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Rep. Alan Grayson talks to TRNN about how evidence against Assad is not certain and how American exceptionalism needs to be redefined

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux on Capitol Hill.

We had the opportunity to talk to Congressman Grayson of Florida to get his comments about the potential of military intervention in Syria. Let’s take a listen to what he had to say.


So, Congressman, my first question is about the briefings that you’ve attended. Obviously, the American public hasn’t been able to be privy to this information. Based on the meetings that you’ve attended and the classified information that you’ve seen, do you have certainty that President Assad was behind the chemical attacks?

ALAN GRAYSON, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE (D-FL): Well, if you’re talking about Assad ordering the chemical attacks, the answer is no. And, in fact, all we received, all members of Congress have received, even though we each have classified clearance, is the four-page public document that’s declassified that everyone’s had available to them, plus a 12-page summary, without any of the underlying intelligence reports. That’s what’s available to us. We are in essence being asked to vote to go to war on the basis of 16 pages prepared only by the proponents.

Now, you can see the four-page document. You can see that it only makes the case for war without giving you the other side of the story. I can’t tell you what’s in the 12-page document, but you can draw your own conclusions about that. Even though we have a legal right through our classified clearance to see the underlying documents, the intelligence reports, the SIGINT, the HUMINT, to see these things underneath it all, we haven’t been given any of that. In fact, German intelligence, it’s been reported through Reuters and The Guardian, has indicated through their intelligence that Assad did not order the attack and in fact ordered that there be no attack and that this was in essence a rogue operation. Frankly, it’s disturbing and disappointing to me to see that we get information like that through Reuters and through The Guardian from German intelligence rather than through our own intelligence.

And I think that a great nation like ours needs to have a rational decision-making process when deciding on war and peace. That means giving the decision-makers all the relevant information and letting us make up our minds.

DESVARIEUX: Have you been able to ask the White House for more information? And part two of my question is that there was a report by Gareth Porter from IPS, and he states that essentially the White House culled the information in the public intelligence report, essentially questioning whether or not the White House omitted certain information in order to make sure that they were making the case to strike Syria.

GRAYSON: Well, as you can see from the public document, the four-page document that was released, they’ve omitted all of the information that goes against their case. There’s not a single bit of contrary information in that document. And many members of Congress now, including whole committees in Congress, have asked the administration to provide the underlying intelligence, the signal intelligence, the human intelligence, and so on, and at least let us, through our classified clearance, see the reality of the situation. And so far, after a week of requests, they said they were going to do it and they haven’t done it.

DESVARIEUX: Also, the prevailing theory on all of this is that we are hoping to strike Assad in order to weaken him, but we don’t want to arm the rebels. What do you make of that theory?

GRAYSON: Well, in fact, at least with regard to most Democrats whom I talked to, that’s the real flaw here. The specific military plan that the president’s proposing is one that just won’t work. In fact, it’ll make things worse. And when you compare that to other alternatives, it’s clear that it’s fruitless and dangerous.

The president and members of the administration go out of their way to avoid talking about what will happen the day after the attack. We haven’t heard any discussion about a counterattack on our fleet. We haven’t heard any discussion about a counterattack on our embassy in Beirut, which is 15 miles away from the Syrian border and just down the block from Hezbollah. We haven’t heard any discussion about what would happen if there were attacks on U.S. civilians in these countries, what would happen when Iran is called upon through its Syrian-Iran joint defense treaty to go ahead and defend Syria against an attack by the United States, and on and on like that. The risks are enormous, the disadvantages are enormous, and the administration has simply avoided discussion about that, even with members of Congress. And that’s why as of this morning you see by going to the Washington Post website that there’s only 26 members of the House of Representatives who are in favor of this and 251 against.

DESVARIEUX: So, essentially the president doesn’t have the votes in the House to get this strike approved. In your opinion, what do you anticipate the president’s next move be if diplomatic efforts fail?

GRAYSON: Exactly what we’ve always done in situations like this. I can’t remember any time in my lifetime when we thought that there was an attack in a civil war, through chemical weapons or otherwise, that resulted in us bombing one side. I just don’t remember that ever happening. I do remember us being involved in one war after another war after another war, apparently every 40 months for the past decade or more, going back actually many decades.

But the fact is we’ve never done this before. Instead what we’ve done in circumstances like this is that we have activated international tribunals. We have tried to bring the specific perpetrators to justice in international courts. We’ve done something for the living. You know, we have increased in the past humanitarian aid refugees. Here, 2 million refugees outside the country, four and a half million inside the country. Thirty percent of the population of Syria has now lost its homes. And we could do something for those people and relieve the suffering of those who are still alive.

In addition to that, we can actually engage in meaningful diplomacy to see if we can come up with meaningful results, not just to prevent or deter another attack like this, but actually to end the civil war, to end the dictatorship, to see if we can reach a point where the people in Syria can live in peace. And that’s what I propose to do. I think that the Russian plan to take away the chemical weapons from the government in Syria actually underscores the weaknesses of the president’s proposed attack and military intervention by the United States and Syria. We have one plan that actually would prevent a new chemical warfare attack and one plan that would not.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s talk more about Russia. How do you assess their role in all of this?

GRAYSON: Well, I think that the Russians are as disturbed as anyone by the possibility that chemical weapons have fallen into the hands of the rebels. The Russians provided a 100-page report to the United Nations, unlike, unfortunately, our administration, in which they laid out the case that (A) the rebels already had chemical weapons and (B) they’ve already used them. And when you ask the administration, well, what happens if the rebels use chemical weapons, are we going to bomb them also, bomb both the government and the rebels, all you get is sort of blank stares in response. They just can’t seem to think that scenario through.

But the Russians are concerned about this because the rebels are the same people whom the Russians have been fighting in Chechnya. They are radical Sunni groups that resort to violence. Many of the people that the Syrian government are fighting now in Syria are in essence graduates of al-Qaeda, the same people who have been attacking the Russians in their own heavily Muslimed southern provinces. So, essentially the Russians are concerned about their own national security and their bottom lines. They don’t want to see any chance that the weapons that we’re talking about here, the chemical weapons, will fall into the hands of people who are hostile to them. And that includes the rebels. So what the Russians want to do is they want to make sure that the chemical weapons have a secure chain of command.

One of the great flaws in the administration’s military plans, as many members have said publicly, is that it makes it more likely, not less likely, that the rebels will end up with these chemical weapons.

We can’t actually bomb the weapons. That would lead to a mushroom cloud of poison gas rolling over the landscape. We can’t do that. We have no way to even reduce the stockpile of weapons. All we can do is attack the Syrian army members who are in custody of those weapons, the command-and-control structure of the Syrian army that actually is holding on to those weapons. As we attack that command-and-control structure, we weaken it and therefore make it more likely that the rebels can actually capture those weapons.

DESVARIEUX: And when it comes to the rebels, we know that Saudi Arabia is backing them. How much is what is transpiring right now being driven by Saudi Arabia?

GRAYSON: Well, initially this was simply an economic collapse within Syria. Syria has a drought, had a drought beginning two years ago. The farm population, which is very substantial in Syria even today, the non-urban population, has been unable to feed itself. So that in combination with the events of the Arab Spring led the basic population to no longer accept the regime as legitimate.

Initially what happened was that the army itself fragmented. The so-called Free Syrian Army consists largely of defectors from the Assad regime. But over time what has happened is that the rebels have been populated by people, fighters who are on the payroll of Saudi Arabia, Qatar (this is all according to public reports), other Gulf states, who are hiring basically what amounts to mujahideen to go and fight against the Assad government to Syria.

Over time what’s happened is that this has evolved into a proxy battle between the Shiites and Sunnis, a battle that goes back literally 1,300 years. On the one hand, we have the Syrian government, which consists largely of Alawites, a sect that is generally aligned with the Shiites, and we have them working together with Iran, which is Shiite, and Hezbollah, which is Shiite, within Lebanon. Against them are arrayed the Gulf states, which are Sunni. So we have a Shiite-Sunni proxy battle going on right now.

And historically both of those entities, both the Shiites and Sunnis, both of them have been enemies to the United States. The Shiites have some of the best terrorists in the entire world working under Hezbollah’s wing. The Sunnis, actually, the Sunni mujahideen essentially perpetrated 9/11 against us. So both of those historically are our enemies. They both make very radical statements against the United States. Now, even the Free Syrian Army, which is supposedly the moderate opponents to the regime, their leader recently said, General Idris recently said that Israel is a sworn enemy, and he wants to see Israel destroyed. So these are the moderates. And we are essentially in a situation that’s a no-win situation for us and for American strategic interests, and we need to find a way to make it better, not make it worse.

DESVARIEUX: So you watched the president’s speech last night, and he said that the United States has the moral authority to be the policeman of the world and that our credibility with the world is at stake here. But how can the United States talk about credibility when one of our closest allies in the region is Saudi Arabia, who doesn’t have the cleanest record, obviously, on human rights?

GRAYSON: Well, of course, many Americans, probably most Americans don’t want us to be the policeman of the world. They don’t want us to be the judge, the jury, and the executioner whenever anything goes wrong in the world. And many Americans in particular think that you can’t solve the world’s problems with bombs and missiles, that that is not the way to go. And it’s understandably so.

But the underlying question, I think is: do we really look like a moral authority when we act alone, when we know that large portions of the world are against the action that we’re taking? And, by the way, international public opinion polls are overwhelmingly against U.S. military intervention in Syria, as our own are. Do we show strength to the world when the government acts in a way that’s contrary to the desires of the overwhelming majority of the U.S. population? Our website has attracted almost 100,000 people who’ve signed our petition. Many members have reported that the calls to their office, the emails to their office are running 100 to 1 or more against this. The president himself pointed out that America’s strongest when America’s unified. America definitely is not unified behind this attack, even having heard the president.

And, frankly, we don’t strengthen our position in the world or our reputation in the world by doing what state senator Brack Obama in 2003 called a dumb war. The war in Iraq, for instance, to a great degree held us up to ridicule in the rest of the world. We attack and occupy a country on the basis of weapons of mass destruction they simply don’t have, and then we stay there for ten years wreaking havoc with the local population, utterly destroying their water supply, their electricity supply, their public safety, the basic things that they need in life, and we leave a country behind that is broken and in fact shattered into ethnic groups that are at war with each other. I don’t think that did us any good in our reputation.

We look better to the world when we do smart things. We look worse to the world when we do dumb things. The reason why there’s now 253 members of Congress who are against this who are members of the House and only 26 in favor of it is because having looked at the specific plans of the administration, people here think this is dumb.

DESVARIEUX: Do you think it’s in the American people’s interests, not just America’s interests (we’re not talking about the military-industrial complex), but the American people’s interests to actually be the dominant player in the region?

GRAYSON: Well, that’s an interesting question. I guess it’s premised upon the idea that we can be the dominant power in the region, and that’s an interesting question itself in terms of what that means.

I think that we certainly have more military force then anyone in the region. To some degree we lose our moral suasion by resorting constantly to bombs and to missiles rather than to food and to medical aid. I think that that would create a power in the region, because we would be aligned with people’s needs and people’s feelings that we don’t have right now.

I definitely think that we need to do whatever we need to do to protect our allies. We have treaties with Israel, treaties with Turkey. We are very close to Jordan historically. Jordan has been an ally historically. So it is useful for us to be able to protect our allies from attack.

One of the most disturbing things about this proposed attack is the fact that the Israeli government has found the need to facilitate the distribution of gas masks to its own population because what they expect is that if we attack Syria, then Syria will attack Israel. So are we protecting our allies or putting our allies at risk through an attack like this?

I have to tell you honestly that when we are three weeks away from a government shutdown, when we are five weeks away from the government running out of money when we hit the national debt limit, maybe it’s time for us to think about our own needs. I think it–I’m proud of the fact that the United States is the number-one country in the world. But I don’t want us just to be number one in military power. I don’t want us to be number one in the number of prisoners that we have in this country. I want us to be number one in health care, number one in life expectancy, number one in education, number one in wealth, number one in standard of living. That’s what I want to see us concentrate on. And I think at this point with these deadlines facing us and so many things on our plate, it’s time we took care of ourselves.

DESVARIEUX: Thank you for joining us, Congressman Grayson. We really appreciate having you on The Real News.

And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Alan Grayson is the U.S. Representative for Florida's 9th District. He was sworn in to office on January 3, 2013. Congressman Grayson serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as the Science and Technology Committee. Alan previously represented Florida’s 8th District in the 111th Congress.  During his first term, he served on the Financial Services and the Science and Technology Committees, as well as the Subcommittees on Capital Markets and on Oversight and Investigations.