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THE SITUATION ROOM

New Info on Navy Yard Shooter; Russia Condemns U.N. Report on Syria

Aired September 18, 2013 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We could get the autopsy results of the Navy Yard gunman at any moment. A spokesman says the D.C. medical examiner will finish work on Aaron Alexis' body by the end of the day.

We're also learning about bizarre markings on the shotgun he used in his shooting rampage, a law enforcement official telling CNN the phrases "better off this way" and "my ELF weapon" were etched into the gun. Investigators don't know what any of this means. They're trying to figure it out. Two days after the massacre in Building 197, the evidence and the grief still very, very fresh.

Let's bring in our crime and justice correspondent Joe Johns. He's been looking into all of this.

What are you finding out, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today, law enforcement authorities said they were still processing the multiple crime scenes inside the Navy Yard as the issue of who gets legitimate access to Defense Department installations like this one became an issue at the highest levels.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): Almost back to business, so-called essential workers were allowed to return today to the Navy Yard, 48 hours after the shooting. Nonessential employees were allowed to pick up their cars, even as the back and forth was just getting started over how a guy like Aaron Alexis with so many red flags about his mental stability and even run-ins with the law could get a clearance to walk onto a seemingly secure facility like the Navy Yard carrying a shotgun no less.

A Senate investigation ordered into security clearances and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel launched a worldwide review of procedures at military installations.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Where there are gaps, we will close them. Where there are inadequacies, we will address them. And where there are failures, we will correct them. We owe the victims, their families and all our people nothing less.

JOHNS: Meanwhile, there were new details about the health of the shooter. Aaron Alexis visited a Veterans Administration hospital last month and was given medication for insomnia. Authorities also say he was given disability pay for tinnitus, ringing of the ears.

The shooter's mother issued a statement of apology for the rampage.

CATHLEEN ALEXIS, MOTHER OF AARON ALEXIS: Aaron is now in a place where he can no longer do harm to anyone, and for that, I am glad.

To the families of the victims, I am so, so very sorry that this has happened. My heart is broken.

JOHNS: What is still missing is a known motive. A law enforcement official said investigators were reaching out to as many as 700 potential witnesses at the Navy Yard alone as a so-called computer assistance response team with the FBI got its first looks at the computer of Aaron Alexis retrieved from the Residence Inn hotel where he was staying before the rampage.

One new question emerged about the emergency response. Capitol Hill Police said on the morning of the shootings, their armed response team was ready to enter the Navy Yard but was turned away. Two law enforcement sources said they would have been told to stand down if other teams were already on site and attempting to secure the scene.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: The president of the United States is expected to attend a memorial service for the victims of the Navy Yard shooting on Sunday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Joe Johns over at the Navy Yard, thank you.

Let's get to the Syria crisis right now. Russia is slamming a new United Nations report confirming the use of sarin gas in Syria, calling it "distorted." The United States says the report bolsters its claim that the Syrian regime was directly behind a deadly chemical weapons attack last month. Russia is promising to present new evidence suggesting the rebels in Syria were to blame, all of this raising more questions about the fate of that U.S./Russian deal for Syria to give up its poison gas stockpiles.

Our chief national correspondent Jim Sciutto was in Geneva with Secretary of State John Kerry when the deal was reached. He's back in Washington right now.

Jim, what is the latest? What's going on on this back and forth?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I think what we're seeing now is what were private disagreements between the U.S. and Russia in Geneva are now airing out in public. One of those disagreements on who was actually behind the attack, the other on the use of force if Syria fails to comply with the agreement.

But on the Assad regime's responsibility, the State Department's position here is that not only does the U.N. report bolster Washington's case, but regardless of what Russia is saying now, Syria's and Russia's agreement to remove all of Syria's chemical weapons in the wake of last month's attack is, in effect, Wolf, admission enough of responsibility.

On force, however, the disagreement is potentially more problematic because Russia's made clear it will never support the use of force which means if Syria does fail to comply, the U.S. will either have to go back to the U.N. for a vote it knows it will almost certainly lose or be willing to take military action largely on its own.

BLITZER: The U.S. would lose that vote in the Security Council if Russia uses its veto, which presumably they would do.

The first deadline on the Syria deal though is coming up. As you know, Syria given one week to release complete accounts of all of its chemical weapons stockpiles, where they are, how much they have. Here's the question, Jim. Will they meet that deadline?

SCIUTTO: It's a good question. There's been some question, first of all, when that deadline actually is. The agreement was announced last Friday. I'm told by the State Department, their understanding is that the deadline would be this coming Saturday, in a few days.

That said, they're not calling it a deadline. They're calling it a timeline. That's on purpose. The officials here really don't want to be put in a position where if Syria is a day late, for instance, that they would have to start to talk about repercussions, start to talk about consequences for the Syrian regime.

I don't think you will see anybody in the State Department panicking if that deal -- if all this information, as you say, is not released on Saturday. But they will be looking for it. I think if by early next week, a few days, you still don't have all that information, then you're going to start to hear some anger from Foggy Bottom and the State Department.

BLITZER: Whether you call them timelines or deadlines, there are more coming up in November as well.

SCIUTTO: No question. That gives more opportunities for the Syrians to game the system. We have seen this before going back 20 years in Iraq when a similar plan was pursued. That's a real worry that something -- you're going to have multiple times where you will have to be watching the Syrians for compliance here and where delays could be possible and then where questions will arise about what are the consequences for those delays.

BLITZER: Lots of questions. Jim Sciutto, thank you.

Russia's rocky relationship with the Obama administration making an impression here in the United States. A new Gallup shows 50 percent of Americans now view Russia as either unfriendly or as an enemy of the United States. That's compared to 44 percent who see Moscow as an ally or a friendly nation. This is the first time in 15 years that more Americans consider Russia to be unfriendly, and it's a huge downturn from 2006 when 73 percent of Americans saw Russia as an ally of the United States.

Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, some Republicans fear their party is resorting to kamikaze tactics. We're taking a closer look at the struggle within the GOP as a showdown nears that could potentially shut down the federal government within days.

Starbucks says it got dragged into a political debate over guns. Now it has a new policy to try to pull itself out.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right now, huge battles are brewing between President Obama and Republicans in Congress over the budget, Obamacare, raising the nation's debt ceiling. Today, the president asked business leaders to pressure Congress to stop playing chicken, as some are suggesting and get back to the good, old-fashioned political world of sparring.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Doing things in a way that reflect the genuine messy negotiations of democracy, but do not promise apocalypse every three months.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Coming up, more on the latest doomsday threat, a new government shutdown, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: House Republican leaders are setting the stage today for a possible, yes, a possible shutdown of the federal government in just a couple of weeks, even though they claim that's the last thing they want. It's a provocative and risky new tactic that could drag Washington into another self-imposed crisis.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is joining us now.

Dana, explain what is going on here. What is going on?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Remember, Wolf, Republicans rode into power in the House on a wave of anti-Obamacare sentiment. That's definitely what's driving, what's been going on here for the past two-and-a-half years. They voted to repeal or dismantle Obamacare about 40 times. But now they're taking it to a whole new level, one which is risky and without a clear endgame.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): The way the House speaker tells it, this is not about shutting down the government.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our goal here is to cut spending and to protect the American people from Obamacare. It's as simple as that.

BASH: Except there is nothing simple about it. The government is set to run out of money in less than two weeks, September 30. A House GOP bill to keep the government funded would also defund Obamacare.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Even one penny of Obamacare.

BASH: It's a strategy GOP grassroots groups spent all summer pounding rank-and-file Republicans to support.

REP. LEE TERRY (R), NEBRASKA: Absolutely heard from a lot of our conservative groups over the break about defunding Obamacare.

BASH (on camera): The pressure was there, you felt it?

TERRY: Oh, the pressure was absolutely there. But none of us like Obamacare.

BASH (voice-over): But the Senate is run by Democrats who do like Obamacare. That's why GOP leaders privately resisted defunding it on a must-pass spending bill, risking a government shutdown. But thanks to conservative pressure, Boehner could not find votes to keep the government running without also stripping out health care money.

(on camera): I know it's not been easy to be speaker over this caucus. But at this point, have you kind of lost control over the caucus?

BOEHNER: Listen, we have got a lot of divergent opinions in the caucus. And the key to any leadership job is to listen. We listened to our colleagues over the course of the last week. We have a plan that they're happy with. We're going forward.

BASH (voice-over): Not all Republicans seem happy.

(on camera): Do you think it's a good idea?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: We will see how it goes. We can't let the government shut down. We can't be kamikazes and we can't be General Custer.

BASH (voice-over): Senate Democrats argue if the government shuts down over trying to dismantle Obamacare, Republicans will get the blame.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: If they think we're going to back off, they're wrong. They're on a different planet.

BASH: And they may have unlikely allies, some conservative senators.

SEN. TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA: The only effective way to truly stop Obamacare, and I think we ought to do it, to stop it, would be to totally reverse it. We don't have the votes to do that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, the House plans to vote this week, even as soon as tomorrow. Then it's on to the Senate where, Wolf, even the Republican sponsors of this idea in the Senate, people like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, released this statement today admitting they don't have the votes.

Then of course question is, what will the Senate do? They will try to pass something which was just funds the government for a few months. The open question is what happens in the House? What we do know by all accounts is that this is going to be down to the wire again probably right down to the September 30 deadline for the government to shut down.

BLITZER: Government runs out of money September 30. New fiscal year starts October 1.

Stand by for a moment, Dana. I want to bring our chief domestic affairs correspondent, Jessica Yellin, into this conversation as well.

Some are suggesting the president is losing his agenda for his second term. What are you hearing on that, Jessica?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That question assumes the president has clearly laid out his agenda. Other than immigration reform, what has he really proposed for his second term?

He's been pushing a continuation of the jobs measures that he was already proposing in his first term. He is pressing implementation of Obamacare, the signature measure of his first term. And he's pushing climate change and education measures that he didn't really get to in his first term.

Right now, what we have seen the president back are gun control measures and a strike on Syria that have risen out of events that he didn't foresee previously. So the president right now is being buffeted by events out of his control. I don't really think we have seen much of him driving an agenda to begin with. So he really needs to start laying one out for him to be buffeted off of it, Wolf.

BLITZER: He's got to get over these hurdles though in the short term, the next few weeks. It could be a disaster if the government runs out of money or if the nation's debt ceiling is not increased.

Dana, how much of this is ideological, this whole battle between Republicans and the president, on these substantive issues? How much is it, I guess, personal in the sense they don't really like this president very much?

BASH: Well, I definitely think a lot of it is personal and that they don't necessarily dislike him on a personal level, but they certainly dislike his policies, namely this main policy, which is by far going to be his number one legacy.

Obviously, it's named Obamacare. As I mentioned before, so many Republicans walking the halls here are only here, Wolf, because they beat Democrats, saying to their constituents, I'm going to get to Washington and I'm going to get rid of this awful law that is out there. Many of them really do feel compelled not just because it's the president, but because they made the promise to their constituents to keep fighting. Of course, the split -- and there is a very real split among Republicans here -- is over how far to go. And it really was surprising that the House Republican leadership took this step that they did today and they made the decision earlier this week. But they just did not have a choice because there was so much pressure coming from these -- particularly these grassroots conservative groups like Heritage Action organization saying, you have got to keep on this and this is our last big fight, our last big chance to at least make the point we're trying to get rid of this law that they simply think is the wrong way to go.

BLITZER: The clock is ticking for both sides right now, the stakes enormous.

All right, Dana, Jessica, guys, thanks very much.

Coming up, Starbucks is known for taking stands on controversial issues, supporting, for example, same-sex marriage, banning smoking outside its stores. Now it's changing its policy on the hot issue of guns. We will update you on what's going on.

Also, we have an update on horrific new flooding that's going on. Dozens of people are dead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: As the gun debate reignites after the Navy Yard shooting this week, Starbucks is sending a message to Americans that weapons aren't welcome in its stores.

CNN's Poppy Harlow spoke with Starbucks CEO.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOWARD SCHULTZ, CEO, STARBUCKS: We're not an anti-gun company. We're not a policy-maker.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The man behind the ubiquitous green siren is smack in the middle of a heated gun control debate.

SCHULTZ: We have been mischaracterized as either being pro- or anti- gun. We're neither.

HARLOW: Forty-three states have so-called open carry laws, meaning you can visibly carry a licensed gun in public. Many businesses like Target, Wal-Mart and Starbucks say when it comes to customers, if a firearm is allowed by the state, it's allowed in their stores.

But that has led some to dub Starbucks pro-gun.

SCHULTZ: We have seen advocates on both sides of this debate use Starbucks as a staging ground for their own motivations. HARLOW: Across the country, gun rights advocates have gathered at the coffee chain, displaying firearms for they call Starbucks appreciation day, some posting photos on Facebook.

SCHULTZ: Customers have felt significantly uncomfortable. Children have felt uncomfortable.

HARLOW: So, in an open letter, Schultz says guns are not welcome at Starbucks and asks customers not to bring them. But he stopped short of a ban.

SCHULTZ: We made that decision so that we would not put our people in the uncomfortable position of having to confront a customer who's carrying a gun.

HARLOW: Ryan Delp and Bill Steven both carry their guns in public, but generally concealed.

RYAN DELP, PROTESTER: I intend to respect their wishes. I just won't be taking my business to Starbucks.

BILL STEVEN, PROTESTER: In a free society like America where we're supposed to honor equality, tolerance and each other's rights, here we have a company saying, we don't want that right in our store. I think that's unfortunate.

HARLOW: The Brady Campaign and others have petitioned Starbucks to ban guns. Last month, a group of Newtown residents sent Schultz this letter asking him to ban guns.

MONTE FRANK, NEWTOWN ACTION ALLIANCE: I think it's a significant step in the right direction. We would have referred an outright ban. But I think it sends a clear message that we need to have safe places for our kids.

HARLOW (on camera): How do you make these decisions, Howard, of what social issues Starbucks should engage in, put your name in front of and Starbucks' name in front of?

SCHULTZ: There are times when I feel like America has lost its conscience. I think the role and responsibility for companies is not only to make a profit , but to serve their communities as best we can.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HARLOW: And I can tell you, Wolf, as for Schultz himself, he did not say whether he owns a gun or not. When we asked him, he said, this is not a personal decision, this is a decision about his company and about the customers. But, as you can imagine, this is playing out in heated debate all across social media -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. All right, Poppy, good report. Thanks very much, Poppy Harlow reporting for us.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. "CROSSFIRE" starts right now.