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German Newspaper Reports Possible Rogue Syrian Military Used Chemicals; U.S. Polls Against Military Action in Syria; Rodman to Train North Koreans

Aired September 9, 2013 - 12:30   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CO-ANCHOR: So meanwhile, a German newspaper, citing high-level security sources says it's possible that Assad did not approve of the chemical weapons attack.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CO-ANCHOR: Fred Pleitgen joining us from Berlin.

Fred, this came from a pretty reputable newspaper with good sources. Tell us more about the origin of the information and what it suggests.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN BERLIN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Michael, yeah, the "Bild am Sonntag" usually has very good sources, well informed from the intelligence community here in Germany.

I tried to verify this information with intelligence sources myself. They say they're not even speaking on background.

But essentially what they're saying is that they've come to the conclusion that quite possibly Bashar al-Assad did not order the attack on August 21st, the alleged chemical weapons attack, even though they do believe that it was carried out by government forces.

Now, they say that this information came from a German surveillance boat that's off the Mediterranean coast that apparently got communications intercepts that showed that the forces had asked Assad in the past to use the weapons on the battlefield and that he kept turning them down and that they believe that rogue elements might have the carried out these attacks.


MALVEAUX: Does it say why he refused to go ahead with those chemical attacks?

PLEITGEN: It doesn't really, but it does say that these commanders, apparently very high-level commanders on a divisional level, have been asking Assad for the past four-and-a-half months, repeatedly, up to nine times, to use chemical weapons on the battlefield and that, time and again, they came back and he had said that he did not want these weapons to be used on the battlefield.

Now, it's unclear whether or not that definitely means that he did not order the alleged attack on August 21st, but they do say that it does shed a lot of doubt on whether or not he actually did that. Now they said that these intercepts are things like phone calls. They're radio messages. So all of that was obviously then pieced together to give them a broader picture.

But it does not say the reasoning why he would have turned this down or why in effect this attack took place.

But I can tell you from having been on the ground during the time right after this happened, there were rumors even back then that possibly there were rogue elements within the Syrian military, possibly even Assad's younger brother Maher, who were said to have done this on their own, if in fact it took place.

A lot of that, of course, is hearsay and is people, of course, making conclusions with the little evidence that there was at the time.

HOLMES: Yeah, a lot of people have always been suspicious about the level of control that Bashar al-Assad has when it comes to his brother and, also, generals, as well.

And at the very best, that would demonstrate an alarming lack of command and control from the top.

Fred Pleitgen there in Berlin, appreciate that, Fred.

MALVEAUX: And we have new polling on what Americans are saying about a potential strike on Syria. We're going to show that right after a quick break.


HOLMES: Welcome back. President Obama, of course, stepping up his push to get Congress, indeed the country, to back his plan to strike Syria.

There are more classified briefings taking place on Capitol Hill, and as we mentioned earlier, he's hitting all six major networks in the U.S.

MALVEAUX: Also including a sit-down with Wolf Blitzer tonight. You can see it right here on CNN at 6:00 Eastern.

And, Tuesday night, he's going to address the nation from the White House. That's happening at 9:00 Eastern. Of course, we're going to carry that live.

HOLMES: Now our new polling that's we've been mentioning on the "Crisis in Syria" shows why the president is having to do everything in his power to persuade Congress and, indeed, the public.

MALVEAUX: So take a look at this. Fifty-nine percent of Americans say no, Congress should not pass a resolution to authorize military action inside Syria. Thirty-nine percent say yes.

And most Americans don't think that the U.S. has any business in Syria. We asked, does the U.S. have a national interest in Syria? Twenty-nine percent said yes. Sixty-nine percent overwhelmingly saying no.

HOLMES: Extraordinary, isn't it?

Now waiting for national security adviser Susan Rice at the moment to make comments this hour. We will take you there live when she does.

This is an uphill battle, as we've been saying, for the Obama administration to convince Congress and the people of the country that the U.S. should attack Syria.

MALVEAUX: And we also have more figures indicating just where does the country stand on this. I want you to take a look at this.

This is a new CNN/ORC poll shows 59 percent of Americans say no, Congress should not pass a resolution to authorize military action in Syria, 39 percent saying yes.

HOLMES: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, joins us now from Washington.

Always a pleasure to have you, Aaron. First of all, let's talk about this new proposal from Russia. I mean, we heard the secretary of state John Kerry mention this idea of well, if he turns over all weapons, maybe that will satisfy us.

And a lot of people think that was an off-the-cuff thing. All of a sudden, the Russians jump on it. Syrian's foreign minister says he welcomes the idea. The U.N. saying, yeah, let's have a look at this.

How do you see that? Is it a potential out for the administration or is it a bit embarrassing? What -- how do you see it?

AARON DAVID MILLER, WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER: The good news for the administration is that clearly the threat of an attack has got people's attention. It's one thing to get the U.N. interested, but now the Russians appear to be interested.

I suppose Kerry's comment was more a quip than anything else. We're talking about hundreds of tons of VX, sarin, mustard gas spread over the entire country, 60, 70, 80 sites.

To be serious about this proposal would mean essentially mean stopping the civil war to allow U.N. inspectors transparency, accountability to come in, monitor, verify and then extract all of these agents.

It would require, Suzanne and Michael, a fundamental change on the ground, and it would in itself transform the nature of the conflict, so it's really hard to see that this is a serious proposal and a serious offer.

On the downside for the administration, it will provide additional talking points for those members of Congress who aren't terribly interested, legitimately or not, in endorsing and validating a use of force authorization for the president. So I suspect this is -- by the time this vote is taken, by the time the Senate and House votes, there will be a number of other twists and turns in this story because, at the end of the day, the sad reality is that not a whole lot of people in the international community, among the American public, in Congress, think this is a compelling idea, so -- and frankly, I might even add the president to that list, as well.

MALVEAUX: Aaron, does the Obama administration at least, at the very least, have to appear as if they're taking this offer seriously?

Because you've got the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who's now weighing in on this, as well, and certainly they're trying to drum up international support, not to mention domestic support, support here at home.

Do they have to kind you have go through the process, if you will, let this thing play out?

MILLER: They may as long as it doesn't end up as a never-ending story, which obviates the need for what the administration planned to do or a vote in Congress.

This process has to keep moving in one direction or another. The worst thing for the administration is an outcome in which this simply meanders over the course of several weeks, whatever momentum there is in favor of a military strike dissipates and the administration finds itself having advertised and telegraphed a military move probably in one of the most public displays of intention to use military force in the history of warfare and then ultimately nothing results.

So I think this is a tactic. It's a diversion, but, Suzanne, I think you're right. The administration to a degree, to a degree, will have to test the waters.

They've already agreed, it seems to me, to at least consider the French idea to delay consideration of a strike until the inspectors get done with -- U.N. inspectors get done with their report.

HOLMES: With their report. Aaron David Miller, thanks so much.

What an extraordinary situation. Thank you. Always good to see you.

MALVEAUX: A potential game-changer and certainly a delay.

HOLMES: A delay, that's the thing. It's all about the delay because, as Aaron says, it would take months to even begin to do this if it were possible and, let's face it, there's a war going on, so how do you do it?

MALVEAUX: Absolutely.


MALVEAUX: Following another story, as well, former NBA star Dennis Rodman back in the United States after a visit to North Korea, and he says his mission was no joke. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: All right. So-called "basketball diplomacy," that is what former NBA star Dennis Rodman hopes will bridge the gap between North Korea and the west, maybe. Maybe.

HOLMES: Just that single paragraph beggars belief, but Rodman did announce today that he's going to be training North Korean basketball players for the 2016 Olympics, and he's got other plans, as well

MALVEAUX: All right, Jason Carroll joins us from New York.

So, was this really a serious trip or was it all kind of fun and games and kind of a joke? Because it -- wasn't really sure how to take him.

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he says this is all business. Rodman says this is no gimmick. He wants the White House to take him seriously. Not just the White House, but the American press, as well. But during this press conference, he said that he's trying to break ground with the reclusive government.

But controversy just seems to follow Rodman wherever he goes. And North Korea was no exception. Rodman announced during the press conference a little earlier that his five - during his five-day deal with the Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, he was able to ink a deal with him. one that would allow basketball match between U.S. and Korean players on January 8th of next year and another on the 10th. Unfortunately, no deal to release imprisoned American Kenneth Bea, as Bea's family had so desperately hoped.

I also asked Rodman about a derogatory comment he made about President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton. Rodman defended what he said about them and he also defended his friendship with the Korean dictator.


DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER NBA STAR: He's a very good guy. And that's very seriously. He has to do his job, but he's a very good guy. And the one thing, he gave me - he gave me the rights and everything about doing one thing. He said, Dennis, I want you to go over to America and say, guess what, we want people to come over here because we're not a bad country.

CARROLL: I know that earlier in the press conference you referred to the dictator as a very good guy and a man who has to do his job. But how do you reconcile with the fact that this is a man who's responsible for oppressing millions of his people? And I'm wondering, as you have an opportunity to speak with him, do you at all talk about that and how do you reconcile that while also referring to this man as your friend?

RODMAN: Well, the amazing thing I've done - done one thing, I've actually got to communicate -- communication open with him. I can say certain things about - I don't want to talk about politics.

CARROLL: When you were overseas you referred the president and the former secretary of state using a derogatory term.

RODMAN: Actually I would say that very easy and I would say it direct. That's what's the (ph) Obama, what are you afraid of? Come talk to me (ph).


CARROLL: Well, Rodman also talked about being allowed to hold Kim Jong-un's baby daughter, say it was a history-making moment. And if all goes as planned, Rodman will be back in North Korea this December to help train North Koreans to play basketball. And as for Kenneth Bae, Rodman says he's not going over there to rescue somebody. He says he's just trying to open some doors.

Michael. Suzanne.

HOLMES: Dennis Rodman the diplomat. I'm just finding it very difficult to reconcile the whole thing.

MALVEAUX: Yes, you know.

HOLMES: A window anyway. Good to see you, Jason. Thanks so much.

MALVEAUX: You wonder if the State Department or the White House would want to talk to him.

HOLMES: Debrief. Yes, a little debrief. You never know.

MALVEAUX: Yes. You never know if he learns anything.

Syrian refugees, they're waiting out events in their home country. We're going to bring you a timeline of the events that could impact their lives just ahead.


HOLMES: There is so much going on right now with the Syria story, especially in Washington, but, of course, all around the world. We thought it was time to have a look at a bit of a timeline of what's going on now. Let's show you the calendar, if you like.

Congress officially back in session today. And they, of course, are talking about Syria.

MALVEAUX: House members get an intelligence briefing today at 5:00 p.m. Eastern. Now, the Senate is expected to start debating tomorrow on President Obama's proposed strike in Syria. And then tomorrow night at 9:00 Eastern, the president gives his address to the nation.

HOLMES: Yes, senators may vote on the resolution as early as Wednesday if everything goes according to plan for the president. That does happen to be the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, as well. And over the next two weeks, the House may debate and vote on the resolution. And of course, as we have seen today, things change every day.

MALVEAUX: Yes, every moment. Every 15 seconds, as well, a Syrian becomes a refugee according to the U.N. refugee agency. There is no end in sight. But you can make a difference and impact for more than the 2 million Syrian refugees. Go to for a list of organizations that are working in the region and ways that you can help. That is

HOLMES: Yes, the president expected to take his case for a military strike on Syria to the American people, addressing the nation tomorrow night.

MALVEAUX: Before that, he sits down with six TV networks, including our own Wolf Blitzer. That is tonight at 6:00 p.m. Eastern.

HOLMES: Don't miss that.

Well, the Russians jumping on that remark by the secretary of state, John Kerry. We're going to discuss a little more about what all the fuss is about, what meant what and who's taking advantage of it.


MALVEAUX: Well, Hillary Clinton, she is breaking her silence on Syria. The former secretary of state is visiting the White House for an unrelated event, but she is expected to make comments next hour supporting the president's plan on Syria.

HOLMES: Yes, she backs his decision to ask Congress to authorize military action. And we will have that for you here at CNN, of course.

Now, three cities investing a lot of time, money and emotion in securing the 2020 summer Olympics. Only one got the gold in this competition. We will have a conversation about that when we come back.


MALVEAUX: National Security Advisor Susan Rice addressing Syria. Let's listen in.

SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Today, I want to take this opportunity to explain why Syria's use of chemical weapons is a serious threat to our national security and why it is in our national interest to undertake limited military action to deter future use.

There's no denying what happened on August 21st. Around 2:30 in the morning, while most of Damascus was still asleep, Assad's forces loaded warheads, filled with deadly chemicals, onto rockets and launched them into suburbs controlled or contested by opposition forces. They unleashed hellish chaos and terror on a massive scale. Innocent civilians were jolted awake, choking on poison. Some never woke up at all. In the end, more than 1,400 were dead, more than 400 of them children.

In recent days, we've been shocked by the videos from Gutta (ph) and other neighbors near Damascus. As a parent, I cannot look at those pictures, those little children laying on the ground, their eyes glassy, their bodies twitching, and not think of my own two kids. I can only imagine the agony of those parents in Damascus. Sarin is odorless and colorless, so victims may not even know they've been exposed until it's too late. Sarin targets the body's central nervous system, making every breath a struggle and causing foaming at the nose and mouth.

MALVEAUX: National Security Advisor Susan Rice making the case for why she believes and why the administration believes that there should be a military strike against Syria.

HOLMES: Wolf Blitzer picks it up from here. Thanks for watching AROUND THE WORLD.