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LEGAL VIEW WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

Russia Will Urge Syria to Place Chemical Weapons Under International Control; Rose Interviews Assad; Polls Against President; New Graphic Videos of Chemical Attack Obtained; Obama Lobbies Congress for Votes for Military Action; Congress, Public Against Attack on Syria

Aired September 9, 2013 - 11:00   ET

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


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Majority of Americans say that attacking Syria is not in our national interest, and how the numbers add to the uncertainty in a deeply divided country.

And the commander-in-chief, deploying his top advisers to Capitol Hill and taking his case straight to the American people in perhaps one of the most critical weeks of his entire presidency.

Welcome, everyone, I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

We have breaking news dealing with Syria and Russia. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has told reporters that Russia will urge Syria to put its chemical weapons supply under international control, but there's a big "if," a big one -- if that will prevent any U.S. military action against the Assad regime.

So it is a critical development that Russia making this overture to the Syrians. Put your chemical weapons cache, and it is the largest in the world, don't forget. The single largest chemical weapons cache in the world, put them under international control, and thus avoid any American onslaught of an attack.

Couple of things that might do. If Bashar al-Assad bites and the Russians are not saying whether he's inkling toward accepting this deal, that would save Bashar al-Assad clearly from the obvious and also save him face.

He would also save the United States president, Barack Obama, from having to deal with Congress and perhaps having to deal with Congress voting down any kind of proposal to go ahead and strike against Syria.

And again all of this, referring back to the August attack where roughly 1,400 people, roughly 400 of them children, died in an appalling chemical weapons attack.

It is a hundred-year-old international law at this point. Chemical weapons are not allowed.

However, what to do about it seems to be the brand-new question on the minds of leaders around the world, not to mention our own leader in the United States saying it may just behoove the United States to take leadership, perhaps even set domestic precedent for launching an attack.

Our Jill Dougherty joins us from Washington, D.C., on the phone. Jill, this is a -- I beg your pardon, she's in Moscow. She's been traveling from Washington to Moscow.

Jill, this is a very big development that the Russians have made, this overture. Can you explain a little about how this came about?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, there was a question that was asked of Secretary Kerry -- what could Assad do to avert military action?

And Secretary Kerry said he could turn over his weapons, put them under international -- his chemical weapons, put them under international control and do it within a week.

But then he added, he'll never do it, and basically Assad can't do it. So at that point, the -- just about an hour ago here in Moscow, the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called a very unexpected news conference.

It was almost like a briefing, in which he issued a statement, and said Russia is going to urge Syria to put their weapons under international control if that will avert military strikes.

And he added -- this is again the Russian prime minister, saying, I don't know whether Syria will accept it, so it's a very interesting development.

We don't have any reaction yet from the American side. Do they think this is a good idea? Do they not? Do they trust?

You already heard from secretary Kerry that he doesn't think that actually Assad could even follow through on doing it.

But it certainly enters this debate now, and we'll have to say what we hear from Washington.

BANFIELD: So Jill, is there any thought in the diplomatic community at this point that this move from Russia may actually be borne of that -- those on-the-margins meetings between the Russian and United States president?

Does this actually come from discussions between Putin and Obama initially?

DOUGHERTY (via telephone): We actually don't know that directly. Obviously, it's been known for a long time that Russia has chemical weapons -- sorry, that Syria has chemical weapons.

There was concern about their being used. That goes back a long time. So in discussions, certainly, officials have talked about the danger of chemical weapons, et cetera.

But this particular proposal we do not know specifically whether it was raised in St. Petersburg at the G-20. BANFIELD: OK, well, interesting development to say the very least.

Our Jill Dougherty, live for us from Moscow, thank you for that live report.

Clearly, as this question gets settled or at least answered or potentially ignored, because no one knows how the Syrian president is going to respond to this overture, the American president, President Obama, is set to go before the American people, all of this in a bid to sell them on any potential plan to attack Syria.

His primetime address tomorrow night is supposed to stress why he believes the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, must be punished for an alleged chemical weapons attack against his own people.

But it seems like Assad may have beaten him to the punch because, in a wide-ranging interview on "CBS This Morning" with co-host Charlie Rose, President Assad issued a very new and very blunt warning against any kind of United States attack against his country.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLIE ROSE, CO-HOST, "CBS THIS MORNING": Will there be attacks against American bases in the Middle East if there's an air strike?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA: You should expect everything. You should expect everything.

Not necessarily through the government. The governments are not the only player in this region.

You have different parties. You have different factions. You have different ideologies.

You have everything in this region now, so you have to expect that.

ROSE: Expect? Tell me what you mean by "expect everything."

AL-ASSAD: Expect every action.

ROSE: Including chemical warfare?

AL-ASSAD: That depends if the -- if the rebels or the terrorists in this region or any other group have it, it could happen. I don't know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: That's such a delicate balance, "that depends" and then saying potentially the rebels, not necessarily admitting his part in any kind of chemical assault or retaliation.

So at times President Assad seemed to come across as a teacher, lecturing students. Here's his take on a possible blowback if the United States attacks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) AL-ASSAD: This war is against the interests of the United States. Why? This war that's going to support al Qaeda and the same people that killed Americans on the 11th of September.

ROSE: The question remains, what can you say to the president who believes chemical weapons were used and were used by your government? That this will not happen again.

AL-ASSAD: I would tell him very simply, present what you have as evidence to the public. Be transparent when --

ROSE: If he does?

AL-ASSAD: If he does?

ROSE: If he presents that evidence --

AL-ASSAD: This is where we can discuss the evidence. He doesn't have. He couldn't present it because he doesn't have. Kerry doesn't have. No one in the organization have.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Well, at least they're not telling us publicly if they have or if they don't have the real goods.

But, as for Charlie Rose, if there's a difference at all anyway between nuclear and chemical weapons, Assad had this very chilling response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL-ASSAD: Technically they're not the same, but morally it's the same.

ROSE: Morally, they're the same?

AL-ASSAD: They're the same. In the end, killing is killing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: So, and as we just mentioned at the top of the program, we're just getting word that Russia, Syria's main ally, plans to urge President Assad to put his chemical weapons stash under international control if, in fact, that could avert a U.S. military strike.

We're continuing to follow that story. It's a big development today as the issues begin to ramp up in earnest and Congress gets down to business this week on a vote.

Very difficult to nail down the facts, the facts on the Syrian civil war and Assad's suspected use of chemical weapons, but one thing is a near certainty -- our latest polls show that not only a majority of Americans oppose taking military action against Syria, but also revealed brand new insights into this crisis.

And joining us with more, Brianna Keilar is at the White House, and CNN's political director, Mark Preston, is in our Washington studio.

So, Brianna, the pulse of the people is so critical because so many of these congressional members have been getting an earful from their constituents right before coming back to Washington.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's right, and the polls show, if you look at just whether Americans approve of there being a strike, 59 percent said that Congress should not pass a resolution to authorize military action in Syria.

Now, I think that shows obviously that public opinion is against it. It shows what a heavy lift, Ashleigh, that President Obama has.

But this poll that was done and released this morning by CNN/ORC also shows something else that I think shows why maybe the White House strategy, at least they're meeting what perhaps was their objective, but it's not really changing the tide.

The poll also shows that eight out of ten Americans believe the Assad regime is responsible, but I think you're not seeing people take that leap, and you're not seeing members of Congress even take that leap.

They may come out of briefings and feel like, yes, the Assad regime is responsible, but they don't then say we think that the prescription that the Obama administration is laying out as far as a military intervention is the right move. That's what this poll is showing.

And I don't know if you can hear it, but there's actually a protest which appears to be Syrian Americans outside of the White House now, protesting any U.S. intervention.

BANFIELD: Is that the first time they've shown up? Because I have not heard that in all of the interviews that we've done with correspondents at the White House, Brianna. Is this just starting?

KEILAR: You know, I wasn't here over the weekend, and last weekend I was traveling with the president overseas.

I think there have been protests here before. I don't know if this is the first group. There have been obviously many protests around the country, protesting certainly what's been going on in Syria, but also any military intervention. That's something we've seen a lot of.

BANFIELD: I can certainly hear them because they are awfully loud. All right, Brianna, thank you.

Mark, if you could just jump on board with what Brianna has been reporting and that is these questions that we've put to the American people about any kind of an attack.

They're very far and wide ranging, and I wanted to ask you specifically what those poll results tell us about whether Americans think it would make any difference at all.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: You know, Ashleigh, it really is about the why. We know that there's opposition to the war. We've -- or certainly to military strikes.

We know that the nation is war-weary. It's a phrase that we've heard time and time again over the past couple of weeks.

But from this poll, we've been able to glean why Americans are opposed to this. Let's take a look at this first number right now, a very critical number right now.

Would U.S. air strikes against Syria achieve significant goals for the U.S.? Look at that number. More than seven in ten Americans do not believe that to be true.

And just as troubling now for the Obama administration, our next poll number right now. Question is, does U.S. have national security interests in Syria? Look at that number, nearly seven in ten Americans right now, Ashleigh.

This is what the administration is facing right now. This is why President Obama is doing interviews with CNN and several other television networks today. This is why he is addressing the nation tomorrow night.

This is why every hour on the hour it appears that the administration is trying to convince lawmakers who are on the fence that this is the right action to take.

We clearly know that the nation's war weary, but now we know why so many members of Congress have either come out against supporting strikes against Syria or still haven't said publicly whether they would, a big hill now for the administration, a very big case for them to make if they are to be successful.

BANFIELD: OK, Mark Preston, thank you for that. I think it's very telling when you do see the numbers how people are responding.

And they've been getting snippets and bits and pieces of information. Whether that amounts to a full intelligence picture, no. It definitely does not at this point.

Mark Preston and Brianna Keilar, thank you.

As we also mentioned, our Wolf Blitzer's going to go one on one with the president about Syria this evening, and you can watch it all starting at 6:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

And you have probably seen at least some of the horrifying videos that were released this weekend. They leaked out.

These are the pictures being shown to your congressmen and your congresswomen in an effort to explain just how human this tragedy is, just how awful this tragedy is.

But does it explain a key question -- who did it? That's coming next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BANFIELD: Ever since the suspected chemical attack in Syria last month, the Obama administration has repeatedly said that there is ample evidence to prove that it was the Assad government that gassed its own people including very young children, and not the opposition that was looking to curry favor. We want to show you some of the videos that the administration has now started showing a select groups of senators to try to make its case. CNN obtained 13 of these videos. We want to warn you that they are extremely graphic and extremely gruesome, but extremely critical in this national argument.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE SHOUTING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: This is one part of many videos. Obviously showing the foaming at the mouth, a hallmark of a sarin attack. Then the children, the images of the children twitching, convulsing, and effectively dying right in front of the cameraman's eyes.

I think for a lot of people it looks very much like a chemical attack. It looks very much like a nerve agent. Joining me now with his expertise on chemical weapons, former U.N. chief weapons inspectors, Dr. David Kay.

It is awful to watch, but for so long already, I don't think many people have argued that a gas attack happened. The major argument has been the evidence as to who launched the gas. I want to get from your perspective where we are in the evidence, in the fact finding of who's behind it and what the weapons inspectors can actually find. I'm talking hard evidence like photographs of warheads, and of delivery systems that are sophisticated. Tell me from your expertise what we have in that department.

DR. DAVID KAY, FORMER U.N. CHIEF WEAPONS INSPECTOR: Well, I think, first of all, we have to distinguish what the U.S. government may have and has chosen not to reveal verse us what we've seen on CNN and other media outlets. We've clearly seen multiple attacks. Not a single attack, not a single area, but multiple areas which speaks to a military capability that is sophisticated enough to pull this off. Secondly, the -- the brutality, the number of casualties, is such that you speak to a large volume of, I believe, sarin, a nerve agent clearly in this case.

You realize sarin in Syria is held in two different liquids that are combined right prior launch. This speaks to a large capability, an organized, practiced capability to prepare those warheads.

There are some additional evidences coming out, photographs of some of the warheads which people like Ted Postal (ph) at MIT have analyzed and said, well, it looks like it was at least 15 liters. It's hard to judge from the outside exactly how much it is. And I think Ted Postal (ph), who is well regarded -- I know I have a high opinion of Ted -- think it would admit it would be a lot better to actually have the warheads to examine. But it looks clearly like a government carried out attack, not by a group of rebels.

BANFIELD: Okay, so the -- one of the big questions is, delivering chemical weapons is not that simple because oftentimes a rocket will explode and degrade what the payload is. Degrade the chemicals or the biological agents. So when you see what you're seeing, and by the bits and pieces that have been cobbled together by all different organizations, videos, MIT's analysts, et cetera, do you see the evidence of hallmark preservatives of the agents that only an administration the size of Assad's could possible deliver as opposed to the rabble-rousers, the opposition?

KAY: What you're seeing is in the warhead design itself, the sophisticated bursting technology. You're quite right. If a warhead goes off too far above the target, it dissipates. I wouldn't say harmlessly in the case of sarin. It does not cause a lot of casualties. If in fact it's an explosive charge that is too large, the heat destroys sarin's effectiveness. This looks like one that is well organized, well designed. And even well practiced.

So for me, it's all the hallmarks of the government attack. I still would like empirical physical evidence. I would like the communications evidence to be made public that the government says it has. I'd like the radar tracks of the missiles to be publicly available. Most of this stuff would do very little harm to our intelligence gathering capability and would inform the public debate, I think, probably on the administration's side.

BANFIELD: Well, it's only Monday. We may just be getting some of that material. And as always, I thank you for your expertise, Dr. Kay joining us live. Former chief U.N. weapons inspector. If the United States decides to attack Syria, what about that legal justification? The evaluation of the evidence? You have probably heard people say it's just a circumstantial case. It's just a circumstantial case. That's a very Hollywood expression. Circumstantial cases can be stronger, at times, than direct evidence. We'll talk about that with our legal panel coming up next.

First, though, Congress back in session this afternoon. And many are being briefed ahead of any kind of possible strike. Will they back the president on this, or is he about to be a very lonely man in a very big town? Next, Capitol Hill.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Poll after poll shows that most Americans are accepting as fact that Syria's Bashar al Assad did use poison gas against his own people, that he is absolutely to blame. But those same polls reveal an overwhelming majority of Americans actually does not believe that it's a good enough reason to go ahead and punish him with air strikes.

This is the dilemma that is now facing Congress. Do they listen to the people, their constituents, or do they listen to the president? It seems that half of the Senate is still undecided, and when you look at the House, it's an even tougher sell. The representatives are really lining up, nearly 6-1 against military action. CNN's Athena Jones is live on Capitol Hill where lawmakers are returning from vacation to take up the Syria question, and what an issue to come back from vacation. So listen, Athena, where do we know they stand as they come back? Do they still need information? Are they just protectively saying undecided?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Ashleigh, well there is an uphill climb the administration has to make today when you have all the members of Congress, both the House and Senate, officially coming back. The administration will argue a lot of folks were away, and so a lot of them haven't had a chance to have access to the kind of classified intelligence that the White House hopes will help them make the case.

You saw those numbers there, the nos stacking up especially on the House side. Still if you look all told at the House and Senate, we're talking about 300 members of Congress who haven't made a decision. Those are the people they're trying to target to force to the yes side. The White House hopes to get to the yes side.

And so, you have a series of briefings set up today on the Hill. Among them, a House Armed Services and Intelligence Committee briefing at 3:00 this afternoon. Then later at 5:00, there will be a briefing for the whole House. A classified briefing. We'll have Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice trying to make the case that action isn't in the U.S.'s national interest and that these strikes will be limited and not some long drawn-out military engagement. That's the plan here.

BANFIELD: CNN's Athena Jones live on Capitol Hill. Thank you for that.

Also, you can keep up with the shifting vote count in Congress. Just go to CNN.com. We've got the tally for you, and it does change quite, you know, fast and furiously. It's a good thing to check that web site out.

If the United States does decide to strike, just how much force should be used? You've heard Secretary Kerry say over and over "limited and proportional." Is that actually possible? Think about it. Limited proportional. What if that doesn't work?

Also, making the case, legally speaking. What standard are we asking for? Beyond a reasonable doubt? Sort of toward reasonable doubt? How much are we supposed to know about the evidence anyway? We're going to cover all of these angles when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)