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LEGAL VIEW WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

Obama Administration Says Evidence Clear on Syria; Legal Justification for Syria; Polls Show Americans Don't Want Syria War; Who Would U.S. Help in Syria; Rodman Returns from North Korea.

Aired September 9, 2013 - 11:30   ET

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


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

The evidence is strong. It's compelling. The Obama administration says military intelligence shows that the Syrian regime did in fact use chemical weapons on its own people. The Pentagon analysis of the videos it reviewed, videos that we're seeing for the first time, can even pinpoint the exact sites of the chemical attacks and match them with the survivor's stories.

The warning we want to give you -- this video is so graphic, but what your legislators are seeing.

Here's CNN's Chris Lawrence.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The videos are graphic, capturing the moments after a chemical attack in Syria, men, boys, and girls convulsing and dying on a tile floor. CNN can't independently confirm the images, but a government source says the Obama administration told Senators the U.S. intelligence community verified they're real.

The source told CNN, "Officials concluded the video was not tampered with because it was shot from multiple different angles." The intel officials are said to have verified the actual locations and that the video's match survivors' accounts of the attack.

But the images don't answer the critical question: Who is responsible.

DENIS MCDONOUGH, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: You've seen the video proof of the outcome of those attacks.

LAWRENCE: For the White House, this is enough to indict Bashar al Assad.

MCDONOUGH: All of that leads to, as I said, a quite strong common- sense test, irrespective of the intelligence, that suggests that the regime carried this out.

LAWRENCE: But if the administration plans to only use limited air strikes to answer the attack, former military officials worry it won't be enough. LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: You can't tell what's going to happen after the first three days, first four days of operations. We may have to take additional action, hit traditional targets.

This is a real problem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE: But that is something that Pentagon planners have factored in. After any additional strikes, they would assess what was destroyed, what was simply damaged, and what if any collateral damage was done.

As for intelligence, U.S. officials say they don't have a smoking gun. They don't have Bashar al Assad's voice on a tape directly tying him to the attack. They say their case is more than circumstantial. That there is responsibility that Bashar al Assad knew what was happening underneath him, knew what military commanders were doing -- Ashleigh?

BANFIELD: Fascinating stuff.

Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon, live for us. Thank you for that.

Also coming up, that notion of limited and proportional, is that kind of a strike even possible, or is this a pipe dream? Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona will join me in 15 minutes to talk about whether we can do something limited and proportional and have it really work.

And that brings me it this. If the United States attacks Syria, what is the legal justification? Can you make the case that Assad gassed his own people using strong, direct or circumstantial evidence? The administration says it can. It's just not telling us exactly what it's got.

Want to bring in our legal team to talk about this.

This is a critical question. We are hearing echoes of "it's just a circumstantial case."

Danny Cevallos, get me off the ledge. There are -- most criminal cases that find circumstantial evidence stronger than direct evidence.

DANNY CEVALLOS, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Oftentimes, circumstantial evidence is stronger. That's a public misconception that hasn't been remedied. Direct evidence is saying, I saw Professor Plum in the library with the revolver. On the other hand, you have to believe that person for that direct evidence to be effective. Sometimes especially nowadays, circumstantial evidence -- if I want to know where Professor Plum is, and get hold of his cell phone and what tower it pinged off of, I can find out the circumstantial evidence. Does that tell me for sure where he was? No, but it tells us where his phone was. If you draw an inference that can often be more powerful than what comes out of anybody's mouth.

BANFIELD: With that in mind, listen to what the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, told our Candy Crowley over the weekend about the level of evidence that perhaps the United States needs to achieve in order to effectuate any kind of attack. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCDONOUGH: It was delivered by rockets. Rockets which we know the Assad regime has. And we have no indications that the opposition has. And you've now -- CNN ran these videos yesterday. You've seen the video proof of the outcome of those attacks. All of that leads to, as I say, a quite strong, common sense test, irrespective of the intelligence, that suggests that the regime carried this out. Now, do we have a picture or do we have irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence? This is not a court of law. And intelligence does not work that way.

BANFIELD: Paul Callan, I get twitchy when I hear this is not a court of law, beyond a reasonable doubt perhaps isn't the standard that we're looking for here. Isn't that exactly the standard Americans have come to expect?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, maybe on television and maybe in court. But this is politics. And, frankly, if you look back through American history, this -- these things have never been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I'll give an example. "Remember the Maine." That led -- the sinking of the "Maine" in the harbor led to the Spanish-American war. It this day we don't know who sank the "Maine." Resolution based on very little evidence. If international politics were held to the standard of American courtrooms, we'd be paralyzed and wouldn't be able to act. I think that's probably too high a standard to expect the politicians to abide by.

BANFIELD: Perhaps the politicians but not the people because I think we all remember the vile of white powder at the U.N. that turned out to be not what we all thought it was. Perhaps our trust deficit is too big to believe in our leaders --

(CROSSTALK)

CALLAN: I think Assad, this Charlie Rose interview with Assad, I think, it may be checkmate. If Assad agrees to put his weapons under international control, the U.N. Control, how can we attack? This could go on for months now.

BANFIELD: OK. We have further conversation without question on this issue and the evidence. Seems to continue to leak out.

So, Paul Callan, and Danny Cevallos, thank you. International law, pretty cool.

The additional views of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents cannot be put aside. Where does this shake down? Wolf Blitzer to join us, he's going to interview the president on it tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It has been said more than a few times, it could be one of the most critical weeks of Barack Obama's presidency. With Syria ramping up and a vote about to take place in Congress whether or not to attack Syria, he has to make his case to the American people and to Congress.

Joining us now, Wolf Blitzer, about to interview the president tonight.

Oh, so many questions and so little time. Especially with these polls coming out showing America doesn't want this.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, THE SITUATION ROOM: The polls are pretty dramatic. Our brand new CNN poll, as you know, shows that the public doesn't want to get involved in Syria even -- even if there is Congressional authorization. Here's some numbers for you. For example, should Congress pass a resolution to authorize military action against Syria? 59 percent say no. 39 percent say yes.

Take a look at this next poll. Should Congress authorize U.S. Military strikes against Syria only for 60 to 90 days? Closer, but still 55 percent oppose that.

And then look at this third poll number. Should the U.S. Air strikes -- should the U.S. Use air strikes if Congress does not pass a resolution? Only 27 percent favor that. 71 percent oppose it. And increasingly, that looks very possible, maybe even very, very probable and likely that Congress is not going to authorize the use of force in Syria even if it gets through the Senate, even if there's a filibuster. They get 60 out of 100 members of the Senate to break it down. It looks like there's not going to be that kind of vote in the House of Representatives.

Take a look at this poll. Should Congress pass a resolution to authorize military action in Syria? 56 percent of the Democrats say yes. Only 29 percent of the Independents and 36 percent of the Republicans.

It's sort of bipartisan, the opposition to this. And the president's got an enormous struggle ahead of him in the coming days, beginning today and tomorrow, tomorrow night, when he addresses the nation from the White House.

BANFIELD: Is the question to the president, look, Americans care, they believe this happened, they care. They just perhaps don't care enough when it comes to what it will cost us?

BLITZER: Americans are sick and tired of war right now. After ten years in Iraq, more than a trillion dollars, more than 4,500 men and women dead, thousands of others came home severely injured. They're sick and tired of what's going on in Afghanistan 12 years now. Another year and a half to go. $2 billion a week being spent to maintain those 60,000 troops in Afghanistan. They don't want to get involved in another war in Syria now. And that is so hovering over what's going on in this debate.

BANFIELD: Is it ever.

I'm really looking forward to your interview, Wolf. Thank you.

I just want to remind our viewers, Wolf, as well, that they shouldn't miss your one-on-one interview with the president. It starts tonight at 6:00 p.m. eastern time here on CNN. And it could not be a more critical time for the president to make his case.

When we come back, the Syrian rebels. It is not just one group. It's not just a few. It's not just many. It's over a thousand. So many factions, allegiances. Is there a leader? Is it possible it even find one among them?

Back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: So one of the big questions hanging over any decision to strike Syria is this: Who would the United States be helping here? Can you even define who the rebels fighting Assad are? We do know this. Al Qaeda-linked fighters are there. They have infiltrated and are there in big numbers.

Nick Paton-Walsh is here to look at the rebel leadership.

Is there any defined leadership at all or even potential for defined leadership?

NICK PATON-WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There is a figurehead military leader of the rebels who has for some time now been the guy running the military sill. There's a picture -- council. There's a pictures of hierarchy. There could be in excess of a thousand militant groups. They go to comparative to moderate secular while at the moment all the way through to the al Qaeda-backed Islamic state in Iraq and Syria.

BANFIELD: Who are reportedly very well organized and well armed.

PATON-WALSH: A lot of these guys had training fighting U.S. forces, which is part of the rationale as to why they were described as a terrorist organization earlier this year. It was simple, America said al Qaeda, the front in Syria, is in fact part of al Qaeda in Iraq. There was trouble in Iraq for all those years. They said we're going to prescribe them, as well --

(CROSSTALK)

BANFIELD: You have been there. The senior international correspondent at CNN. Are these people, factions, fighting to overthrow Bashar al Assad, or are they fighting to get his chemical weapons stockpiles and everything else that he's got to create their own state, you know, Assad be damned?

PATON-WALSH: I think the chemical weapons would be perhaps potentially a side benefit for them. What's interesting is why everyone started to -- while everyone started focusing on toppling Assad, what's happening in extremist groups is working on areas in the north of Syria. It's not absolutes or total but is gaining ground every day.

I want to bring in our CNN military analyst, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, a man who's also lived in Syria for three years as a military attache.

We hear all the time that this is going to be a limited and proportional strike. I'm quoting, "limited and proportional strike." You heard what Nick said. With a thousand-plus opposition forces waiting in the wings, is that truly possible?

FRANCONA: It -- it's hard to say. It depends on what the president wants to do. Limited and proportional is fine if you defined an objective. If you're -- and I keep hearing this shot across the bow, yes, you can do a limited, proportional strike across the bow. Are you going to deter and degrade the Assad military forces? I doubt it. You have to pick what you want to do and then size your response accordingly.

BANFIELD: Colonel, I heard Fareed Zakaria say this weekend, the only refrain, you break it, you buy it. How can we not apply that principle to this potential upcoming once you start doing this where do you stop?

FRANCONA: At what the point do you declare you've achieved your objective? It's a moving train. As you start this, you're going to inflict a level of damage. Is that damage sufficient? After you do your assessment of the initial strike, if did you didn't hit the right targets or you didn't achieve the level of damage you want, do you go in again? And how often do you do this? If you can't do it with cruise missiles, do you bring additional weapons? We call this mission creep. This could end up with a lot bigger operation than anybody foresaw or anybody wants.

BANFIELD: Colonel Francona, stand by.

I want to bring back Nick Walsh.

Now we're hearing a response to this Russian overture.

PATON-WALSH: This is an initial transcript we're seeing of a press conference given by Ban Ki-moon, U.N. secretary general, in which he seems to be giving a welcome to that Russian idea, suggesting that he thinks it would be already been taken in consideration of certain proposals to make the Security Council present. "I'm strongly urging the council to demand the immediate transfer of chemical weapons to a place in Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed."

(CROSSTALK)

BANFIELD: That would potential be a very lengthy situation.

BANFIELD: Hold that thought.

I want to remind viewers we began the program with this report coming from the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who suggested the overture being made to Syria was allow your chemical weapons to be held by an international body, international control to avert the military strikes in -- from the United States and obviously now, you're getting this breaking news.

I should add something else. We're seeing from press conference being given in Moscow by the Syrian foreign minister. He is welcoming Russia's proposal for Damascus to put its chemical weapons under international control.

BANFIELD: Francona, if you're aware of this it, this is your former turf. I don't know if you know the Syrian foreign minister and this acceptance on its surface acceptance of the Russian proposal. This could be massive.

FRANCONA: Yeah, I know Minister Moala (ph) quite well, the former ambassador to the United States. And he's well versed in politics. I would not put much stock in what the Syrian government says. They may think this is a great idea, but now again, where does the burden of proof become? Do we shift the burden of proof to the Syrian government and they've provided all of their weapons? I just don't see this having any real traction.

BANFIELD: And what about the Russians? Can't you suggest they at least would share some of that responsibility and therefore, trust, as well?

FRANCONA: Trust and the Russians, let me try and do that. OK. I don't see this really going anywhere because I know this is an effort by the Russians to ratchet this down and prevent a strike. I just don't see the Syrians honestly taking part in this, and if they do, this opens up a whole you this thing. Now we go into the verification, arms control on all that. I'm all for getting rid of Syria's chemical weapons but I don't see this happening anywhere in the near future.

BANFIELD: Well, no matter what, this is a fascinating development.

Again, for anybody just joining us, the developments have come fast and furiously just during this hour. The Russians made an overture to the Syrians, put your chemical weapons into international control and avert potentially a U.S. strike, and the Syrians have responded their foreign minister, the colonel welcoming this proposal for Damascus to do this. The comments, by the way, came from the foreign minister of Syria in Moscow. He's traveling to Moscow presumably seeking with his counterpart.

Col. Rick Francona and Nick Paton-Walsh, thank you for your insights, especially as these developments comes towards us.

We want to clarify details behind a graphic video we've been showing since Friday purportedly showing the execution of Syrian soldiers by rebel forces. The video was obtained by "The New York Times" and made a lot of air play. The paper initially said these killings happened this past April. Now the "Times" says it happened April of 2012 and the "Times" put out a correction to that error. Again, this is a correction to the date of when this occurred, not that it did occur. It did occur, according to the "Times." And still to come, the unlikely ambassador, Dennis Rodman. He's back from a secretive trip to North Korea and he is challenging President Obama to speak with Kim Jong-Un in only a way that Dennis Rodman can.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Former NBA star Dennis Rodman is back from his second trip to North Korea this year. And his quote, "huge announcement," end quote, his proposed basketball game between the United States and North Korea in honor of Kim Jong-Un's birthday this coming January. At a news conference just a short time ago, he had this challenge for President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER NBA BASKETBALL PLAYER: I would love to make this a gimmick and a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) of money. (EXPLETIVE DELETED) of money because it's not about the money. It's about doing one thing, trying to open Obama's and everyone's mind and, guess what, you don't have to talk about politics, talk about anything in the world. Meet him in Switzerland. Meet him in London, in Ireland. Just meet him or even give him a call.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Rodman says he's planning his third trip for December and even plans to train North Korean athletes for the Olympics and write a book with Kim Jong-Un.

That's it for us. Thank you for watching. AROUND THE WORLD starts right after this short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to AROUND THE WORLD. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Michael Holmes. Thanks for your company.