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U.N. Syria Report; Did Putin Really Write Controversial Op-Ed?

Aired September 13, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, new information about a highly anticipated United Nations report on Syria. What will it say about chemical weapons and how could it affect a high-stakes deal that may be in the works?

Plus, fighting, suffering, and starvation, thousands of Syrian children cut off from aid and food and in danger of dying.

And Vladimir Putin's public relations machine. We will go inside the powerful American firm that is promoting the Russian leader right here in the United States.

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

We're told those urgent U.S./Russian talks on Syria's chemical weapons right now at a "pivotal point." A U.S. official saying the two sides are coming to an agreement on the size of Bashar al-Assad's poison gas stockpiles.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart have extended their talks in Geneva on a deal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons, but hurdles, serious ones, remain. Senior Obama administration officials acknowledge they don't expect Russia to agree to anything in the U.N. Security Council resolution that would automatically trigger the use of U.S. military force in Syria.

Let's go live to the United Nations.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, who is standing by with the very latest.

What are you learning, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was always going to be a bit of a long shot to get the Russians to sign on to any resolution that authorized force if Syria doesn't play ball fast enough, simply because of that veto they have in the Security Council.

But here there are a lot of moving parts. We are looking to see if Syria will voluntarily give up its chemical weapons program, as it says it might, and of course many looking forward likely to Monday when the U.N. inspectors who worked inside Syria will release their findings from the long-awaited report.

We got an inadvertent glimpse perhaps from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon about what that might say.


WALSH (voice-over): It's perhaps a misspeak that suddenly very busy week ahead at the U.N. Its chief may think he wasn't on camera, but still said this of the vital looming U.N. inspectors' report on Syria.

BAN KI-MOON, UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY-GENERAL: I believe that the report will be a overwhelming, overwhelming report that the chemical weapons was used, even though I cannot publicly say at this time.

WALSH: His spokesman tried to reel it back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The report is not completed. I'm not privy to the information yet.

WALSH: But Ban Ki-Moon added that President Bashar al-Assad had committed many crimes against humanity, and would face eventually "a process of accountability."

The U.N. inspectors' report into the 21st of August gas attacks will I'm told come out on Monday and be detailed enough for others to work out who was behind the attacks. That is not the inspectors' job to do so. Many are asking if Syria's sudden move to join the chemical weapons convention unconditionally unveiled here on Thursday is trying to preempt that report.

(on camera): The U.N.'s lawyers are checking Syria's letter to them about joining the convention to be sure that it says the right things. Now if it does, in 30 days, U.N. inspectors could be inside Syria. And in 60 days, Syria will have to declare all of its chemical weapons and facilities.

(voice-over): Then the nightmare begins of finding maybe thousands more of these inspectors to brave a vicious war zone and dismantle tons of the world's deadliest substances.

But this timeline isn't fast enough for the British, French, and Americans. They want the Security Council resolution that will make Syria tell all in just two weeks. Again, eyes back on this building weeks ago dismissed as paralyzed and irrelevant.


WALSH: Wolf, just look at the turnaround we have seen in the three weeks since those attacks. Obama had called the U.N. paralyzed, but is now really depending on its mechanisms to try and get the Syrian government to hand over its chemical weapons. And many people are really asking themselves if we're going to see anything outside of the talk of the three weeks, much talk, little action with the exception of the Syrian government finally admitting now it has chemical weapons.

The big choice, are we actually going to see them give up their arsenal, or are they simply stalling for time, Wolf?

BLITZER: Do we know if Ban Ki-Moon knew there were TV cameras inside when he said that Bashar al-Assad's regime had committed crimes against humanity, which certainly sets up for war crimes, some sort of tribunal?

WALSH: He did say he wasn't supposed to say that the report would say there were chemical weapons publicly because also he hadn't seen it. The intimation being that he may not have known he was on camera.

But it was broadcast by the U.N. own TV channel, so a bit of a claw-back they had to do themselves there once he said those remarks. That's going to politicize next week's agenda certainly. The critics of the report if there end up being any will perhaps seize upon the remarks as a suggestion that he already thinks Bashar al-Assad is guilty of crimes against humanity anyway -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh, thanks very much.

Now to the bigger war in Syria that has dragged on now for more than two years, killed more than 100,000 people. We have a report on truly horrible conditions for so many children that many of you will find disturbing.

Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, has been doing some amazing reporting on the humanitarian crisis that continues. She's joining us from Beirut.

Arwa, what are you seeing and learning?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, these images most certainly are very difficult to look at.

But this is yet another devastating, heartbreaking reality that is a byproduct of the war in Syria.


DAMON (voice-over): Amid the utter devastation caused by weapons of war, there is another killer working silently amid the chaos, its first victims, the most vulnerable. In this video uploaded to YouTube by opposition activists, two-and-a-half-year-old Ibrahim (ph) struggles for life.

His body can't take solid food. It can only digest milk. But there isn't any for him. Through Skype, we reached Dr. Abu Samer in Syria, the pediatrician who treated Ibrahim.

"There are many illnesses we are confronting because of an absolute absence of food," Dr. Samer explains. "We have depleted all of our food reserves, even animal products that could act as alternatives, because there are no animals left."

Most of the residents of (INAUDIBLE) just to the southwest of Damascus have long fled. But among the 15,000 who remain, an estimated 5,000 are children under siege now for months by regime forces, cut off from all aid.

RIMA KAMAL, ICRC DAMASCUS: For us, the fact that reports keep coming in from the area indicating (INAUDIBLE) people are dying because they don't have medical supplies, people are dying because, you know, they don't have food supplies, they don't have, and as you mentioned, probably the necessary staples, as well, is a serious cause for concern.

DAMON: The ICRC's requests for access have repeatedly been denied, and there are hundreds of thousands of people living under a similar siege across the country.


BLITZER: You know, Arwa, it's an amazing situation. There is a U.S. red line preventing Syria from using chemical weapons against its own people, but apparently no red line as far as all the other disasters that have been unfolding, including the starvation and death of these children.

DAMON: And that's exactly why the opposition at this point is really so dismayed with how the U.S. has handled all of this.

There is a sense that if America was able to threaten the use of force, and that's what brought the Russians to bring the Syrians to the negotiating table when it came to chemical weapons, well, why is that same kind of pressure not being applied to create humanitarian corridors to reach neighborhoods like the one you just saw in that report?

The child that you saw at the top of that piece, the 2.5-year- old, he died 24 hours after that video was shot, along with three other children suffering from similar conditions in just a week. And, Wolf, we spoke to the doctor from that neighborhood in the field click nick there. There are at least another five to six children also suffering, the doctor says, from acute malnutrition.

This is a problem that has to be dealt with now, and the U.S. has this opportunity to be able to pressurize the Syrian regime to actually do something about this situation. At least that's what people do believe -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon on the scene for us in Beirut, right next door to Syria, thank you.

Up next, we're joined by the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the former director of national intelligence, John Negroponte. He is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He has some serious concerns about a possible deal on Syria's chemical weapons, some serious concerns about U.S. intelligence. We will talk with him about that.

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BLITZER: Some former members of the Bush administration who played a role in the buildup to the war in Iraq now are voicing some serious concerns about President Obama's Syria strategy.

Let's bring in John Negroponte. He served in a number of positions in the Bush administration throughout his distinguished career, including the United States ambassador to the United Nations and director of national intelligence.

Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: I saw some place that you were quoted as saying you're not 100 percent sure all this intelligence about Syria's chemical weapons is necessarily 100 percent accurate.

NEGROPONTE: I said that early in the situation. But I was pretty convinced by the report that the administration released a week or so ago about what was available. I think I take that on its face.

BLITZER: Because you compared it at least early on to the intelligence blunders leading to the Iraq war in 2003.

NEGROPONTE: Correct, and the fact that there was a buildup of several days and the location and where these rocket -- the rocket fire came from.

I think the analysis sounded pretty good to me. And I also have heard some of the some of the classified materials. BLITZER: So are you with the administration, that the threat of U.S. military force should be maintained, that if necessary the U.S. should launch airstrikes at a minimum against targets in Syria?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I certainly share the analysis that that's what brought the Syrian government and the Russians to the table.

BLITZER: That threat of force?

NEGROPONTE: On the question of bringing the chemical weapons under control.

BLITZER: Because you have dealt with the Russians for a long time, including Sergei Lavrov. You know him. You know President Putin of Russia.

You think this is all serious, this diplomacy that is going on? Can there be a diplomatic way of eliminating all of Syria's chemical weapons?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I think the Russians drive a hard bargain. They always do. I think there is a way.

But I think it's going to be a tough negotiation. It's going to take maybe a little more time. We're going to get frustrated at the pace of things. And the thing that really concerns me is that Syria and Russia may introduce some conditionality into this that we may not very...

BLITZER: Like what kind of conditionality?

NEGROPONTE: Well, commitments to no regime change, or desisting from the threat of violence before we have even got a good resolution, that kind of thing.

But I think the give and take of the negotiating process over the next several weeks, and I believe it will be weeks, will have its frustrations.

BLITZER: But if there is a possibility of achieving the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, it's worth waiting a few weeks right now.

NEGROPONTE: Well, if you can get a good resolution that allows inspectors to get around the country, we will also have our own independent means of intelligence collection, so that I think we may get some sense of how forthcoming the Syrians are being.

BLITZER: But you think that there is a possible U.N. Security Council resolution that, at a minimum, the Russians would not veto, that they might just go along with and allow that to be passed?

NEGROPONTE: If that resolution is essentially limited to the question of bringing those weapons under control, yes. If we get into a debate about other forms of conditionality, politics, nonviolence and so forth, it could get complicated. BLITZER: Well, it's very complicated already. But let's see what happens.

Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.

NEGROPONTE: Thank you.

BLITZER: John Negroponte joining us.

Coming up, did an American public relations firm write some or all of Vladimir Putin's controversial op-ed? We're taking you behind the scenes of his P.R. machine.


BLITZER: CNN's Anthony Bourdain takes us to the Middle East this coming Sunday on his first trip ever to Israel to the West Bank and Gaza.

The second season of his very popular series "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN" premiers Sunday night. Here is a taste of his tour of Jerusalem.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Old City is divided into four quarters. There is a Muslim quarter, there is a Jewish quarter, there is a Christian quarter, and there is an Armenian quarter.

Each one functions independently, but the people that live in the certain area are all from that religion.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now we're walking in the steps of Jesus Christ, right?

BOURDAIN: As I so often do.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So this is Via Dolorosa, which is the last trip Jesus did before he was crucified. So people feel very emotional. They come here and they feel like, oh, my God, I'm walking in the steps of Mohammed, David, or Jesus. It's like Jesus was here.

BOURDAIN: I feel like I should be more something.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little bit more pious?

BOURDAIN: A little bit. Well, it's too late for me.


BLITZER: All you Anthony Bourdain fans, you are going to like this, "PARTS UNKNOWN." This Sunday night, please watch, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, of course only here on CNN.

BLITZER: When we come back, we will go inside Vladimir Putin's American public relations firm. Stay with us.


BLITZER: If anyone came out a winner of the Syria crisis this week, at least in the short-term, it would be the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. He proved once again that he is very, very skilled at turning a situation to his advantage.

Whether he is posing for rugged photos, giving asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, floating a chemical weapons deal or writing a controversial open letter to Americans, Vladimir Putin certainly knows how to promote himself. He has been doing it for years in Russia. Often, though, it's at the expense of his on-again/off-again friend the president of the United States.

Putin certainly has had some help, some major help in the public relations department. He is represented by a powerful public relations firm here in Washington that was in part behind that "New York Times" controversial op-ed article.

Brian Todd is taking a closer look into this.

Brian, tell us what you have learned, because there is a lot of money at stake here.


BLITZER: He is getting some expert P.R. advice from this American public relations firm.

TODD: And it's raising eyebrows now, Wolf, because this is an American firm that is doing a lot to promote interests in the United States that really kind of clash with America's interests, namely that op-ed piece from Putin in "The New York Times" that so many Americans got riled up over.

Senator Menendez said it made him want to vomit. But, in truth, this P.R. firm -- Ketchum is the name of it -- is a global giant. It operates in 70 countries and it gets a lot of money from entities like the Russian government to promote interests in the United States.

Now, the Ketchum representatives here in Washington and elsewhere have told us that they did help facilitate his column getting into "The New York Times." Some watchdog groups are saying, well, maybe they wrote it for him. They said, no, they did not write it for him, that he wrote it, but that they were instrumental in submitting to it "The New York Times."

What is interesting also is how much money they get. The Russian government paid Ketchum $1.9 million between November and the end of May of this year. And that's just kind of a section, a cross-section of the time and the effort that they put in for entities like the Russian government. But it kind of opens people's eyes to the fact that there are U.S.-based firms, P.R. firms, and this isn't the only one that does this kind of thing, that actually act on behalf of governments that may not be so friendly to the U.S.

There have been P.R. firms in this country that have made money off the likes of Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein, promoting their interests in the United States. So that's why this firm Ketchum is raising interest.

BLITZER: There is nothing illegal about it.

TODD: Right.


BLITZER: They have to register as foreign agents with the U.S. Justice Department.

TODD: Yes. That's right. And they have done that. And there is nothing illegal at all with what they are doing. And we also have to say that CNN has worked with them to try to gain interviews with Russian officials and to work with them on presidential trips that Russian leaders have made.

BLITZER: You know what was intriguing to me, Brian, was this proposal that the Russians came up with, or maybe Ketchum came up with, to send a delegation of Russian experts to Congress to brief members of Congress on the Syrian chemicals dispute.

Harry Reid, the Senate majority, rejected that proposal. John Boehner, the speaker of the House, said he didn't want the meet with these Russian dignitaries who were going to come over. Have you learned anything than proposal?

TODD: You know what? We have been pressing officials at Ketchum all day, was that your idea? Was it your idea for the Russian lawmakers and others to come over here and meet with American lawmakers? We have not gotten an answer from them on that.

This is certainly the kind of thing they would do, that they would advocate for this, they would push for it, they would make calls. But again, we have not gotten a solid confirmation from them that they were behind this idea, which, as you mentioned, John Boehner rejected it. Harry Reid rejected it. They want no part of this.

What is also interesting is John McCain is going to write an op- ed coming up soon, we don't know when, to counter Putin's op-ed. He is going to do it on Putin's home turf. He is going to write an op-ed for the Russian news outlet "Pravda." His office told "The Washington Post" that today.

So, it's point/counterpoint on each other's turf here with these...

BLITZER: Let him do it. Nothing wrong with any of this.

TODD: Sure. BLITZER: Thanks very much, Brian Todd, for that excellent report.

Let's wrap it up this half-hour with a quick look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from around the world.

In England, dancers performed for an exhibit at the Tate Modern Museum in London. In the Netherlands, cavalry guards trained for the next week ceremonial opening of the parliamentary year. And in Indonesia, drummers perform at a festival. And in Wales, check it out, a young girl plays on a human chessboard.

"Hot Shots," pictures coming in from around the world.

Remember, you can always follow what is going on here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Tweet me, please. Go ahead, @WolfBlitzer. You can certainly tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.