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Syria Deal; Iran's Overtures

Aired September 19, 2013 - 18:00   ET



It's the strange world of foreign policy that the Obama administration is struggling with right now. We saw a rather fuming Secretary of State John Kerry just a few hours ago venting his frustration with Russia and Syria as he tries to move forward with a deal on Syria's chemical weapons.

At the same time, President Obama's suddenly pen pals with the new president of Iran, one of the United States's most dangerous adversaries. What's going on right now?

The Syria crisis in a moment, but first, Iran's historic overture is under way right now to the United States.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, what's going on?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, some people are calling this the most significant outreach since the 1979 revolution. I have heard hope even from dissidents who have been jailed and mistreated by this same regime. One told me he's even joined the government.

Still, as you know, this is a relationship marred by repeated disappointment. And U.S. officials are waiting for substantive change to match the rhetoric.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): A new Iranian president, a new outreach to the U.S. by a government until recently virtually defined by its anti- American posturing. Tonight, President Hassan Rouhani took to Twitter to say he hasn't ruled out the possibility of meeting with President Obama at the U.N. General Assembly next week in New York, adding, "Everything is possible in the world of politics."

Asked about Iran's digital diplomacy, U.S. officials we have spoken to are reserving judgment.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Everything needs to be put to the test. We will see where we go, and at the right moment, I think the White House and the State Department will make clear where we're heading.

SCIUTTO: Rouhani's invitation is the latest in a series of diplomatic overtures that began with another surprising tweet two weeks ago, wishing the world's Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah holiday. Rouhani then moved quickly to the issue at the center of his country's tension with the West, telling NBC News:

HASSAN ROUHANI, IRANIAN PRESIDENT-ELECT (through translator): We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb and we are not going to do so.

SCIUTTO: At home, Tehran released one of its most prominent dissidents, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, though hundreds more remain behind bars.

(on camera): You have been a skeptic like others of pass attempts by this regime at outreach. Why should we consider this one more substantial?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, ASSOCIATE, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE: This has really been one of the more significant charm offensives since the 1979 revolution. I think the big question is not whether the Rouhani administration is interested in a detente with the United States. The big question is whether they can deliver on that detente.


SCIUTTO: The one who can deliver is Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who gave an intriguing speech earlier this week about the need for -- quote -- "heroic flexibility," which some read as a public endorsement of this outreach.

However, the U.S. and Iran have so many substantive disagreements and one that Iran is showing no flexibility in its support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

BLITZER: Fair point. All right, Jim, thanks very much.

Let's get to the Syria regime and the crisis in Syria right now, Secretary of State John Kerry in a heated appeal for international action. He spoke just two days before Syria's first deadline in the deal to give up its chemical weapons arsenals and ahead of the United Nations's General Assembly meetings next week.

Kerry defended the new U.N. Security Council report on the poison gas attack in Syria last month. He says it clearly shows the Bashar al-Assad regime was to blame, not the rebels, as Russia claims.


KERRY: The environmental, chemical, and medical samples that the U.N. investigators collected provide clear and compelling evidence that the surface-to-surface rockets used in this attack contained the nerve agent sarin.

We know the Assad regime possesses sarin, and there's not a shred of evidence, however, that the opposition does.


BLITZER: And Fareed Zakaria is joining us now from New York. He's the host of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS," which airs Sunday mornings here on CNN.

Fareed, tell us about this distinction if there is one between a timeline and a deadline, because John Kerry says time is quickly running out.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think the most important thing to think about is not so much the distinction between a timeline or a deadline, but what that really involves is, is there a trigger? Is there some kind of automatic trigger that says if the Syrians do not comply, cooperate by a certain date, then it can get referred, the issue can get referred to the Security Council?

And that implies that the Security Council might authorize the use of force. See, that's the crucial issue. What Kerry is trying to do is create some mechanism by which there is an automatic trigger. And what the Russians are trying to do is to ensure that there is none, there is no automatic trigger.

So my guess is they're going to keep fighting about this. But the crucial issue is, at some point, do you cross a line of noncompliance, which sets off some kind of consequence?

BLITZER: When all is said and done, the continued denials from the Bashar al-Assad regime and from the Russians that Syria was directly responsible for launching those chemical attacks against their own people, will it really make much of a difference if in fact -- and it's a huge if -- if the Syrians go ahead and describe all of their chemical weapons stockpiles, say where they are, and go ahead and begin the process of destroying them?

ZAKARIA: It's a very good point, Wolf.

We have gotten kind of hung up on this. Of course, the Syrians are lying. Of course, the Assad regime is lying. The U.N. report is very clear in describing the sophistication with which these weapons were used. And it's highly unlikely that the opposition could do this. This is a bunch of ragtag rebels, insurgents, in many cases highly decentralized.

What was used here was a fairly sophisticated weapon used in a sophisticated way. But who cares? As Bill Clinton said to me in the interview that I did which is coming up on Sunday, who cares about all this if going forward we have this, the Syrians are now admitting that they have chemical weapons? They are telling us they will tell us where they are and they will assist in their destruction.

Even if it doesn't destroy all of it, even if they don't identify all of it, this is a huge step forward if your concern was dealing with chemical weapons. If your concern was getting rid of Assad, that's a whole different discussion. BLITZER: Certainly is.

All right, Fareed, thanks very much.

I just want to remind our viewers this Sunday morning, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS," the exclusive with Bill Clinton for the hour, 10:00 a.m. Eastern and also 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

Fareed, thanks very much.

ZAKARIA: Thank you so much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, Republicans are fighting among themselves over a plan to defund Obamacare. Democrats, a lot of them, gloating right now. We're going to tell you what's going on.

Also, we have a shocking new ad that's part of the debate.


BLITZER: Only 11 days to go until the federal government runs out of money. And the threat of a government shutdown isn't just pitting Republicans against Democrats. It's pitting Republicans against Republicans.

CNN's Erin McPike has the latest on the party's divisions, whether they can pull it all together.

What is going on, Erin?


ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One of the Republican Party's most vocal opponents of Obamacare is standing shoulder to shoulder with his House colleagues, a show of unity after Senator Ted Cruz infuriated conservatives by suggesting his own strategy to defund Obamacare can't pass the Senate.

They accuse Cruz of having less fight in him than Democrat Wendy Davis, another hard-charging Texan praised for crusading for a liberal cause earlier this year.

(on camera): Just yesterday, a senior House Republican aide said it's disappointing to see that Wendy Davis has more guts than Ted Cruz.

Now, he used a different word than guts. But other Republicans have called you a phony and a joke. How do you respond to them?

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Well, I'm always impressed with the courage of anonymous congressional aides.


MCPIKE (voice-over): He tried to make amends, promising: CRUZ: I will do everything necessary and anything possible to defund Obamacare. Listen, this is the most important fight in the country and it's easy to focus on the political back and forth.

MCPIKE: But that back and forth is between Republicans, highlighting divisions in Cruz's own party. Many are balking at risking a government shutdown by tying the effort to defund Obamacare to a bill to keep the government running, including Karl Rove, who aired his views in "The Wall Street Journal."

He wrote: "Going down that road would strengthen the president while alienating independents. It is an ill-conceived tactic and Republicans should reject it."

But House Speaker John Boehner, who is caught between these two factions in his own party, gave in and scheduled a vote Friday.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We will deliver a big victory in the House tomorrow. Then this fight will move over to the Senate, where it belongs. I expect my Senate colleagues to be up for the battle.

MCPIKE: Of course, Democrats are making hay of the Republican tangle.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: It would be good political theater to watch them self-destruct. And that's what they're doing.

MCPIKE: Now, we learned today that Senate Republicans intend to vote to move forward with the debate on the House bill. That then gets it into a procedural position, where Senate Democrats need just 51 votes to restore funding to Obamacare and just 51 votes to pass the full bill.

That, of course, then moves the bill back to the House and it leaves House Republicans in the same predicament that they're in now, this kind of political brinksmanship that we have gotten used to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They got 11 days to try to figure this out. Erin, thank you very much.

By the way, more on the threat of a government shutdown, the battle over Obamacare at the bottom of the hour right after THE SITUATION ROOM. Representatives Charlie Rangel and Michele Bachmann, they are in the "CROSSFIRE."

Now to the controversial new comments from Pope Francis on homosexuals and the role of women in the church.

CNN senior international correspondent Matthew Chance is in Rome.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): This is the first in-depth interview with Pope Francis since he was elected in March, and he addresses controversial issues like homosexuality, abortion, and what he called the feminine genius.

And the words will be carefully examined by millions looking to him for guidance. On the role of women, he's said in the past the door is closed on their ordination as priests, disappointing many Catholic liberals. But in the interview, he says women should have a greater role in the church. "The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions," he says.

It was after his successful visit to Brazil earlier this year that Pope Francis made one of his most surprising remarks on homosexuality, telling reporters, "Who am I to judge gay people?"

The church traditionally condemns homosexual acts. In his interview, the pontiff says he was asked if he approved of homosexuality. He answered: "Tell me, when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love or reject and condemn this person?"

And that seems to be the conciliatory tone Pope Francis is trying to set for the church he leads, not so much breaking with doctrine as shifting the church's emphasis, in the words of one Vatican commentator, from condemnation to mercy.


CHANCE: Wolf, this is a pope that is determined to try and keep Roman Catholicism relevant in the 21st century.

So, he's saying, OK, the church may not approval of homosexuality, but if you're gay, you can still be a Catholic. The church may not be willing to make women priests, but if you're a woman, you're still going to have a prominent place in the religion, in the organization, Wolf.

BLITZER: Important new comments from Pope Francis. Matthew, thank you.

Up next, we have chilling new details about the way the Navy Yard gunman shot his victims.


BLITZER: This just in: The House of Representatives has approved by a narrow margin a controversial bill to cut $40 billion from food stamps. It would force roughly 14 million people from the program over the next decade. It has little chance, though, of clearing the Senate. The president has promised a veto.

We will be right back.


BLITZER: We're learning chilling new details of Monday's shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. CNN climate justice correspondent Joe Johns has the latest.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Aaron Alexis slipped into a bathroom in the Navy Yard with a small bag, apparently containing a disassembled shotgun sawed off at both ends. He quickly put it together and reemerged, firing immediately and randomly.

He's believed to have gone floor by floor firing with no discernible pattern, nothing to indicate he was targeting specific people. Surveillance video shows him reaching into his pocket to get more shotgun shells. And when out of ammunition, he started firing a Beretta handgun taken from a guard he'd shot in the lobby.

This latest account was given to reporters by FBI Director James Comey. But what continues to baffle authorities is the emerging picture of Alexis as two different people at different times, making it hard to establish what triggered the shootings. Some describe him as affable and outgoing.

A series of encounters with law enforcement paint another picture. The latest to emerge, an Alabama family reported having a noisy confrontation with Alexis at the Norfolk Airport August 4. He started screaming obscenities at them because he thought they were laughing at him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got up and walked over to the lady who was taking the boarding passes and told her that she needed to get security. And I guess about three or four minutes later, security came up and we told them he was sitting over behind us. And they walked over there and calmed him down, I guess.

JOHNS: Three days later, Alexis complained to police about an argument with a stranger in the airport who sent three people to follow him who were sending vibrations through his body.

Alexis was a computer contractor with legitimate access to the Yard because he was upgrading workstation laptops.

CNN analyst Tom Fuentes:

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: They're never going to be able to be 100 percent of what went wrong inside his brain to cause this to happen.


BLITZER: And the chief of police of the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., Cathy Lanier, is joining us right now.

Chief, thanks very much for coming in. I know how busy you have been. This has been an awful, awful week in the nation's capital.

Lots of unanswered questions. I know many of them you still can't answer. But can you tell us whether or not U.S. Capitol Police, not your department, but Capitol Hill Police, were told to step down when the shooting started Monday morning and go back to Capitol Hill? Are those reports accurate?


Literally, we had officers that were on the scene two minutes after the call came out, inside the gate moving towards deployment. We had more than enough teams and resources. We didn't turn anybody away. Nobody was turned away by their own agency that I'm aware of. But I don't think you could have had a faster response.

And the military folks, DOD police and NCIS, both were also on the scene and in the building in a matter of minutes. So, I think the response was as quick as it could be.

BLITZER: Another report, that the whole Navy Yard was really undermanned as far as police was concerned, only seven police officers on the Navy Yard that Monday morning, are you familiar with what was going on then?

LANIER: I do know that the first engagement with the shooter was the Naval District of Washington, their military police. Those officers and the guard there, a contract guard with them, were the first ones to engage the shooter.

I don't know what the total number of personnel was. But I spoke with the chief personally when he came out of the building, and he himself was engaged and some of the first officers to engage the suspect.

BLITZER: I know it's early in the investigation, early in the process, but have you already made some changes in Washington, D.C., in the aftermath of what happened at the Navy Yard?

LANIER: Yes, we started doing a real deep examination of everything the first morning after the event, because every time there's an incident like this, there's always something that's different. And, obviously, my number one priority is, is our tactical plan still sufficient?

Do we need to make any changes? Is there new things that we learned from this incident that would change our planning, our training, equipment that we use? And we finished just about an hour ago the fourth of several meetings with our partners to kind of do that deep dive.

I'm sure we will add some things to our training and some things to our plans based on what we learned here. But this was an extremely complex building to enter. And in terms of tactically engaging an active gunman, you couldn't have a more complicated situation than we had here.

BLITZER: Scott Williams, one of your officers who was shot by this gunman, first of all, how is he doing and was he the one who actually shot and killed Alexis?

LANIER: He's doing well. He is still in the hospital. He actually did have to go back in for some additional surgery today.

He did -- yesterday was able to get up and stand with the help of -- with a walker. So I do think he's going to be OK and recover fully. But he's still having some pretty serious complications. But he's in great spirits and he's a really tough cop, so he's going to be fine.

He's not -- we don't have all the forensics back yet, but he is not the one that engaged in the ultimate gunfight with the suspect.

BLITZER: Finally, Chief, any word on the motive, any kind of motive that we know that Alexis may have had?

LANIER: I will reserve judgment on that until all the work of the FBI is done. They have a phenomenal team. I have been briefed repeatedly on every step of this investigation, my investigators working alongside their teams. But I will reserve judgment on that until all the work is done. And there's still a lot more to do.

BLITZER: Cathy Lanier is the chief of police of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department.

Chief, thanks very much. Thanks for all the good work that you do. We really appreciate it.

LANIER: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: She is really on top of the situation and she is becoming sort of a legend in the D.C. Police Department right now.

Let's continue our conversation into this investigation. Joe Johns is standing by once again.

Joe, I know we have been hearing a lot from the investigators, specifically the FBI in the course of what is going on. What are we hearing about any computer that may have been discovered? What are we learning about any social media track record that this individual, this gunman may have had? Because there potentially could be clues as to a motive out there.

JOHNS: That's true. There's certainly at least potential for that.

We do know that the officials do have a computer from this man. They also say that he created a Web site with the name Mohammed Salem. The problem is that it goes nowhere. He didn't do anything with that Web site once he created it. And authorities frankly don't even know why he did it. So it's just one more mystery about this man who seemed to be two different people on two different times, Wolf.

BLITZER: What else is happening over at the Navy Yard right now? You heard Chief Lanier say they're trying to continue this investigation. I know there are literally thousands of people who go to work there. But for all practical purposes, it's not the same as it was. It's pretty much shut down.

JOHNS: Right. That's true. There were just multiple crime scenes. We're told the place is still a mess, described as blood all over the place. And there may be quite a lot of repair inside the structures before it gets back to normal.

So there's still a lot to do at the Navy Yard, not to mention all the people who have really been through a lot of mental trauma, quite frankly, Wolf.

BLITZER: The whole notion of his security clearances, the mental illness he may have had, I know that there's a top-to-bottom review that the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, has announced.

They want to make sure this could never happen again. But everything I have been hearing from a lot of people who are involved in these kinds of issues, they say there's no guarantee. You could never -- when you have so many people getting secret clearances, for example, four million or five million in the federal government, for example, including in the U.S. military, there's no way you can make it 100 percent perfect.

JOHNS: That's very true.

The other thing I think that is very difficult for the authorities, when you look at all of the little red flags, as have been called, throughout the last several years involving encounters with law enforcement, nothing ever rose to the level that would sort of set off an a alarm bell among the people who are actually doing these background checks on this individual.

Frankly, he had a number of background checks, some last year, some this year. And no one ever turned up anything, Wolf.

BLITZER: Joe Johns with the latest on that story. We will continue to follow it. Thanks very much.

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

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.