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Kerry's Challenge; Interview With New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly

Aired September 11, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The day after the president's big speech, a Republican ally on Syria lashing out, saying the president of the United States is not comfortable being commander in chief.

And the nightmare of finding chemical weapons in a war zone. The former chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq tells me it could take years.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

At the White House, the United Nations and the Kremlin, the hard work is just beginning to try to get a deal on removing Syria's chemical weapons. Russia reportedly has sent the U.S. a plan to put Bashar al- Assad's poison gas stockpiles under international control. President Obama's told the nation that airstrikes against Syria are on hold while he gives diplomacy a chance. Now he's sending the secretary of state, John Kerry, to Geneva, Switzerland, for urgent talks with his Russian counterparts.

Our chief national correspondent, Jim Sciutto, will travel with the secretary tonight.

Jim is joining us now from the State Department.

What's the latest, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're told that Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have spoken and more details emerging about this Russian proposal.

One, as you say, Syria giving up its chemical weapons to international control, but also Syria signing onto an international chemical weapons ban. These talks in Geneva very key, as the administration puts it, the last thing standing in the way of U.S. military action in Syria.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): With Secretary Kerry on his way to Geneva, the administration's word of the day was time, as in any deal will take more of it.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm not going to place a date or a time limit on it. I don't have a timeline to give to you. So I expect that this will take some time. SCIUTTO: The administration's made the basics of a deal clear, Syria's chemical weapons must be secured, removed from President Bashar al-Assad's control and destroyed. However, achieving those goals now relies on a negotiating partner in Russia with a gaping trust deficit in Washington, a point raised by CNN's Elise Labott today at the State Department.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: But you think the Russians are doing this completely in good faith?

JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: We certainly have a long and winding history with the Russians. So, again, we're not going into this -- we're going into this eyes wide open.

SCIUTTO: In fact, even before negotiations begin, the U.S. and Russia already have stark differences on how long Assad would have to give up his weapons, on whether a U.N. resolution would be binding and crucially whether a deal would include the threat of force, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly ruled out.

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS: We can't give up that right, because if we give up that right, in the cynical, bitter world of Middle East politics, Assad will not comply with this agreement.


SCIUTTO: President Obama himself has not set any red lines on the negotiations in public. That may be intentional to give Secretary Kerry some negotiating room. But on that key issue of force, the administration says there is no wiggle room. One U.S. official saying to me just now that the president would never agree to something that would limit his ability to use force if he believed that it was in the interest of the United States. So lots to discuss in Geneva.

Wolf, we're leaving in a few minutes.

BLITZER: You're heading out to Joint Base Andrews to fly out with the secretary of state. We will talk tomorrow. Have a safe flight. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, for that report.

Some very harsh criticism of President Obama and his Syria policy today from a Republican senator who's been supporting the use of force.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, interviewed that senator, Bob Corker, and he's the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee. He was surprisingly candid and brutally tough, I should say.

Dana, tell our viewers what he told you.


I set out to do a story on whether how the president handled the issue of Syria will affect his potential agenda here on Capitol Hill. I went to Bob Corker because he works with him perhaps more than any other Republican on domestic issues and international, including Syria.

The fact that Corker came back to me with such blunt language, was so exasperated, was a shocker. It was even more shocking when he questioned the president's abilities as commander in chief.


SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I really do think they have hurt our credibility around the world, just in the muddled way that they have dealt with this Syrian issue. It's just a complete muddlement, if you will. And I don't know -- the president just seems to be very uncomfortable being commander in chief of this nation.

BASH: He's uncomfortable as commander in chief?


BASH: You're speaking not just as somebody who's watched him on television or give speeches in person, but had dinner with him recently, had lunch with him yesterday. What makes you say that?

CORKER: It's just the results.

We have these conversations. It appears that it has an impact. I would think that most Republicans who were at the luncheon yesterday would have believed last night he was going to make the greater case, the strategic case for us in Syria.

I heard no word, not one word of it. He's very good in an interpersonal setting. He just cannot follow through. He cannot speak to the nation as a commander in chief. He cannot speak to the world as a commander in chief. He just cannot do it.

And I don't know what it is. I sent an e-mail over this morning to Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, telling them I could not be more disappointed in what happened last night. I just think so much he doesn't make the case for why this is important to U.S. credibility and why U.S. credibility in the region is so important to our own safety and to the world's safety.

BASH: Has he hurt his credibility with you, specifically, as one of the few Republicans, frankly, who is really eager to work with him on domestic fiscal issues?

CORKER: Well, there's no question.

I probably shouldn't be saying everything I'm saying right now, but I guess as a result of last night, my temperature level is up slightly today. He's a diminished figure here on Capitol Hill. I can assure you of that.


BASH: Corker said despite feeling like he feels now, he would still drop everything if the phone rang and it were the president or anybody from the White House. He still does want to work on the issues like immigration, the debt, deficit and others, but he said he is very discouraged.

And again you saw from that -- he's somebody who has actually played golf with the president, which the president rarely does. This is not just a Republican who's a firebrand saying this. This is somebody who supports him, particularly on Syria.

BLITZER: Certainly on these foreign policy issues. Pretty amazing words from Senator Corker. Dana, thanks very much.

More controversy today for an analyst whose assessment of the Syrian rebels was publicly quoted by two very high-level U.S. officials, as our Chris Lawrence reported last week.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There is a real moderate opposition that exists.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Kerry and Republican John McCain both cited reporting from an analyst who's traveled to Syria.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Dr. Elizabeth O'Bagy.

KERRY: And she works with the Institute of War. She is fluent in Arabic.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

What's the latest on Elizabeth O'Bagy?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we want to say right off the top, as you saw, CNN's also interviewed this woman.

She lost her job with this organization, the Institute for the Study of War, because the organization says she said she had a Ph.D., and she did not. That's why she was fired. But the controversy in the Twittersphere, on blogs is over an op-ed that she wrote for "The Wall Street Journal" quoted by Kerry and McCain, her work quoted by them, where she has made the case that there is a moderate opposition in Syria that can be worked with.

What she didn't say publicly quite as much, what "The Wall Street Journal" did not say in publishing that op-ed originally is that she had an affiliation with a group that supported the Syrian rebels. This was called the Syrian Emergency Task Force. It was known to her employer. They'd approved it, but it didn't make it into that "Wall Street Journal" op-ed.

"The Wall Street Journal" has issued a statement saying they didn't know about it, they're looking at it. So far, they don't see any false opinion in her opinion piece. Ms. O'Bagy has tweeted out -- and I quote -- that she says: "I'm not trying to trick America here. I'm just trying to show a different side to the conflict that few people have the chance to see."

This little piece of controversy goes on.

BLITZER: It certainly does. Thanks very much, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

More of our special Syria coverage, that is coming up. If a chemical weapons deal is possible, would Bashar al-Assad become a sort of partner of the United States?

And America marks 12 years since the 9/11 attacks. And New York's police commissioner, Ray Kelly, he sounds as worried as ever about terrorism.


BLITZER: Top U.S. officials tell me there's a solid chance of carrying out a plan for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons if -- it's still a huge if -- the U.S. and Russia can actually work out a deal. That's a big, big if.

And joining us now, Christiane Amanpour, our chief international correspondent, the anchor of CNNI's "AMANPOUR". Also joining us, David Kay. He's a the former chief United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq.

Christiane, what do you think? Do you think there's a chance this meeting between Lavrov and John Kerry, the Russian foreign minister, the secretary of state, really could achieve some sort of breakthrough in leading towards the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles?


Obviously the White House is putting all the onus now on Russia. They want Russia to own this thing, to step up to the plate and if it doesn't work, then it's Russia's fault. That's the message we're getting out of the White House. But what we know is the Russians have already -- or are in the process of presenting a plan to the Americans. That's going to be reviewed between Lavrov and Kerry in Geneva.

And we understand they're also going to be having their technical experts with them to actually discuss the nuts and bolts of what needs to be done. You never know what the Syrians are going to say or what anybody is going to say about the actual end game and the end objective. But I spoke to a Russian ambassador to the E.U. today.

And he said the endgame, the goal of this is to eventually destroy Syria's chemical weapons. So they're saying that publicly.

BLITZER: That would be pretty good. That's a lot better than degrading and deterring. Actually destroying those chemical weapons stockpiles would be obviously a huge development.

But, David, logistically speaking, in the middle of a civil war, how complicated would it be even assuming the Russians and Syrians are on board? How many people would it require? What would be necessary to get the job done?

DAVID KAY, CNN ANALYST: It would be extraordinarily complicated.

First of all, you have to assume the Syrians tell you exactly where the weapons are and all the weapons and all the information about the weapons, and that you don't have to play cat and mouse. But even making that assumption, you have still got the fact that the rebels have a game going on, too. It's called their side of the civil war.

They're not a unified command. I can't believe that they would agree to a cease-fire. In fact, some of the rebels have lusted after chemical weapons for years, the al Qaeda elements. So I think this is something that if he were to do it and the Syrians provide the security so that the inspectors do not have to bring their security with them, you're probably still taking -- talking well over 1,000 people. And if you want to do it faster, it requires more people.

BLITZER: More than 1,000 people, over how long of a period of time, realistically, and once again assuming the best-case scenario, that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has agreed and will cooperate in the destruction of its own chemical weapons?

KAY: The hard thing in answering that, Wolf, is that we really don't know how large their stockpile is. Their production facility was capable of producing 100 tons a year. I don't think they ran it. No one thinks they ran it at that capacity.

But the estimates are wildly over the place, from 1,000 tons up to 10,000 tons and in fact less responsible people are higher than that. I just don't know. I would guess it's going to take well over 10 years in the midst of the civil war to do this. You have got to do it in Syria. It is, quite frankly, idiotic to think you're going to take the weapons someplace else.

The road structure, the fact there's a civil war, the fact that these are -- in many cases are aging weapons, you're just not going to put them in a truck and truck them anyplace else to do it. You have got to build the facilities there. In the U.S. case, most people don't realize, we have spent $35 billion so far and still haven't gotten rid of our chemical weapons.

BLITZER: That's a huge, huge number.

Christiane, assuming this works, and that's a big if, obviously, but assuming it does, it really could change the whole downturn in the U.S./Russian relationship. That relationship has deteriorated significantly, but this potentially could turn things around.

AMANPOUR: It could.

And you know what's so interesting, I put to the ambassador, the Russian ambassador, don't you think that President Putin was duly influenced by the massive show of force that the United States was talking about, the credible threat of force to back up their diplomacy? And he said, well, you know, perhaps Putin was rescuing Obama because he was isolated in Congress and looking at a defeat in Congress.

So both sides are playing that little bit of political game. But I think there's no doubt that if this does work, it will go a long way to repairing the real poisonous relationship that exists between Russia and the United States right now. But it's not the end of the story because the war won't be over. The conventional war in Syria will go on. Nobody quite knows what's going to happen to Assad. Does he now become partner of Russia and the United States because he's going to be the one with whom you have to deal to get these weapons controlled, observed, monitored, destroyed?

What happens to the conventional war that's killed 100,000 people? As you know, the Syrian opposition today feel like they have been sold down the river. Interestingly, though, look, it's a development, Syria has admitted that it has chemical weapons. And even today, another cabinet minister -- it seems now they're falling all over themselves to try to give details about their chemical weapons.

He said to AP, well, look, we had chemical weapons as an attempt to create a strategic balance with Israel, who everybody knows, but nobody's declared has nuclear weapons. They keep giving little details about what's going on. And they fully expect, they said, to put them under international supervision. We will see.

BLITZER: We will see, indeed, lots at stake.

Christiane Amanpour, David Kay, thanks to both of you for joining us.

KAY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, painful tributes and new fears on this September 11. Stand by. The New York City police commissioner joins me. He has a very disturbing assessment of the terror threat 12 years later.


BLITZER: Bells at Ground Zero in New York to mark the day and hour 12 years ago when nearly 3,000 Americans were killed by terrorists.

On this September 11, the loss and the pain felt fresh as the names of the dead were read once again.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stephen Patrick Driscoll.





UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michael Joseph Duffy.


BLITZER: As always, tributes were held at other sites as well where the hijacked planes crashed, a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and over at the Pentagon.

President Obama laid a wreath there and reminded the nation that the terror threat is still very real.

From New York right now is the police commissioner, Ray Kelly.

Commissioner, thanks very much for coming in on this very important day.


BLITZER: You recently said, Commissioner, that the threat of terrorism is, in your words, as great if not greater today than it was before the 9/11 attacks.

Explain what you mean about -- because that raised a lot of eyebrows. It raised a lot of concern when I heard you say that.

KELLY: Well, obviously, core al Qaeda has been diminished somewhat in Pakistan, in the FATA.

But we see the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That's in Yemen. We see al Qaeda in Maghreb gaining strength. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has had several plots against the United States. We see al Qaeda in Iraq, which was basically defunct in 2008. They have reemerged. We Al-Nusra, the Al-Nusra Front in Syria that is in many ways supplied by al Qaeda in Iraq.

We have Al-Shabab in Somalia still in existence, still posing a threat to us. Now, in the last 10 months in New York City, we have had several threats against the city. We had an individual five blocks away from where I stand thought that he was exploding a bomb that was going to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank. Obviously, that was a sting well-put-together by the FBI.

We had two other individuals who came here last November, the Qazi brothers, who were plotting to have bombs go off at iconic locations in New York City. We just had a young man a few months ago, based on some significant undercover work, he was arrested, going to Yemen to learn about terrorism and terrorism tradecraft.

And we're sure that he would have come back here. We had another plot where individuals were arrested and one of the things they were going to do was to attack a train going from New York City to Canada. We had the Boston bombers who were coming back here to New York. So these are some things that are not necessarily in the public eye. I think they should be. But that's the life that we live here.

We have had at least 16 plots directed at New York City since 9/11. So that doesn't look to me like a significant reduction of the threat.

BLITZER: New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, he's even more worried now than he was before 9/11. He says that threat is still very, very real.

Remember, you can always follow what's going on here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.