: There's no indication that it would be enough to do that yet. The analysts we spoke to said these are all worst-case scenarios, but they have to be part of the calculus. They have to think about these things going forward, because the minute you launch the Tomahawks, everybody's got to be vigilant all around that region.

JOHNS: That's for sure. Thanks so much for that, Brian Todd.

Coming up on our special report, the changing U.S. attack plan against the Syrian regime and the risk of something going very wrong.

And will the president strike without the support of Congress? His response to that question has been asked over and over again.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD: President Obama is refusing to say exactly what he will do if Congress fails to approve a military strike against Syria.

Our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, pressed him on that question during his news conference at the close of the G20 summit in Russia.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Joe, President Obama downplayed that this would turn into a long, drawn- out, unilateral war between Syria and the U.S. if the U.S. were to take military action, and yet again Syria were to use chemical weapons, saying that would mobilize international support and that there would be a much broader reaction.

Now, there's also a big question, and it remains, about whether President Obama will act if both chambers of Congress don't OK a strike.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

On the resolution to authorize the use of force, one of the big challenges right now isn't just Republicans, but it's from some of your loyal Democrats. It seems that the more they hear from classified briefings that the less likely they are to support you. If the full Congress doesn't pass this, will you go ahead with the strike?

And also, Senator Susan Collins, one of the few Republicans who breaks with her party to give you support at times, she says, what if we execute this strike and then Assad decides to use chemical weapons again, do we strike again? And many Democrats are asking that as well. How do you answer her question?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, in terms of the votes and the process in Congress, I knew this was going to be a heavy lift. I said that on Saturday when I said we're going to take it to Congress.

You know, our polling operations are pretty good, you know, I tend to have a pretty good sense of what current popular opinion is. And for the American people who have been through over a decade of war now with enormous sacrifice of blood and treasure, any hint of further military entanglements in the Middle East are going to be viewed with suspicion, and that suspicion will probably be even stronger in my party than in the Republican Party, you know, since a lot of the people who supported me remember that I opposed the war in Iraq.

So, 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.

But for the American people at least, the concern really has to do with understanding that what we're describing here would be limited and proportionate and designed to address this problem of chemical weapons use and upholding a norm that helps keep all of us safe. And that is going to be the case that I try to make, not just to congress but to the American people, over the coming days. OK?

KEILAR: Just a follow-up. Do you have full congressional approval? What did you say in the House -- would you go ahead and strike?

OBAMA: You know, Brianna, I think it would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate because right now I'm working to get as much support as possible out of Congress.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: President Obama will address the American people on Tuesday night from the White House, and he has a long way to go in trying to convince them that this is the right move. A recent NBC News poll showed 50 percent of those polled believe there should not be a U.S. military action against Syria, and four out of five say it shouldn't happen unless there's congressional approval -- Joe.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: Brianna Keilar reporting from Russia there.

We heard the president hedging on whether he will strike Syria without congressional approval. Earlier today, his deputy national security adviser seemed to be more revealing.

Anthony Blinken told NPR that it's not the president's intent or desire to act if he doesn't have the OK from Congress. In the last hour of THE SITUATION ROOM, Blinken told my colleague Jessica Yellin that there really wasn't any difference between what he said and what the president said today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY BLINKEN, U.S. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: So, what I stand by is that it's our intent and our desire to get their backing, and I probably phrased it inartfully. But the point is, there is no point speculating about what comes next. And as the president said earlier, there's no point jumping the gun. Congress now has to decide. We have been spending a lot of time working with members of Congress to bring them all the information we have.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: Blinken stressed that the administration believes Congress will authorize the use of force against Syria.

Coming up in our special report, a virtual look at how the U.S. might attack Syrian military assets and the risk that some kind of rescue operation might be need.

And red-hot anger across America as voters tell members of Congress to stay out of Syria.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHNS: It's not clear when or even if the U.S. is going to strike Syria. Military planners are trying to stay flexible about strategy, as well as targets, as Congress prepares to debate an attack next week.

Tom Foreman's in our virtual studio, along with our military analyst, Retired Major General James "Spider" Marks.

Hey, Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Joe.

You know, what's really clear here is that this plan for a possible attack on Syria is still evolving. We talked a lot about the idea of ships coming in here, unloading with a bunch of cruise missiles into this country. That would be the core of the plan, but we don't know. It could be much, much more. Missiles can be launched from ships, of course. They can also be dropped from bombers.

They can be fired from submarines. Is it possible that we, in fact, could see all of these in use?

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Tom, I would expect to see all of these, primarily submarines in the Eastern Mediterranean. They are already located there.

But bear in mind, we don't know the plan, but I would expect to see bombers involved. This is a B-52. I would also expect B-2s coming out of Whiteman Air Force base, the stealth bomber, which is in Missouri, comes over the Atlantic, refuels in the vicinity of Italy, and then will launch its munitions at targets in Syria without ever having to penetrate the airspace.

FOREMAN: This is a lot more complicated, involving a lot more hardware and people than just firing from the ships. The ships have hundreds of missiles. Why would you want such a complicated system?

MARKS: Well, it's not that complicated.

It's a matter of physics. You can only launch so many cruise missiles from these ships. So, you want to get more platforms. You want to launch them from the air. So, you want to maintain continuous pressure on the regime, so Assad has to keep his head down, doesn't know what's going on and has no ability to respond.

FOREMAN: So, as each of the armaments come in, they keep unloading and unloading and unloading. Wave after wave hit.

MARKS: Absolutely.

FOREMAN: They have no time to come back up and do anything about it.

MARKS: Simultaneity of attacks. That's exactly right.

FOREMAN: Yes, but there is some complexity involved here. And here's the risk that rises with it. Answer this for me, if you would. Let's say that one of these planes were to come in here, it does stray into airspace or develops mechanical problems, and, suddenly, we have a plane and a pilot down inside Syrian territory.

Doesn't that change the whole equation?

MARKS: Well, it doesn't change the whole equation, but there is friction of war. This is a human endeavor. Things will go wrong, but you anticipate and you plan for those.

For example, there are Marines that are afloat with the Navy so that they're in a position to respond. And the Air Force has very sophisticated, highly trained search-and-rescue capabilities that are already prepositioned. They will not leave a fallen comrade behind.

FOREMAN: So, the idea is still a standoff approach, nobody goes in the airspace, nobody goes on the ground, but being ready to in case something goes wrong and they have to?

MARKS: Absolutely correct. Things can go sideways.

FOREMAN: And yet, as we said, Joe, from the very beginning, still evolving, evolving, evolving, and we will see where it winds up and if, in fact, there is an attack at any point -- Joe.

JOHNS: Absolutely. A lot of questions there. Thanks so much, Tom.

Coming up, Senator John McCain is just one lawmaker facing angry voters back home who want to stay out of Syria. We will give you a taste of the backlash.

And an influential House Democrat tells me why he can't make up his mind right now about Syria and what he wants to hear from President Obama on Tuesday.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHNS: Happening now: a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."

Voters lash out at Congress, demanding a no vote on military intervention. We're going inside meetings where tensions are boiling over.

President Obama is returning to the Capitol to make a desperate plea for support. I will ask an undecided Democrat in Congress what he needs to hear.

And the power of the presidency, how Barack Obama may be making it difficult for the next person in the Oval Office.

Wolf Blitzer's off. I'm Joe Johns. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Vice President Biden is meeting with some House and Senate members in the White House Situation Room today to try to persuade them to vote for military action in Syria. Lawmakers are feeling the heat from the administration and from angry voters back home.

CNN's Athena Jones has been listening to the reaction across the country.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We sent you to stop the war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we shoot a -- quote -- "shot over the bow" and aren't willing to finish the battle, we're worse off than we started.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Across America, people are showing up to have their voices heard on Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we should stay the hell out of there.

JONES: And by and large, they're not happy. From Arizona to Missouri to Alabama, senators got an earful from their constituents about whether missile strikes are a good idea.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We put missiles in there, it's not going to do anything. You're going to -- boots are going to be on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what I think of Congress. They are a bunch of marshmallows.

JONES: It's their last chance to go face to face with the people who voted them into office before they head back to Washington and decide the country's course of action.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: That's a good question.

JONES: Republican senator Jeff Sessions says he hasn't decided whether he'll support missile strikes. On the one hand...

SESSIONS: We cannot as a nation take it upon ourselves to take military action or declare war any time any dictator in the world violates some U.N., some treaty...

JONES: But on the other...

SESSIONS: To turn down the president's request is not a matter to be lightly done.

JONES: Some in his town-hall audience near Montgomery, Alabama, questioned the rationale for an attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not sure it was a chemical weapons attack. I think -- I think it was a pesticide attack. I think that the al Qaeda could get a hold of pesticides. Yes, I think it was set up to get the United States to come in there and do al Qaeda's dirty work.

JONES: It got more heated in Arizona, where Republican Senator John McCain, who supports strikes, faced a skeptical crowd.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: People like me have to come to the people we represent and have a conversation with them and try to get all the facts out in front of us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I do not believe we can differentiate between the good and the bad guys. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When are we going to start dealing with the major problems in this country?

JONES: Still, not everyone was opposed to action.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: America is an immense power, a superpower. We need you.

And I applause Senator McCain for his -- for his (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

REP. EMANUEL CLEAVER (D), MISSOURI: This debate will matter. And so, because it will matter, what you have to say matters.

JONES: in Kansas City, Missouri, Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who's against U.S. action in Syria, also heard from strike supporters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not just the first red line that he -- that we have drawn and that he has crossed. He has been crossing red lines for 2 1/2 years.

JONES: But they were outnumbered by opponents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I say we bail out of everybody and say, you guys are on your own.

JONES: And back in Washington, members on both sides of the issue say the word they're getting from constituents is a very loud no on military action.

REP. TED YOHO (R), FLORIDA: I and the people I represent said not just no but something like "Heck no. Don't get involved in this."

REP. JANICE HAHN (D), CALIFORNIA: My constituents as well overwhelmingly are saying absolutely no to dragging us into another foreign war.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: My job is to represent the people of Utah, and right now, we're just not convinced.

JONES (on camera): Now, the Senate could vote on a resolution as soon as Wednesday, but it's not yet clear when the House could take it up -- Joe.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: Joining me now is Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

Thanks for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, Congressman.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: Happy to be here.

JOHNS: Where are you now on Syria? You've talked about opposition of your constituency back home in Maryland, but you've also talked about those compelling, awful pictures of dying children in Syria. Where's your heart right now?

CUMMINGS: Well, I've got to tell you, I haven't decided yet, and I'm still gathering information. I'm anxiously looking forward to the president's address on Tuesday. I wanted him to address the country and I asked that he do it, and I'm glad that he is. I think that's very, very important, because you just stated, and I'm glad you mentioned it, not only must I listen to my constituents, but my constituents must have a better understanding of why the president has asked the Congress to agree with his decision to go into Syria. And not only must the president convince the Congress, but he must also convince the public. And I think that's very, very important.

So, I'm still gathering information. A lot of questions that I have. I'm getting most of them answered. And again, we have another several days to gather even more information. So, then what I'll do is I'll take the classified information that I'm getting, combined with the public information, and then just my experiences in life and the guidance from God and make a decision.

JOHNS: My colleagues here at CNN have told me that you've spoken very recently and very emotionally about the video you've seen from Syria. What was it that struck you about that?

CUMMINGS: Well, when I saw these young children lying dead, having apparently been poisoned with some type of chemical weapon, wrapped in white sheets or clothing, lined up on the ground, I think anybody who has any kind of sympathy has to feel for that. And if you have kids, it really hits you. That these lives have been taken by a person who I believe just has just a disregard for his own citizens. And so, that, it just, it hits you.

And so, one of the things that I'm trying to deal with here is how do we make sure that we send a strong message, which the president is trying to do, to people like president Assad, and not only Assad, but other folks who may have these kinds of weapons, to say this is -- you cannot do this.

But on the other hand, I want to make sure that, if we do go into Syria, that it's a limited strike and that it's one whereby we do no harm. And so, that's -- that's a hell of a balance.

JOHNS: You've come out of a number of briefings just...

CUMMINGS: I just left one. I just left one, yes.

JOHNS: Have you heard anything new that was persuasive? And are you convinced that it was Assad who was directly behind this chemical attack?

CUMMINGS: Yes, I am convinced that it was, and that -- this is after three briefings and then watching the Senate hearing.

And -- but there's a lot of information, Joe, that I can't share. And that's one of the frustrating things about this whole process. When you are trying to have discussions with your constituents, and they have a certain amount of information, but I, not only do I have the information that they're getting from people like you in the media, but I also have information that is classified that I cannot share. And so, that makes it kind of difficult, because I want them to have a full understanding.

And that's why the president's address is so important, because I think the president can lay out the case based upon what he has seen and what he is -- and he can lay out his thinking.

JOHNS: It sounds, though, like you're saying to us that perhaps he hasn't made his case. What do you think he needs to say in order to get the message across to the American public?

CUMMINGS: I cannot say exactly what he needs to say, but one thing I think -- and just based upon what my constituents have told me, they've got to know that -- they've got to know what the goals are, and then they've got to know that the goals are -- and the objectives are achievable. They've got to know that this is a limited strike. They've got to know that there is high probability of effecting this in efficiency. They've got to know that there will be minimal loss of life. And they've got to know that there are going to be no boots on the ground.

But the other thing that the president has to do is he has to make sure he conveys the moral message, because I believe that that is a major thing that's controlling here. Explain to them that this is not just about this moment, but this is about generations yet unborn.

And so, this is a critical moment in his career as president, but it is a moment that, based on the decisions of the Congress and the president, will affect generations yet to be born.

JOHNS: Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, always good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

CUMMINGS: Thank you.

JOHNS: Straight ahead on our special report, we go inside the president's uphill battle to get Congress behind a strike on Syria.

But first, as we count down to the debut of CNN's "CROSSFIRE" this Monday, here's co-host Van Jones with a "CROSSFIRE" classic.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VAN JONES, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": One of the great things about "CROSSFIRE," it's not just about politics. Back in 1986, Frank Zappa came on this show, all cleaned up in a suit and tie, to talk about dirty lyrics in music. Check this out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do it's a good idea to write lyrics that say incest is good for you? Does that make any sense?

FRANK ZAPPA, MUSICIAN/FREE SPEECH ADVOCATE: Well, it might make sense to Prince. That's his business, because that's mainly the song that they're talking about, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't you have an opinion on it?

ZAPPA: My opinion is he's got a right to sing it, he's got a right to say it and I've got a right...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where does the right to advocate incest come from?

ZAPPA: That song does not advocate incest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are songs that advocate incest.

ZAPPA: Tell me them. I haven't heard them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think you're being candid with us. You know what those songs are. You said there's a right to do this? Where's the right come from? Your group was called the Mothers of Invention.

ZAPPA: Mothers of Invention.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mothers of Invention. You make up a lot of stuff, like what was in the mind of the Founding Fathers. Would you look in the camera and tell...

ZAPPA: What camera? Are you directing the show now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that's right. Well, you certainly need some direction, Mr. Zappa.

ZAPPA: Are you going to spank me here? What's up?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not into spanking.

ZAPPA: I love it when you froth like that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHNS: President Obama hinted today it's a battle within his own mind as he pushes for military action in Syria. Ahead, our political panel on the damage to his presidency that's possible. More of this special report coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was elected to end wars, not start them. There are times where we have to make hard choices if we're going to stand up for the things that we care about, and I believe that this is one of those times.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: That's President Obama on the dilemma he faces as he pushes for military action in Syria.

Let's bring in our political panel: chief political analyst Gloria Borger; chief political correspondent Candy Crowley, the anchor of CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION"; and our chief national correspondent, John King.

Gloria, I'd like to start with you. Give me some idea, from your perspective, how much of an internal conflict is this for this president?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, I think we see it playing out before our very eyes, you know? Just in the bite you used, where the president said, "Look, I wasn't elected to start wars. I'm somebody who wants to end wars, you know."

This is a president who rose to prominence because of his antiwar sentiment. He's somebody who's winding down a couple of wars.

And I think you heard that kind of ambivalence today at his press conference, and I think when he speaks to the American public next week, he's going to have to be a little less ambivalent and a little more full-throated about why Congress needs to vote to authorize military action.

I think we've seen the pros and cons kind of play out enough at this point. Now it's time to tell the American public why we ought to do what he wants the public to do.

JOHNS: Candy, we just heard from Congressman Elijah Cummings. Here's a guy from a heavily Democratic district. His last election that district voted overwhelmingly, almost 80 percent for President Obama, yet he says he's getting tons of people coming to him saying don't go for the Syria attack.

Do you think they miscalculated just the kind of opposition they were going to see?

CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": I do think in terms of the public at large, they may have misinterpreted a lot of things going on out there.

I'll tell you, I've been gone for ten days, kind of watching this like a normal television viewer, and anyone I talk to -- and they ran the spectrum -- said, "What in the world is going on? I cannot believe we're getting into another war. I cannot believe -- you know, what good can we do in Syria," et cetera, et cetera. There's an awful lot of doubt that chemical weapons were used in the public, but there is any doubt that the U.S. going in there and, you know, punishing Saddam -- sorry, punishing Assad, is the right way to go.

As far as Congress is concerned, there really are two constituencies here, and I think right now you're hearing them hearing their constituents. When the vote comes, let's see how it pans out.

It is very, very tough when your president comes to you and says, "I need to make a military strike, and here's why." It was tough for Republicans and especially Democrats to say no to him. And I think we don't want to underestimate the fact that this is the president asking for this.

So, I think that the rhetoric you're hearing now is a reflection of the constituents. After all, they haven't been in Washington. They've been in their home districts. So, let's see what happens when they get to Washington. The president kind of jumps through these hoops, does this national speech, and let's see what happens when the vote comes.

JOHNS: John, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said something we've heard from a lot of members of Congress. I just want to put it up on the screen. Said, "I do think it would be easier if there was a stronger case being made to the American people. People really have to know more about why the president has made this decision."

What kind of language needs to change in order for the president to get his message across, John?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think to Gloria's point, he has to stop being a law professor. He has to advocate his position, not discuss the critics.

And every time he talks about this, he says, "I understand and respect the criticism, I understand and respect the opposition." He's the president of the United States. He needs to speak with clarity. People are confused about this and are going to look to their president for help.

To Candy's point -- and Joe, you had it in the Elijah Cummings interview, he was almost begging to vote yes. Of course, he said, "I want to vote yes for moral purposes." But he needs the president to move the numbers back home. He just needs to -- when he goes home, not everyone's going to agree with this, but if half the people are mad at him instead of 80 percent of the people, then Elijah Cummings will vote yes. He needs the president to move those numbers.

And part of the skepticism, as Candy notes, is when the last time the United States did something limited in the Middle East, walked away relatively quickly, had very limited expansion and actually did something good? It's the "will something good come of this?" part that people just don't believe. They look at Iraq. They look at Egypt. They look at Libya. And they say where is the evidence the United States can do something in a limited way, no boots on the ground, and walk away relatively quickly and actually accomplish something? That's the president's tough challenge.

CROWLEY: And Joe, I think the other thing is let's not forget, this is not a plebiscite. In the end, it has to be what the people -- the people who have been elected, what they think, what the president thinks.

And you know, public opinion, yes, it sways long wars, and certainly, you cannot conduct a war without public support for any period of time. If you make quick strikes you probably can, if that's the end of it. But nobody believes that's the end of it. And I think the other thing, when you heard the president today, to John's point is, you know, he said, "Well, you know, I went to Congress because I really can't make the case that there is an immediate threat to the U.S. or to any of our allies," but, well, wait, this is not how you should go about selling this thing.

KING: Right.

BORGER: He can't lie.

CROWLEY: I don't think you have to mention that it's not -- it's not an immediate threat.

BORGER: Right, and he also seems to be contradicting himself to a certain degree to Candy's point which is that he has all week long said this is a matter of national security. Very important to us. Important because Iran will be watching, important because North Korea will be watching. So, because it's not imminent, as he points out, doesn't mean that it's not important. So, he kind of defeats his own case.

He's got to make his mission clear to the American people. He's got to tell them that he can degrade Assad -- Assad's use of chemical weapons. And that he can deter him from using them in the future and that this kind of a strike will actually achieve that end.

JOHNS: Gloria, Candy, John, thanks so much. Candy, we'll be watching "STATE OF THE UNION" this weekend.

CROWLEY: Thanks, John.

JOHNS: Up next in our special report, the danger that hackers would seek revenge online if the U.S. strikes Syria.

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JOHNS: It's being described as a cyber-Pearl Harbor. What if Syrian hackers retaliate against a U.S. military strike? We'll have some chilling details when our special report, "Crisis in Syria," continues.

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JOHNS: They've proven their ability to cripple companies online, and now there's real concerns Syrian hackers could retaliate against the U.S. by targeting America's infrastructure for a potentially devastating cyber-attack.

Here's CNN's Laura Segall.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'd actually cause a pipe rupture in this process.

LAURA SEGALL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): That pipe is filled with water. But it could be filled with oil, even acid.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are safeties in here such that when the isolation valve is closed we should also turn off this pump.

SEGALL: That didn't happen because these energy researchers were able to hack the controller.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can't do anything. As an operator you're completely locked out.

SEGALL: It's the same kind that's used at oil and gas facilities. That means this hack could cause gas pipes and water tanks to explode or overflow. It could also represent modern-day warfare. Taking down major infrastructure by infiltrating the code that makes it run.

DAVID KENNEDY, CYBER SECURITY EXPERT, TRUSTEDSEC: You can definitely cripple an entire country through cyber means and attacking infrastructure.

SEGALL: Kennedy says that if there's a conflict with Syria, Damascus could respond in cyberspace.

KENNEDY: They have some very big allies that have a lot of decent capabilities out there, such as Iran and Russia. And they're definitely capable of launching, you know, some sort of cyber capability towards us in the United States.

SEGALL: With this hack researchers from security consultants summation took control of signals to change what an operator sees, to highlight the vulnerabilities they recently presented their findings publicly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But as this thing is actually filling we can make it look to the operator that our process is actually lowering.

SEGALL: Hackers could do it because the unit is connected to the Internet with a public IP address. So are other parts of America's infrastructure that are remotely controlled, like trains and water towers.

BRIAN MEIXELL, HACKER, CIMATION: They don't have security controls in place.

SEGALL (on camera): How does this manifest itself into the lives of everyday people?

MEIXELL: It could mean that a train runs off the tracks and causes a huge accident. There's lots of kind of unpredictable things that could happen because these systems are in a lot of different areas in a lot of different industries.

SEGALL (voice-over): And the United States is already on the defensive, after a group calling itself the Syrian Electronic Army took responsibility for disrupting web traffic on major news sites like "The New York Times." UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No one's going to be able to challenge the military from a pure boots on ground or, you know, actual straight, you know, warfare-to-warfare-type situation, but what countries can do is really impact us from more of an information side of the house, what we do electronically.

SEGALL: No surprise in Washington. Billions of dollars are committed to combat the growing cyber threat. In fact, the government has designated October as National Cyber Security Awareness Month.

Laurie Segall, CNN Money, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: Before we go, yesterday we showed you images and part of a video obtained by "The New York Times" apparently showing a band of rebels in Syria preparing to execute government soldiers. "The New York Times" just put out a correction saying that video was made in the spring of 2012, not in April of this year, as they previously stated.

Thanks for joining us. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.