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CNN Live Event/Special

Senate Hearing On Syria Military Action

Aired September 03, 2013 - 16:30   ET


SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: We were talking about potential for boots on the ground.

Secretary Kerry, I'm very glad to hear you're bringing into the equation what I think is our number one national security interest, and that is those chemical weapons falling in the hands of al Qaeda elements, or possibly even Hezbollah. What commitment do we have long-term to make sure that doesn't happen? And if you have a very limited resolution here, how do we know that we will prevent that from happening?

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Senator Johnson, this is -- this moment in time, and as the president has said, he is asking for a limited military response, recognizing that neither he nor most of America want to be dragged into a civil war in Syria.

JOHNSON: But our goal is to get rid of Assad.

KERRY: Our goal is to help the opposition. There are lots of -- I mean, you have to look, overall, the president and, I think, all of us agree -- I mean, can you imagine Assad running Syria? Can you imagine this man who has gassed --

JOHNSON: Again - again, I'm trying to reconcile why, if we're going to go in there militarily, if we're going to strike, why wouldn't we try to do some kind of knockout punch? Is it because we simply have no faith that there's anybody on the ground, the rebels, to take --

KERRY: No, no, absolutely --

JOHNSON: Or is it not ready for a regime change? Is that the problem?

KERRY: No, Senator, that's not the reason. The reason is that the president is listening to the American people and has made a politics decision in addition that that is not something that the United States of America needs to engage in or ought to engage in. .

JOHNSON: But it's the same goal.

KERRY: That is a much broader operation

Well, it is. It is, Senator. Is the Congress of the United States ready to pay for 30 days of 30,000 air strikes to take out -- and is there a legal justification for doing that? And you can run through a whole series of different questions here that are very serious about what you're talking about. JOHNSON: What do we know about the opposition? I mean, have we been tracking them for the last two years? I mean, it seems more of an impression I have as opposed to any exact knowledge. But it seems like initially the opposition was maybe more Western leading, more moderate, more democratic. As time has gone by, it's degraded and become more infiltrated by al Qaeda. Is that basically true or --

KERRY: No, that is actually basically not true. It's basically incorrect. The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to a democratic process and to an all- inclusive, minority-protecting constitution that will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.

JOHNSON: Secretary Hagel --

KERRY: Let me just finish one other important -- about the opposition. It's my understanding, because I talked to the president of the opposition yesterday. He's in Germany now. He's meeting with the German parliament. He's coming to Great Britain. He will be meeting with the parliament in Great Britain, and he's prepared to come here as soon as those meetings are over in order to meet with you. And you can have the opportunity to talk to President Jarver and meet with the opposition and have a much better sense of who they are.

JOHNSON: We'll appreciate that. Secretary Hagel, do you have a feel for the number of the members of the opposition? How large is their force?

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I don't know the numbers. Our intelligence communities have estimates of those numbers. But I think as Secretary Kerry said, the momentum has shifted in the opinion of our intelligence community and others who are close to the situation --

JOHNSON: I'm kind of a numbers guy. General Dempsey, do you know the force strength of the rebel forces?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHAIRMAN OF THE CHIEFS OF STAFF: I don't have them committed to memory.

JOHNSON: But we have them?

DEMPSEY: Yes. The intelligence community has that available. We'll make it available tomorrow?

JOHNSON: Do you have an idea of how many would be considered moderate versus elements of al Qaeda?

DEMPSEY: I have seen documents that lay that out.

JOHNSON: How do we know that Hezbollah, because they've been so cooperative with the Assad regime - how do we know that they already don't have access to chemical weapons? Do we have any feel for that at all? KERRY: I think we need to talk about that in our classified session. But let me just say to you that in terms of the opposition numbers, you see ranges up to 80,000; 90,000; 100,000 in total opposition. You see ranges from -- well, I don't want to go into all the numbers. But in the tens of thousands in the number of operative, active combatants. I've seen some recent data on the numbers of the extremists now this (INAUDIBLE) actually lower than former expectations.

I would also say to you, Syria, historically, has been secular. And the vast majority of Syrians, I believe, want to remain secular. It's our judgment that -- and the judgment of our good friends who actually know a lot of this, in many ways, better than we do because it's their region, their neighborhood. I'm talking about the Saudis, the Emirateis, the Qataris, the Turks, the Jordanians, they all believe if you could have a fairly rapid transition, the secular component of Syria will reemerge, and you will isolate --

JOHNSON: OK. That tends to argue for a most robust response.

Final question. You say this is the world's red line. I agree. So in the intervening time period before we potentially act here, how much additional countries will be supportive of this action? What is your goal? What do we have right now, and what is your goal?

KERRY: Well, our goal is to have a broad of coalition of support of what we might do is as possible. And we're working that right now. But the military and the president are going to have to decide how many they actually want to have take part in the action. As I said, we already have more partners ready to do something kinetic than the military feels, under this particular operation, we need to effect that.

Now, obviously, we want them to participate, because we want it to be a broad coalition. But the final numbers will have to be decided by the president and by the specific operation that he defines, together with you in the authorization.

JOHNSON: OK, I look forward to tomorrow's briefing. Thanks.


SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Chairman Menendez. I would like to thank Secretaries Kerry and Hagel and Chairman Dempsey for your service to your nation, for your testimony in front of us today. I think the authorization of the use of force, I think the commitment of American's military strength is one of the most important issues that we will ever debate in this Congress, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have this conversation today. As secretary Kerry said, in his opening testimony, not just what we decide, but how we decide it, will send a very important message around the world, that this Congress can still function in a nonpartisan way, in the interest of the people of the United States.

As I've listened to Delawarians in recent days, I think they reflect a nation that is weary of war and that is wary of inadvertently repeating some of the challenges of our engagement in Iraq. I've heard specific and pointed concerns that we not rush into action, based on uneven or inaccurate intelligence, that we not be drawn into a civil war we don't fully understand or where we can't quite discern the good guys from the bad guys. And more than anything, that we not commit to an open-ended participation, a direct military invasion in an occupation of a country in a part of the world that is often confounding and is full of competing priorities.

Having reviewed the intelligence this morning in a classified briefing, having participated in a number of briefings from you and from folks leading in your agencies and departments, I am persuaded that this is not that circumstance. That the intelligence is solid. That we have, in this distance, a clear violation of a long-standing global red line against the use of chemical weapons. As you've stated, something embedded in America's statutes and in our treaty commitments, something that is a truly global standard.

My view, as I've watched both the images on TV that were presented at the beginning of this hearing, and as I've spoken to family and friends and neighbors at home, is that we face a real risk here if we do not act. That this is an instance where one of the world's worst dictators has steadily ratcheted up an ascending crescendo of death in his own nation. He began with thugs, police, and the military taking on peaceful demonstrations, graduated to snipers, killing innocent civilians. Has used helicopters and jet fighters against his own people, has deployed cluster bombs and scud missiles. I think over the last two years, there is no doubt that Bashar al Assad and his regime is willing to go to any lengths to stay in power.

So the challenge now for those of us who seek an appropriate path forward is to make sure that we craft an authorization for the use of military force that responds to American's legitimate concerns but still allows the administration to act in a decisive and timely way to both deter and punish the Assad regime for what they've done.

So I have a few questions for you if I might. First to General Dempsey. And I know we've spoken to this before, but I think it is worth repeating. How do we strike the right balance between military action that is too insignificant to actually effectively deter or degrade Assad's capabilities and one that is so decisive and overwhelming that it reaches beyond the scope of an authorization and becomes actually a regime change effort.

DEMPSEY: Well, Senator, I won't recommend an option or a set of targets that won't effectively deter and degrade. That's the task that I've been given. And now we'll continue to refine that, not just based on intelligence, but based on the resolution that comes out of this committee.

COONS: And could you, in your view, accomplish that mission with an authorization that is limited in scope, in terms of a time duration, and in scope as has been discussed with Secretary Kerry in terms of not introducing U.S. troops on the ground?

DEMPSEY: Well, it won't surprise you to know that as the military leader responsible for this, the more -- the broader the resolution, the less limiting, the better off I will be in crafting a set of options. But I completely -- I defer to the secretary of state to give me what I need to do then.

COONS: Well, if I might then to Secretary Kerry, because our goal here is to not pass or even consider an authorization that is so narrow that it prevents any effective message to be sent here. As you said, in a compelling way in your opening statement, our actions are not just meant to deter Assad but to send a strong message to Pyongyang, to Tehran, to non-state actors around the world who might use chemical weapons or might seek nuclear weapons. How do we craft an authorization, how do we take actions that are effective in deterring other countries that are watching our decisiveness and our action in this instance?

KERRY: I think the language that the administration submitted with respect to the military action necessary to degrade and deter and prevent the use of chemical weapons, specifically, is very targeted.

But as I've said several times now and will repeat again, I know the administration has zero intention of putting troops on the ground, and within the confines of this authorization, I'm confident would have zero problem in including some kind of prohibition there, if that makes you comfortable.

I would not urge an excessively pinpointed congressionally mandated set of targets. And I think in the course of the classified briefings, the intelligence community and the military community will make it very clear to you why that's not advisable. And I think they have to have some -- the general needs some latitude here to be able to make sure he can accomplish his task. But I think the broad confines and constraints of this particular operation are not hard for us to arrive at in agreement, and I'm confident we'll do it very quickly.

COONS: Thank you.

One of my other concerns, Mr. Secretary, is the flood of refugees and their impact on the region. In a visit in January to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, I was moved both by the humanitarian situation they're facing and by the very real impact that this is having on our regional allies. On Jordan, on Turkey, the destabilizing impact on Lebanon, and of course, the real impact it's potentially going to have on our close ally, Israel.

I was encouraged to hear there was successful missile defense system test earlier today. Secretary Hagel, what steps are we taking to ensure that our allies in this immediate area of Turkey and Jordan and Israel are able to defend themselves from a potential response by the Assad regime?

HAGEL: Well, Senator, first, Jordan, you know we have Patriot Missile defense batteries in Jordan. And we also are working very closely with the Israelis. You know they have a very sophisticated Iron Dome and aero-system missile defense system. We are in constant coordination with all the allies in the region. And as you may know, General Dempsey was just in Jordan for a commander's meeting, which included all the senior military from the neighboring countries and our partners. So we are closely connected with and assisting our allies on this and other issues.

COONS: Thank you.

Last question, Secretary Kerry, if I might. I am interested in our having a follow-on conversation about how this specific strike and this specific authorization that you're seeking can also lead to a broader strategy, a strategy for support and engagement with the opposition that will lead to the diplomatic resolution of the Syrian civil war that you've spoken about repeatedly.

I don't think these are mutually exclusive. I do think it's possible for us to take action that reinforces a global red line against chemical weapons use but to still continue to strengthen and broaden our engagement with the opposition in a way that moves towards a post- Assad Syria that is sustainable and secure. And I look forward to your input with us on your next hearing on that topic.

KERRY: Absolutely, Senator, I look forward to it, too. What I'd like to do is get the whole committee maybe to come down to the department, and we can have this discussion in that confine, as a committee, also. And I think that might be helpful, in addition to what we do in the classified briefing tomorrow.

COONS: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, if you want to do that, I'm happy to do that.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you all for your testimony. And I want to thank you, particularly the State Department, for making information available with regard to un- classifying certain information and also for the classified hearings that have taken place with regard to the chemical attack. I think that one would have to suspend disbelief, as you mentioned, to assume that the regime was not in charge of this.

Secretary Kerry, in your initial testimony, you ask us to ask ourselves what Assad's calculation would be if we failed to act. I think that's an appropriate question. But I think it is appropriate for us to ask you or the administration, what is the calculation of Assad right now, when rather than after we have proof that he did engage in what he engaged in, then we're waiting for a congressional authorization.

I think one would have to suspend disbelief to assume that we wouldn't be better off attacking those targets right now or a week ago than waiting three weeks for Congress to take action. And just drawing some parallel to the conflict in Libya, I think the president's statement was before we went ahead and engaged in combat there, or at least along with NATO, the president said, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves to take action.

And did so without congressional authorization, under the war powers resolution, we had some dispute when he came back, but initially, we went ahead, here, we have evidence that chemical weapons were used, and how can we assure or tell our constituents that this isn't political, when we come, when you come, when the administration comes to the Congress, to ask for authorization, to take action that the president clearly has said he has authority to take.

KERRY: Well, Senator Flake, it's somewhat surprising to me, that a member of Congress, particularly one of the Foreign Relations Committee, is going to question the president, fulfilling the vision of the founding fathers when they wrote the constitution and dividing power and foreign policy, to have the president to come here in honor of the original intent of the founding fathers in ways that do not do anything to detract from the mission itself.

General Dempsey will tell you that he advised the president of the United States that not only was there not a deterioration in this mission by waiting, there might even be some advantages. So, in fact, we're not losing anything by waiting, and I personally believe there are advantages. Because we have time to work with our friends in the international community, because we have time to make the case to the American people, and share with them the evidence that we have shared with you in the last days because we have an opportunity to be able to build greater support.

And as the general said, we can adjust to any changes or shifts that they make in that time. This does not in any way deteriorate the fundamental mission of degrading and deterring the use of chemical weapons. Now, if at any moment Assad were foolish enough to believe that this period of waiting was somehow a invitation to do more of his criminal activity that the president of the United States and you will all speed up your process and/or the president would respond immediately. So this is working.

There are defections taking place. There's great uncertainty in Syria. We are building support, a great understanding, and I would far rather be playing our hand than his at this point in time. So I don't think we're losing anything. I think the president made a courageous decision to take the time, to build the strength that makes America stronger by acting in unity with the United States Congress.

FLAKE: If I may, I can certainly understand, if that is a secondary goal or the primary goal that will, in this intervening time, it causes our allies to get with us, it causes Russia to put the pressure on, maybe the Assad regime to get back to the table, peace talks, something like that, that's great. But purely in terms of military strategy, and I don't have a military background, but I would have to suspend disbelief, and I think all of us would, to assume that we are better off in a couple of weeks, doing what we're planning to do, what we will authorization the administration to do.

General Dempsey, is there evidence that the Assad regime is right now moving some of the targets that can be moved or surrounding targets with civilians or others to make it more difficult to give effect to our strategy?

DEMPSEY: Thanks, Senator. First, I do want to, for interest of clarity here, what I actually said to the president is the following. The military resources we have in place can remain in place and when you ask us to strike we will make those strikes effective. In other sessions in the principles committee, not with the president, the president we talked about some targets becoming more accessible than we were before.

But to your question, there is evidence, of course, that the regime is acting not only to the delay, but also they were reacting before that to the very unfortunate leak of military planning. So this is a very dynamic situation.

FLAKE: Secretary Hagel, you seem eager to jump in?

HAGEL: I was just going to add something that you added, Senator, and that is the international community. In addition to what the president has already noted, a nation is always strong when he gets the Congress and the American people with him, to begin with. But also, the international community, as members of the international community with us on this, I think the president feels pretty strongly would be also an important part of whatever decision he might make and it doesn't end with whatever military option the president decides to go, as we've all heard. That's all the more important we would want the international community with us.

FLAKE: Secretary Kerry, what will happen if the congress says no and does not authorize this strike or this use of force? What will the president do?

KERRY: Well, I can't tell you what the president is going to do because he hasn't told me, but the president, as you know, retains the authority, always has the authority, had the authority to strike before coming to Congress and that doesn't change. But I'll tell you what will happen, where it matters, in Pyongyang, in Tehran, in Damascus, folks are stand up and celebrate, and in a lot of other capitals, in parts of the world, people will scratch their heads, and sign a sort of condolence for the loss of America's willingness to stand up and make itself felt where it makes a difference to the world. I think it would be an enormous setback to America's capacity and to our vision in the world, and certainly to the role of leadership, that we play.

FLAKE: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

MENENDEZ: Senator Durbin?

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. On Saturday, I was standing with a group of friends, watching the television screen with the announcement that any minute the president would make a statement and I turned to them and said, I bet the missiles were launch and shot out of hours ago and we'll hear about it now. And to my surprise, of course, the president came forward and said, I have that authority, I've made that decision.

But I'm going to respect our constitutional democracy and give the Congress, that is, the America people through Congress, a voice in this decision. From where I was standing, that was good news because for as long as I have been in Congress, House and Senate, I have argued about that congressional responsibility. Some presidents have respected it, some have not.

Most of the time Congress, in writing or in speeches, insists on being respected and by being given this authority, and then starts shaking when it's given because it calls on us to be part of historic life- and-death decisions. It's one of the toughest calls I'll ever make as members of Congress, but I respect the president for respecting congress and giving us that responsibility.

And I think the turnout today, in midst of a break, is an indication that we're taking this seriously and solemnly. I'll also note to Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel, we all served together some 12 years ago, and faced similar awesome, historic decisions, related to Iraq and Afghanistan. We saw those differently in some respects, but I voted against the Iraqi resolution and going to war in that country and felt that the events that transpired afterwards gave me some justification for my vote.

But I voted for the war in Afghanistan, believing that it was a clear response to 9/11. We were going after those responsible for killing 3,000 innocent Americans and we were going to make them pay a price. I still believe that was the right thing to do. But I didn't know at the time that I voted for that authorization for the use of military force, I was voting for the longest war in the history of the United States and an authorization to several presidents to do things that no one ever could have envisioned at that moment in history.

So Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel, I take this very seriously. I understand this president and I understand his values, but I take it very seriously that the language be as precise as possible when it comes to this whole question of expanding this mission into something much larger, something that would engage us in a new level of warfare or a new authority for this president or a future president.

So I hope that we could have your word and assurance that we can work together in a bipartisan fashion to craft this in a way that carefully achieves our goal, but does not expand authority anywhere beyond what is necessary.

KERRY: Senator, thank you. Very important statement, and you not only have any word that it will not do that, but we will work with you very, very close we, with the White House, in shaping this resolution. There's no hidden agenda. There's no subterfuge. There's no surrogate strategy here. There's one objective and that objective is to make sure we live up to our obligations of upholding the norm with respect to international behavior on the use of chemical weapons and that is what the president is seeking in this authorization.

DURBIN: Let me speak to the issue of chemical weapons. I don't know if General Dempsey or Secretary Hagel or perhaps Secretary Kerry is the appropriate person. The French have done an assessment of what they believe the Syrians have in terms of their chemical weapons arsenal. General Dempsey, are you familiar with it?

DEMPSEY: I'm not familiar with the French assessment. I'm familiar with our own.

DURBIN: Well, let me ask, we have a copy of it here and it's been published and we have talked a lot about sarin gas and other nerve agents. And what we hear from this report, and I ask you if it's close to what your assessment is, the Syrians have more than 1,000 tons of chemical agents and precursor chemicals, several hundred tons of sarin, representing the bulk of their arsenal. It's also been speculated that they have the missile capability of delivering these chemical weapons in Israel, portions of Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and beyond. What is your assessment of their potential when it comes to the delivery and their capacity when it comes to the amount of chemical agents they have available?

DEMPSEY: Our assessment, very closely, matches the French assessment.

DURBIN: I guess my question to you, Mr. Secretary, Secretary Kerry, is in light of the vulnerability of these countries, what has been the response of the Arab and Muslim world to this? You've listed four or five who have stepped forward to say they support our efforts. It would seem that if this danger in the region is so profound, that we would have even greater support.

KERRY: Senator, I think this is something I'd be happier discussing in greater detail with you in the closed session. There are obviously some countries for whom public statements are more complicated than others and I think we should talk about that at the other session.

DURBIN: Fair enough. General Dempsey, we saw these photographs earlier.