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CNN NEWSROOM

Bush Library Dedication; Chemical Weapons in Syria; Defense Secretary Hagel Responds

Aired April 25, 2013 - 12:00   ET

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


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Diplomatic Corp, I know you all will be happy to hear that this speech is a lot shorter than the State of the Union.

I thank the governors, the governor of our own home state and other governors, mayors, state and local officials who have joined us. I welcome members of my cabinet, the White House staff and the administration, especially Vice President Dick Cheney. From the day I asked Dick to run with me, he served with loyalty, principle and strength. Proud to call you friend. History's going to show that I served with great people. A talented, dedicated, intelligent team of men and women who love our nation as much as I do.

I want to thank the people who have made this project a success. President Gerald Turner runs a fantastic university. A university with active trustees, dedicated faculty and a student body that is awesome.

I want to thank David Ferriero, Allen Low (ph) and the professionals at the National Archives and Records Administration who have taken on a major task. And I am confident you all will handle it.

I appreciate the architects, landscapers and designers, especially Bob Stern, Michael van Valkenburgh and Dan Murphy. I want to thank the folks of Manhattan Construction, as well as all the workers who build a fine facility that will stand the test of time. I thank the fantastic team of the George W. Bush Center, headed by Mark Langdale and Jim Glassman, and my long-time pal Donny Evans.

Much to the delight -- much to the delight of the folks who worked on this project, we have raised enough money to pay our bills. We have over 300,000 contributors from all 50 states. And Laura and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

This is the first time in American history that parents have seen their son's presidential library. Mother, I promise to keep my area clean. You know, Barbara Bush taught me to live life to the fullest, to laugh a lot and to speak my mind. A trait that sometimes got us both into trouble. Dad taught me how to be a president. Before that, he showed me how to be a man. And, 41, it is awesome that you are here today.

I welcome - I welcome my dear brothers and sister, as well as in-laws, cousins, nephews, nieces, uncles, all of you for joining us. Our family has meant more to me than anything, and I thank you for making it so. Not so long ago this campus was home to a beautiful west Texan named Laura Welch. When she earned her degree in library science, I'm not sure this day's exactly what she had in mind. She's been a source of strength and support and inspiration ever since we met in the O'Neil's (ph) backyard in Midland, Texas. One of the joys of the presidency was watching Laura serve as first lady. The American people rightly love her, and so do I.

Laura's going to be even better at her next role, grandmother. It was a joy - I can't tell you what a joy it was to hold little Mila. And I am really happy that Mila's mother and father, Jenna and Henry, could make it here today. Thank you all for coming.

So if you don't have anything to do in the morning, tune into the "Today" show. Jenna's a correspondent, thereby continuing the warm relations the Bush family has with the national press. And I'm really proud of Barbara, who's with us, for her incredible work to serve others and to save lives.

Today marks a major milestone in a journey that began 20 years ago when I announced my campaign for governor of Texas. Some of you were there that day. I mean a lot of you were there that day. I picture you looking a little younger. You probably picture me with a little less gray hair. In politics, you learn who your real friends are. And our friends have stood with us every step of the way. And today's the day to give you a proper thanks.

In democracy, the purpose of public office is not to fulfill personal ambition. Elected officials must serve a cause greater than themselves. The political winds blow left and right, polls rise and fall, supporters come and go, but in the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they hold. And my deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom.

I believe that freedom is a gift from God and the hope of every human heart. Freedom inspired our founders and preserved our union through civil war and secured the promise of civil rights. Freedom sustains dissidents bound by chains, believers huddled in underground churches, and voters who risked their lives to cast their ballots. Freedom unleashes creativity, rewards innovation and replaces poverty with prosperity. And ultimately, freedom lights the path to peace. Freedom brings responsibility. Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other. A free society thrives when neighbors help neighbors and the strong protect the weak and public policies promote private compassion.

As president, I've tried to act on these principles every day. It wasn't always easy and it certainly wasn't always popular. One of the benefits of freedom is that people can disagree. It's fair to say I created plenty of opportunities to exercise that right. But when future generations come to this library and study this administration, they're going to find out that we stayed true to our convictions. That we expanded freedom at home by raising standards in schools and lowering taxes for everybody. That we liberated nations from dictatorship and freed people from AIDS. And that when our freedom came under attack, we made the tough decisions required to keep the American people safe.

Those same principles define the mission of the presidential center. I'm retired from politics, happily so I might add, but not from public service. We'll use our influence to help more children start life with a quality education, to help more Americans find jobs and economic opportunity, to help more countries overcome poverty and disease, to help more people in every part of the world live in freedom. We'll work to empower women around the world to transform their countries, stand behind the courageous men and women who have stepped forward to wear the uniform of the United States to defend our flag and our freedoms here at home.

Ultimately, the success of a nation depends on the character of its citizens. As president, I had the privilege to see that character up close. I saw it in the first responders who charged up the stairs into the flames to save people's lives from burning towers. I saw it in the Virginia Tech professor who barricaded his classroom door with his body until his students escaped to safety. I saw it in the people of New Orleans who made homemade boats to rescue their neighbors from the floods. I saw it in the service members who laid down their lives to keep our country safe and to make other nations free.

Franklin Roosevelt once described the dedication of a library as an act of faith. I dedicate this library with an unshakable faith in the future of our country. It was the honor of a lifetime to lead a country as brave and as noble as the United States. Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation's best days lie ahead.

God bless.

ANNOUNCER: Please stand for the national anthem, benediction and the retirement of colors.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light. What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming. Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight. O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming. And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave. O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

(END LIVE FEED)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We'll continue to watch what's going on at the dedication of the George W. Bush Library, but there's breaking news coming into CNN right now.

A major development in the civil war in Syria. The Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel now saying the U.S. has evidence - evidence -- that chemical weapons have been used in that conflict by the Syrian regime. This just - this comes just a few days after a top Israeli intelligence official similarly said Israel believes the Syrian military has used chemical weapons, specifically sarin gas. Let's go to our White House correspondent, Dan Lothian.

Dan, the White House has just released copies of letters, identical letters, sent to Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Senator John McCain, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, stipulating that U.S. intelligence, the assessment now is that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons which earlier the president had insisted if that were true it would be, in his words, a game changer.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And this is indeed a major development because earlier this week Jay Carney was asked about some of these claims from the Israelis about chemical weapons being used inside Syria and he said that the administration was skeptical. And now the administration saying that they have gotten information and came to this conclusion within the last 24 hours.

And you pointed out those two letters that were sent from the president's legislative -- Director of Legislative Affairs, Miguel Rodriguez, sent to Senator Carl Levin, and also Senators John McCain -- Senator John McCain. And in that letter, spelling out some of the details, saying in part, quote, "our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin. This assessment is based in part on physiological samples. Our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts."

But there is this still big question, Wolf, because these samples that are out there, at least according to this letter, officials saying that they can't confirm exactly how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.

There's also the big issue, and you alluded to this at the top of this report, what happens next? President Obama has been very clear, saying that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a red line. That it would be a gamechanger. The administration now being very cautious, spelling out in that letter that while they do have this intelligence information, that they want to make sure that they have credible, real facts that will guide the decisions moving forward.

Now, one other point, Wolf, it's interesting that these letters came out at a time when President Obama today, during his remarks at the Bush Library out there in Texas, a library that has its interactive exhibit that talks about and deals with some of the controversial measures during the Bush administration after 9/11, so I think that's quite ironic that they are now specifically in this letter spelling out how they want to be careful with the intelligence that they have, make sure that they have all the facts on the ground before they decide what steps to take next.

BLITZER: That's a good point because the intelligence community, according to this letter, believes with a certain degree of confidence that the Syrians have used sarin gas, which would be illegal under international law.

But then in the letter, it does have this line, and you point to it, Dan -- "Given the stakes involved and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence ass assessments alone are not sufficient. Only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making and strengthen our leadership of the international community" -- are a reference, a clear reference. to the intelligence assessments that the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, an intelligence assessment that proved to be wrong once the U.S. went in and searched for those WMD stockpiles and couldn't find any.

Stand by for a moment, Dan. I want to play the clip.

Here's the Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, speaking just a little while ago on this very sensitive issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: This, I think, was meant to be kind of a wrap-up of five days which we can do, but I want to read a statement because I think this is going to consume most of your attention as it has the last couple of days.

This morning, the White House delivered a letter to several members of Congress on the topic of chemical weapons used in Syria.

The letter, which will be made available to you here shortly -- as soon as George gets it, we'll get it to you -- states that the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin.

As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made within the past 24 hours.

And I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue.

We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have been originated with the Assad regime.

As the letter states, the president has made clear that the use of chemical reference or the transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups would be unacceptable. The United States has an obligation to fully investigate, including with all key partners and allies and through the United Nations, evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria.

Over the past week I've traveled, as you all know, to five countries in the Middle East, all of whom have expressed concern about the deteriorating situation in Syria.

And you've asked me on several occasions about the chemical weapons use. As I've said, this is serious business. We need all the facts.

The letter will be available as soon as George gets it to you. And as you all know, I have no more to say about this until we get the full story as I think that will be the position of the administration.

With that, I'll take questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Secretary, does this cross the red line?

HAGEL: Well, first, I would answer your question this way. We need all the facts. We need all the information.

What I've just given you is what our intelligence community has said they know. As I've also said, they're still assessing and they're still looking at what happened, who is responsible and the other specifics that we'll need.

As to a red line, my role as secretary of defense is to give the president options on a policy issue. That's a policy issue, and we'll be prepared to do that at such time that the president requires options.

Did you say varying degrees of confidence? Is that the phrase you used?

HAGEL: I did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What does that mean?

HAGEL: Well, it means that we still have some uncertainties about what was used, what kind of chemical was used, where it was used, who used it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But not if?

HAGEL: Well, as I said in the statement, in talking to our intelligence people in the last couple hours, they have a reasonable amount of confidence that some amount of chemical weapons was used.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. So there he is, the Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel. wrapping up a visit to the Middle East. He's in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates right now, basically reiterating what the White House has told the Senate armed services committee, that there's now a consensus with varying degrees of confidence within the U.S. intelligence community that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.

We're getting reaction coming in because, as you just heard earlier, the president had said if the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad were to use chemical weapons against the rebels, that would be crossing a red line, a gamechanger as far as President Obama's concerned.

So the question now is what will the Obama administration do as far as this information is concerned?

Let's take a quick break. We'll resume the breaking news coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's a major development in the war in Syria that we're following right now, the breaking news here on CNN, the Obama administration now releasing the latest U.S. intelligence assessment, the intelligence assessment believing with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad has used chemical weapons on what they describe as a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin. That's the intelligence assessment.

They're now searching for hard evidence to back up that intelligence assessment, saying, given the stakes involved and what we have learned from our own recent experience referring to the lack of WMD or chemical weapons found in Iraq back in 2003, intelligence assessments, the White House says, alone are not sufficient.

Only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty, will guide our decision making and strengthen our leadership of the international community.

Barbara Starr's our Pentagon correspondent. Barbara, our viewers know in recent weeks and months the president has said, if there's evidence of chemical weapons either being used by the Syrian regime or transferred to terrorist groups, that's a red line for the U.S., a game-changer, if you will, that would force the U.S. to take certain steps.

What are you hearing over at the Pentagon?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think most Americans have exactly that question, does this mean U.S. troops could be headed into another war in the Middle East?

By all accounts, at least not at the moment. They want to get more information about all of this. There are other options for the U.S., diplomatic options to step up the pressure on Assad, but that certainly doesn't seem to be working.

Why are we saying not military action, at least not right away? Because the U.S. policy is that it would not go it alone in Syria with U.S. military troops. They will have to get allies in the Middle East, in the Gulf states to engage in this with them.

And right now the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, very nervous about any additional instability.

For the countries there, the military question, the security question is how do they keep Syria from imploding, becoming a total unsecured area and having either terrorism or chemical weapons cross borders into turkey, into Iraq, into Jordan and move across the Middle East?

Right now the Middle East effort is to try to stabilize the situation.

That said, Wolf, here at the Pentagon, top officials have been updating military options for weeks. They have been watching. They believe in the last several weeks the regime has continued to move chemical stockpiles around Syria and they are not sure why.

They believe they're still under the security of the regime, but even the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff told John McCain last week he couldn't be sure anymore where the chemical stockpiles were.

I think there's another very interesting point in this letter, Wolf. Why are they uncertain? Well, the letter talks about, and I quote "This assessment is based in part on physiological samples."

We don't know at this point exactly what that means at this point, but what we do know is that medical groups working in Syria were going to bring out some medical evidence of exposure to chemical weapons and that may be the first step that has led to some of this, Wolf.

BLITZER: In this letter the White House sent to the armed services committee in the Senate, they also said -- the White House -- "We do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would have very likely originated with the Assad regime.

"Thus far, we believe that the Assad regime maintains custody of these weapons. It has demonstrated a willingness to escalate its horrific use of violence against the Syrian people."

It didn't take very long for Senator John McCain, the ranking member of the Senate armed services committee who received this letter to respond.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The president of the United States said that, if the Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons, it would be a game-changer, that it would cross a red line. I think it's pretty obvious that red line has been crossed.

Now I hope the administration will consider what we have been recommending now for over two years of this bloodletting and massacre and that is to provide a safe area for the opposition to operate, to establish a no-fly zone and provide weapons to the people in the resistance who we trust.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go to Dana Bash up on Capitol Hill, our chief congressional correspondent.

Dana, this is going to fuel what Senator McCain and some of his associates, like Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and others, have been calling for for some time, some heightened U.S. military activity if not sending troops on the ground.

I don't think anyone is anxious to see that happen, but at least providing weapons, if you will, to the Syrian rebels.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And you just heard from John McCain. That's exactly what it's doing, and, in fact, he's saying, I told you so. Now let's get on it. Let's figure out a way to stop this.