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King Urges Cautious Response to Syrian Nerve Gas Reports

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U.S. Senator Angus King of Maine
U.S. Senator Angus King of Maine, a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, drew a parallel to the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan to explain his concern about arming opposition forces. Photographer: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

April 27 (Bloomberg) -- 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, said U.S. Senator Angus King of Maine.

“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,” King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt” airing this weekend. “These are very serious consequences.”

King’s comments followed an April 25 classified briefing for senators in which Secretary of State John Kerry detailed developments in Syria. President Barack Obama is under renewed pressure to intervene from lawmakers including Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has advocated arming Syrian rebels.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed on April 25 that the new intelligence assessment isn’t a sufficient basis for military intervention.

Based on the briefing, King said it was “hard to tell exactly” whether sarin nerve gas had been used, adding that “it appears at a minor level” rather than “a large usage.”

King, a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, drew a parallel to the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan to explain his concern about arming opposition forces.

Arming Opposition

“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,” he said. “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.”

Obama had “better be sure” that the “red line” his administration has drawn regarding the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons has actually been crossed before “doing anything significant,” King said.

Still, ensuring that any chemical weapons have been secured in the event that “the opposition wins and the country fragments” could be a challenge as well, he said.

Obama said yesterday the U.S. will seek confirmation along with the United Nations that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons.

“There are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used,” Obama said yesterday before meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the White House. “All of us -- not just in the United States, but around the world -- recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations,” he said in his first public remarks on Syria since the U.S. disclosed it had evidence of use of chemical weapons. He didn’t specify what action the U.S. might take.

Budget Standoff

Elected in November, King also sits on the Budget Committee and said the odds were 50-50 that Republican and Democratic lawmakers may reach a deficit-reduction accord that would raise tax revenue while cutting rates.

“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,” he said, referring to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

‘Deal Maker’

“The Senate raises revenues, not as much, from tax expenditures, loopholes and deductions,” King said. “They put it all toward deficit reduction. To me, as an old deal maker, the deal is, OK, let’s compromise between those two.”

During his first four months in Congress, King said he’s been surprised to see that his colleagues “want to be a little more cooperative and work together, particularly at the committee level.”

“You hear all the stuff about the poisonous atmosphere and the partisanship,” he said. “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.”

By using armed drones to kill suspected terrorists overseas, the U.S. runs the risk of generating more terrorists, King said.

“That’s the dilemma,” he said. “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.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathleen Hunter in Washington at khunter9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bloomberg.net; Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net

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