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Kerry Lobbies Congress to Support Military Action; Congressional Hearings; Round Two of Syria Debate under Way

Aired September 04, 2013 - 12:30   ET


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Now I remember Iraq. And Secretary Hagel who will soon be here and General Dempsey, obviously, also remember it very well. Secretary Hagel and I both voted in the United States Senate. And so both of us are especially sensitive to never again asking any member of Congress to vote on faulty intelligence.

And that's why our intelligence community took time. That's why the president took time to make certain of the facts and make certain of this case and to declassify unprecedented amounts of information in order to scrub and rescrub the evidence and present the facts to the American people and especially to the Congress.

We have declassified unprecedented amounts of information, some of it, I might add, and not because initially that might have been the instinct in protecting sources and methods, but some leaked and after its leaking we thought it was important to verify whether it was true or not.

So by now you've heard a great deal from me and others in the administration about the comprehensive evidence that we've collected in the days following the attack on August 21st, so I'm not going to go through all of it again right now.

I'm happy to discuss it further if any of you have questions, but I can tell you beyond a reasonable doubt, and I used to prosecute cases. I ran one of the largest district attorney's offices in America, and I can tell you, beyond a reasonable doubt, the evidence proves that the Assad regime prepared this attack and that they attacked exclusively opposition-controlled or contested territory.

At some point in the appropriate setting, you will learn additional evidence which came to us even today which further documents the acknowledgement of various friends of the Assad regime that they know that this happened.

Our evidence proves that they used Sarin gas that morning, and it proves that they used some of the world's most heinous weapons to kill more than 1,400 innocent people, including at least 426 children.

Now I'm sure that many you have seen the images yourselves, the men and women, the elderly and children, sprawled on a hospital floor, no wounds, no blood, and chaos and desperation around them, none of which could possibly have been contrived. All of that was real. We have the evidence. We know what happened. And there's no question that this would meet the standard by which we send people to jail for the rest of their lives.

So we're because of what happened, but we're also here not just because of what happened two weeks ago. We're here because of what happened nearly a century ago when, in the darkest moments of World War I when they were over, after the horror of gas warfare, when the majority of the world came together to declare in no uncertain terms that chemical weapons cross the line of conscience, and that they must be banned.

And over the years that followed, more than 180 countries, I think it's 184 to be precise, including Iran, Iraq and Russia, all agreed and joined the chemical weapons convention. Even countries with whom we agree on very little else agreed on this.

Now some have tried to suggest that the debate that we're having today is about this president's red line, that this is about President Obama's red line. Let me make it as clear as I can to all of you. That is just not true.

This is about the world's red line. It's about humanity's red line, a line that anyone with a conscience should draw, and a line that was drawn nearly 100 years ago in 1925 when the chemical weapons convention was agreed on.

This debate, I might add to you, is also about Congress's red line. You agreed to the chemical weapons convention. Not all of you were here to vote for it, but the Congress agreed to that.

The Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act, which Congressman Engel has referred to and authored, and that act says clearly, and I quote, "Syria's chemical weapons threaten the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States."

I think repeatedly members of Congress have spoken out about the grave consequences if Assad in particular were to use chemical weapons. And both Speaker Boehner and leader Pelosi have stated in recent days that the actions of the Assad regime are unacceptable and that the United States has a responsibility to respond.

So as we debate, the world is watching and the world wondering, not whether Assad's regime actually did this. I think that fact is now beyond question. The world is wondering whether the United States of America is going to consent through silence to stand aside while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence.

In the nearly 100 years since this global commitment against chemical weapons was made, only two tyrants have dared to cross the world's brightest line. Bashar al-Assad has now become the third.

And history, I think everyone here knows, holds nothing but infamy for those criminals, and history also reserves very little sympathy for their enablers.

And that's the gravity of this moment. That's really what's at stake in the decision that the Congress face.

Syria, bottom line is important to America and our security if many reasons. First, you can't overlook the danger that these weapons, as you said in the Syria Accountability Act, pose to the Middle East, to our allies, to our friends.

You can't overlook the threat that they face even to the United States ultimately if they fall into the wrong hands or if they are used with impunity.

Since President Obama's policy is that Assad must go, it's not insignificant that to deprive or degrade Assad's chemical weapons deprives him of a lethal weapon in this ongoing civil war.

In addition we have important strategic national security interests, not just in preventing the proliferation of chemical weapons, but to avoid the creation of a safe haven or a base of operations for extremists, al Nusra, others, to use these chemical weapons either against us or against our friends.

Forcing Assad to change his calculation about his ability to act with impunity can contribute to his realization that he cannot gas or shoot his way out of his predicament.

Syria is also important because quite simply, and I can't say this strongly enough to all of you. Many of you are parents and you know how lessons are learned by children. Many of you at school may have confronted, at one point or time, a bully on the block or in the building.

I think, quite simply, common sense and human experience and reality tell us that the risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting. If we don't take a stand here today, I guarantee you we are more likely to face far greater risks to our security and a far greater likelihood that demands our action in the future.

Why? Because we, as confidently as we know what happened in Damascus on August 21st, we know that Assad will read our silence, our unwillingness to act, as a signal that he can use his weapons with impunity.

After all has been said and done, if we don't know now, knowing that he's already done this at least 11 times that our intelligence community can proven, then here in this grotesque larger event, larger than anything that's happened before, if we back down, if the world backs down, we've sent an unmistakable message of permissiveness.

Iran, I guarantee you, is hoping we look the other way, and surely they will interpret America's unwillingness to act against weapons of mass destruction as an unwillingness to act against weapons of mass destruction.

And we will fight for the credibility to make a deterrent against a nuclear weapons as meaningful as it should be without that fight.

North Korea is hoping for ambivalence from the Congress. They're all listening for our silence.

So the authorization that President Obama seeks is distinctly and clearly in our national interest, in our national security interest. We need to send to Syria and the world, to dictators and terrorists, to allies and civilians alike, the unmistakable message that when we say never again, we actually don't mean sometimes. We don't mean somewhere. We mean never again.

So this is a vote for accountability. The norms and the laws of the civilized world, that's what this vote is for.

And if we don't answer Assad today, we will erode the standard that has protected our troops for a century. Our troops, our troops in war have been protected by the existence of this prohibition, through World War II, through Korea, through Vietnam, through both Iraq wars.

The fact is we have not seen chemical weapons in the battlefield but for the two occasions I mentioned previously. Our troops are protected. This is a standard that we need to enforce to stand up for America's interests.

And I will say to you unequivocally that our allies and our partners are counting on us. The people of Israel, Jordan and Turkey each look next door and they see chemical weapons being used. They are one stiff breeze away from the potential of those weapons harming them.

They anxiously await our assurance that our word is true, and they await the assurance that if the children lined up in those unbloodied burial shrouds in Damascus were their own children, as they might be if this got out of hand, they want to know that we would keep the world's promise.

As Justice Jackson said in the opening argument at Nuremberg, "The ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, which are inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is to make statesmen responsible to the law."

If the world's worst despots see that they can flout with impunity prohibitions against the world's worst weapons then those prohibitions are rendered just pieces of paper.

That is what we mean by accountability. And that is, I say to all of you respectfully, that is why we cannot be silent.

Let me be very, very clear. When I walked into this room, a person of conscience stood up behind me, as is the ability of people in our country, and that person said, please don't take us to war, don't take us to another war.

I think the three of us sitting here understand that plea as well as any people in this country. Let me be clear. We're not asking America to go to war, and I say that sitting next to two individuals who well know what war is, and there are others here today who know what war is.

They know the difference between going to war and what the president is requesting now. We all agree, there will be no American boots on the ground. The president has made crystal here, we have no intention of assuming responsibility for Assad's civil war. That is not in the cards. That is not what is here.

The president is asking only for the power to make certain that the United States means what we says. He's asking for authorization, targeted and limited, to deter and degrade Bashar al-Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons.

Now I will make it clear. For those that feel more ought to be done or that in keeping with the policy that Assad must go, clearly the degradation of his capacity to use those weapons has an impact on the lethality of the weapons available to him. And it will have an impact on the battlefield.

Just today before coming in here I read an e-mail to me about a general, the minister of defense, former minister or assistant minister, I forget which, who has just detected and is now in Turkey.

And there are other defections that we're hearing about the potential of because of the potential that we might take action.

So there will be downstream impacts that --


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: You've been listening to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, addressing the House committee there.

We're going to have more on the other side of this break. Stay with us.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: And we are going to dip back in. Live coverage. Secretary of State John Kerry testifying before the House committee there. You see protesters behind him with their hands raised. A group - anti-war group called Code Pink. Let's listen in.

HOLMES: We've got Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. It looks like he's taking his position now. Let's listen in to the defense secretary.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joined by General Dempsey from platoon leader to commandant commander. He has served in the United States Army for over 40 years and now serves as a chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

We will go to our secretary of defense, Mr. Hagel, first.

CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Rangel, members of the committee, thank you.

And General Dempsey and I also apologize for being late. The other side of the Capitol held us up. But we are much better for it. So, thank you for your understanding. In the coming days, as we all know, Congress will debate how to respond to the most recent chemical weapons attacks in Syria, a large scale sarin gas assault perpetrated by the Syrian government against its own people. I welcome this debate and I strongly support President Obama's decision to seek congressional authorization for the use of force in Syria.

As each of us knows, committing the country to using military force is the most difficult and important decision America's leaders can make. All of those who are privileged to serve our nation and have the responsibility, in many ways, to serve our country, but the primary responsibility is to ask the tough questions before any military commitment is made. The American people must be assured that their leaders are acting according to U.S. national interests with well- defined military objectives and with an understanding of the risks and consequences involved. The president, along with his entire national security team, asked those tough questions before we concluded that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.

I want to address, very briefly, Mr. Chairman, before we get to your questions, how we reached this decision by clarifying the U.S. interests at stake, our military objectives and the risks of not acting at this critical juncture.

As President Obama said, the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only an assault on humanity, it is a serious threat to America's national security interest and those of our closest allies. The Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons poses grave risk to our friends and partners along Syria's borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. If Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people, we have to be concerned that terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which has forces fighting in Syria, supporting the Assad regime, could acquire them and use them.

This risk of chemical weapons proliferation poses a direct threat to our friends and partners and to U.S. personnel in the region. We cannot afford for Hezbollah or any terrorist group determined to strike the United States to have incentives to acquire or use these chemical weapons. The Syrian regime's actions risk eroding the nearly century told international norm against the use of chemical weapons. A norm that has helped protect United States' forces and our homeland.

Weakening this norm could embolden other regimes to acquire or use chemical weapons. For example, North Korea maintains a massive stockpile of chemical weapons that threaten our treaty ally, the Republic of South Korea and the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed on the border.

I've just returned from Asia, where I had a very serious and long conversation with South Korea's defense minister about the threat that North Korea's stockpile of chemical weapons presents to them. Our allies throughout the world must be assured that the United States will fulfill its security commitments. Given these threats to our national security, the United States must demonstrate, through our actions, that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. The president has made clear that our military objectives in Syria would be to hold the Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks, and deter the regime from further use of chemical weapons. The Department of Defense has developed military options to achieve these objectives and we have positioned U.S. assets throughout the region to successfully execute the mission. We believe we can tee (ph) them with a military action that would be limited in duration and scope. General Dempsey and I have assured the president that U.S. forces will be ready to act whenever the president gives the order.

We're also working with our allies and our partners in this effort. Key partners including France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other friends in the region have assured us of their strong support for U.S. action. In defining our military objectives, we have made clear that we are not seeking to resolve the underlying conflict in Syria through direct military force. Instead, we are contemplating actions that are tailored to respond to the use of chemical weapons. A political solution created by the Syrian people is the only way to ultimately end the violence in Syria. And Secretary Kerry is leading international efforts to help the parties in Syria move toward a negotiated transition.

We're also committed to doing more to assist the Syrian opposition, but Assad must be held accountable for using these weapons in defiance of the international community. Having defined America's interests in our military objectives, we also must examine the risks and the consequences.

As we all know, there are always risks in taking action, but there are also risks within action. The Assad regime, under increasing pressure by the Syrian opposition, could feel empowered to carry out even more devastating chemical weapons attacks. Chemical weapons make no distinction between combatants and innocent civilians and inflict the worst kind of indiscriminate suffering, as we have recently seen. A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitment, including the president's commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

The word of the United States must mean something. It is vital currency in foreign relations and international and allied commitments. Every witness here today, at this table, Secretary Kerry, General Dempsey, myself, as Secretary Kerry has noted, has served in uniform, fought in war and seen its ugly realities up close. We understand that a country faces few decisions as grave as using military force. We are not unaware of the costs and the ravages of war, but we also understand that America must protect its people and its national interests.


HOLMES: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel making his case before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. A case for having military action against Syria in the wake of the deadly chemical attack. Earlier we heard from the secretary of state, John Kerry, making his case for action and being very forceful in saying that the evidence was in. He said only undeniably the Syrian regime carried out that chemical attack. Of course the Russians, they beg to differ. They say they haven't seen the evidence. They're not convinced yet and won't be until they see firm evidence. But John Kerry, of course, he holds a different opinion.

MALVEAUX: And we will continue to watch the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. We're going to take a quick break. Wolf Blitzer will continue our special coverage after the break.