King Urges Cautious Response to Syria on Nerve Gas (Transcript)

Senator Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that the U.S. must be “really careful” in determining its response to evidence from intelligence agencies that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime may have used chemical weapons.

(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)

AL HUNT: We begin the show with Senator Angus King of Maine. Thank you for being here today, Senator.

SENATOR ANGUS KING: Al, what a pleasure.

HUNT: Senator, you gave your maiden speech in the Senate this week. You quoted Lincoln and Madison, even Billy Mays, but it really talked about the - the trade-off between the desirability of checks and balances versus the perils of gridlock. It looks to most in Washington like the latter is dominant, yet you told the Bangor Daily News a few weeks ago you’re optimistic. Why?

KING: Well, there are little - little sort of green shoots. I must say, my optimism rises and falls. Right now I’m at a bit of a low ebb because this past week we’ve had this thing with the - with the Marketplace Fairness Act where a very small group of senators has held things up for - for quite a bit of time. But immigration, bipartisan, eight senators. Now it remains to be seen whether we’re going to be able to pull it off -

HUNT: But that looks promising. Anything else?

KING: Well, we lost on the - on the background checks, but Pat Toomey stepped up. We just didn’t get enough Republican votes on that. But there - there are some discussions. And what I’m finding, it’s very interesting, Al. Because I came down there. You hear all the stuff about the poisonous atmosphere and the partisanship. What I’ve observed is the Senate is very partisan institutionally, but personally it isn’t. It isn’t a poisonous atmosphere personally. There are a lot of relationships. And I get the feeling that people want to be a little more cooperative and work together, particularly at the committee level. But the institution is always pulling us apart.

HUNT: Well, let’s talk about some of the issues that you care about. You’re on the Budget Committee. The president submitted his budget a few weeks ago. Did it go far enough on entitlements?

KING: I think we’re going to - that remains to be seen. I think it’s - it’s going to be - it’s a question of whether the Republicans will say yes. They - the - the question I have is are they really interested in debts and deficit or are they - or is the agenda really just to shrink government?

HUNT: Well, you’re an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, but you have those personal relationships already with some Republicans. Do any of them tell you that they might be willing to go along with taxes if - if the - if entitlements are on the table?

KING: What I’ve heard informally is if there are - it would be a marriage of the Senate budget and the House budget. The House - the Ryan budget, interestingly, raises a lot of new revenues, but it turns around and gives it all back in the form of very large tax cuts. The Senate raises revenues, not as much, from tax expenditures, loopholes and deductions. They put it all toward deficit reduction. To me, as an old deal maker, the deal is, OK, let’s compromise between those two. Have - have some tax reduction and some deficit reduction from new -

(CROSSTALK)

KING: I think it’s possible.

HUNT: You do? Better than 50/50?

KING: I don’t know if I’d put it - I’d put it at 50/50. So much - so much depends on who’s in the room. And - and again, it depends on what their real motivation is going into the room. If the motivation is to make political points and long term, then we’re not going to get it.

HUNT: Let’s talk about a shorter-term issue, the sequestration which almost no one likes. You’ve talked about the bad effects it has on some domestic programs and military programs.

KING: And military.

HUNT: Big clamor now. Let’s do something about the FAA and air traffic controllers. That inconveniences people. That’s part of it, but should you carve that out and not do something at the same time about military, at-risk kids and all the other things affected by sequestration?

KING: I don’t think so. I think - I think the sequestration is terrible. It was designed to be stupid and it is. And yet here we are and everybody’s wringing their hands about it but nobody really wants to step forward. The Senate put forward a proposal. The House put forward a proposal, but neither went anywhere. But the idea - the idea of carving out and saying we can’t do air traffic controllers but it’s OK to lay off - to quit doing Meals on Wheels or lay off Head Start workers, or four out of six air squadrons in Europe are grounded. There - there are some very serious consequences going on. And to just fix the air traffic controllers it seems to me is just - it doesn’t - it makes it even less sensible.

HUNT: Senator, I can see what a bargaining chip you had back in January by looking at the committees you’re on. As well as budget, you’re also on intelligence and armed services.

KING: Putting me on intelligence was Harry Reid’s idea of a sense of humor I think.

HUNT: Well, let me ask you about that. From what you’ve been told, are there any - do you have any concerns about the way the U.S. agencies handled the treatment of that suspected Boston Marathon -

KING: I only have one question, and that is when and how was the decision made to - to Miranda him. They were interrogating him. The FBI interrogated him for 16 hours. They - they got information. The magistrate came in. They gave him his Miranda rights, and my understanding is he’s not talking anymore. Now I don’t think you can hold somebody indefinitely. They were doing it under the public-safety exception that says they wanted to find out if there were other conspirators. This guy’s an American citizen. Fifth Amendment, due process means something. And these people that are saying, well let’s call him an enemy combatant and just put him away forever, I - I - as a person that believes in the Constitution, I have a real problem with that.

HUNT: On the Intelligence Committee, are you convinced that Syria used chemical weapons and there’s persuasive evidence of that?

KING: Convinced is too strong a word. The - I think the - we heard today from John Kerry there is some evidence that it was used. It’s hard to tell exactly. It appears at a minor level, not - not a lot, not a large usage. And we got to be really careful with this. We got to be sure that it really is the regime and not the opposition that is planting evidence in order to draw us in. This is - these are very serious consequences.

HUNT: If we do find that there was chemical weapons used, the administration has said that’s a red line. They’ve drawn a red line there. What should be the U.S. response?

KING: Well, that - that’s - there are so many different options, and there is no - I can tell you there’s no good option, at least that I’ve seen. This is -

HUNT: Do you worry about arming the opposition?

KING: I do, because we don’t know who they are. We’ve already had the experience in Afghanistan of arming the opposition and then having those arms used against us five or 10 years later. So I think that’s a - and what I’m hearing is that the opposition is armed and they’re getting arms from other people. They don’t necessarily have to get arms from us. But I think, frankly, one of the most important things we could do is humanitarian aid. But this’ll amaze you, Al. The fourth largest city in Jordan today is the refugee camp. And that’s a tinderbox. We’ve got to help them with that.

HUNT: Is there an equal danger of drawing a red line and then not doing anything?

KING: Of course there is. And - and - but I think if you’re going to draw a red line, you’d better be sure it’s crossed before you start doing anything significant. But the other problem is the opposition wins. We all want Assad out. The opposition wins and the country fragments. Then who’s going to get control of those chemical weapons? The - ideally if we can say, OK, we’re going to drop in the paratroopers, we’re going to secure the chemical weapons, but every military person I’ve talked to says there’s no such thing as a surgical strike.

HUNT: Let me ask you, from what you - you’ve looked at another issue in your committees, drones. Are - is the U.S. drone policy killing more terrorists or is it creating more terrorists?

KING: That’s a - that’s - that’s the dilemma. I saw a story last night of a guy from Yemen who basically said the drones radicalized his village, and they were always pro-American. That’s a tough call because the drone program has been very effective in essentially decimating al-Qaeda. And I got in trouble on television a couple of months ago by saying it was a more civilized form of - of combat than shelling a whole city. You can look at the pictures of Atlanta after Sherman and there was nothing left. If you can take out that - that enemy combatant who’s planning these attacks against the US, that’s OK.

I’ll tell you, Al, I think the bigger issue with drones is coming, and it’s going to be local. Every police force in America is going to want drones for surveillance.

HUNT: Not armed drones.

KING: Not armed, but for surveillance.

HUNT: Well let me stay on armed drones for a second.

KING: They now have drones that looks like hummingbirds. They hang right outside your kitchen window.

HUNT: But has the Obama administration, I’m talked about armed drones now, the killing drones, have they been sufficiently open, transparent with Congress and the public?

KING: Well, I - I don’t think they’ve been fully transparent with the public because parts of it are classified.

HUNT: How about with Congress?

KING: I think they’ve been pretty forthcoming with Congress. Not the entire Congress perhaps, but the intelligence committees, the leadership. And - and to their credit, they have gone pretty far in developing what amounts to a playbook about what’s the checklist before you can do this. And it’s - it’s a - basically this is uncharted territory. This is a new weapon. And - and I don’t think we can say we’re never going to - everybody gets the creeps from drones. There’s just something about it that we just don’t like. But on the other hand, it can be a very effective weapon if deployed. And I think there’s no question it’s had a lot to do with the very strong taking out of the leadership of al-Qaeda.

Now here’s the problem. I asked one of the witnesses in the hearing, I said, you must feel like you’re dealing with the hydra. Remember the hydra? Cut off the head, two grow back. That’s the problem that we have. And I think we got to talk about what is causing these people to be radicalized and how do we - how do we deal with that. Because this -this organization and these terrorist organizations are just metastasizing. And two guys in Boston pop up. That’s - that’s a real concern.

HUNT: Senator Angus King of Maine, thank you so much for being with us.

***END OF TRANSCRIPT***

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