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Obama Answers Questions On Syria, Guantanamo, More


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Let's talk about President Obama's news conference this morning on the 100th day of his second term. NPR's David Welna has been listening in this morning. Hi, David.


INSKEEP: The president was immediately asked about the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

WELNA: Yes, he was. And he said that if chemicals weapons were used in Syria, it would be a game-changer. But he was not quite willing to say that they have been used. He warned that if we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence about this, we'd end up in a position where we can't persuade the international community to support what we do.

Of course that's kind of a reminder of what happened with Iraq and a lot of suspicions that the United States did not have the evidence to fight that war. So he said it's important to work in a prudent way and establish with certainty what actually happened and work with countries around Syria to establish those facts.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to the way the president phrased it here.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them. We don't have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened. And when I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I've got to make sure I've got the facts.

INSKEEP: Okay, so there's the president basically saying that he believes chemical weapons were used but he wants the kind of evidence almost that you could put in court before he's willing to say that Syria has crossed this red line that he effectively drew some months ago.

WELNA: Right. He said if I can establish in a way that not only the U.S. but the international community is confident that weapons were used, then it's a game-changer because it portends even more devastating attacks and it raises also the possibility of weapons falling in the wrong hands.

He did not say though which options he has asked the Pentagon to prepare, although he said the Pentagon has at his request prepared options that he has not gone to yet.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's David Welna, who's been listening to President Obama's news conference today on the hundredth day of his second term. Of course the president speaks to reporters at a moment when the fight over immigration is still going on. Capitol Hill has been quiet this week, but we did hear the president talking about immigration in this news conference.

OBAMA: I think it comes to no surprise, neither to the American people but even members of Congress themselves, that right now things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill. Despite that, I'm actually confident that there are a range of things that we're going to be able to get done. I feel confident that the bipartisan work that's been done on immigration reform will result in a bill that passes the Senate, passes the House and gets on my desk. And that's going to be a historic achievement.

INSKEEP: David Welna, is there evidence available to us that would give the president reason for optimism that something will pass?

WELNA: Well, he has already seen that the Senate has taken up the bipartisan Gang of Eight immigration bill. The Judiciary Committee has held three hearings on it. And you have many Republicans, especially since the November election, feeling that they have to do something to stop the bleeding with the Hispanic vote. Mitt Romney got only 27 percent of that vote, and rejecting an immigration overhaul this time for Republicans could erode even further their standing with Latino voters who are a growing part of the electorate.

Because you have that kind of mandate in terms of the resolve of many Republicans to stop that from happening, I think the president is confident that he's going to have bipartisan support for this bill. How many Republicans he's going to get in the House is another question and he said that he hasn't seen what the House is working on in terms of immigration. But he said that if it doesn't meet the criteria he's laid out, he wouldn't support such a bill.

INSKEEP: Okay, just got about 10 seconds, David. Let me ask about one other thing. The president said yet again he still wants to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

WELNA: Yes. He said that it's a blight on this country. He said that it's a security risk also for the country and it's something that after 9/11 it was understandable that people would want to set up such a place in - at the tip of Cuba. But right now it makes no sense. He said that administratively he would push to close it, but he says Congress has to act too.

INSKEEP: Okay. NPR's David Welna, thanks as always.

WELNA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Talking with us about President Obama's new conference. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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