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Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff Responds To Syria Airstrikes


President Trump's decision to order missile strikes last night against a Syrian air base is for many people a surprising turn for this president's foreign policy. The lawmakers responding include Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, who's the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He joins us via Skype. Congressman, welcome back to the program.

ADAM SCHIFF: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

INSKEEP: Do you approve of this action, responding to an apparent chemical weapons attack?

SCHIFF: Something had to be done about the chemical weapons attack. And if this is designed to deter Syria from using chemical weapons, it may very well have that intended effect. If the president means to do more than that, if this is an effort to begin a military campaign against the regime to change the regime, that I think is a big problem because that's not something that can be accomplished by launching cruise missiles from the sea.

That would really embroil us in that Syrian civil war to a far greater degree than we are already. And that would be a great concern. Either way, Congress hasn't authorized any of the military action going on in Syria. And Congress needs to get off the sidelines.

INSKEEP: So you want congressional involvement for anything more than a strike like one last night?

SCHIFF: Absolutely. In fact, we're derelict in not being involved much earlier. This is unfortunately a precedent that the Obama administration set by engaging military forces, using - relying on these old authorizations to use force that really do not apply. And Congress acquiesced in that. Congress has given up its institutional role as a check and balance when it comes to war making. And Congress needs to stand up, propose something, take a vote, put legislators on record. That's really our constitutional obligation.

INSKEEP: Do you have any insight, Congressman, through your work on the Intelligence Committee as to why it would be that Syria still had chemical weapons after the government said it had given them all up and whether Russia was aware that Syria still had chemical weapons?

SCHIFF: Well, certainly Syria concealed some of its chemical weapons. And I think their strategy all along has been a scorched earth one. Use every means to kill, annihilate, terrorize, demoralize the opposition. And they had the Russians helping them, the Iranians helping them. Certainly the Russians are aware that Syria had remaining chemical weapons. Certainly they were aware that Syria was using them. And they were OK with that because they felt up until last night that the Americans wouldn't do anything about it. That was part of the Russian and Syrian calculus.

The Russians have been bombing civilians in Syria for quite some time, so they don't have much concern over the loss of innocent life. But now that - this is going to change that calculus. The danger is, of course, with anything like this, even though your object may be to deter the use of chemical weapons, there can be far reaching and unforeseeable consequences. And we have to hope that the Russians understand this means we're not going to tolerate chemical weapons but don't take retaliatory action.

INSKEEP: Congressman, I want to ask about your committee as well. Some people will know that your chairman, after a controversial couple of weeks, Devin Nunes has recused himself from the Russia investigation. Does this mean that you can now have a bipartisan investigation after all in the House?

SCHIFF: I think it does put us back on track. And I'm sure it was a very difficult decision for the chairman, but it's the right decision. We really had a cloud lingering over us after that trip that he made to the White House and everything around it. This now puts us back on a much better footing.

INSKEEP: But Republicans and Democrats still don't agree on what they're supposed to be investigating. You want a probe of Russian interference in the election and whether there was some kind of collusion with the Trump campaign. Republicans want to focus on whether there was some kind of leakage of names or unmasking of names and classified information during the Obama administration.

SCHIFF: Well, you know, that difference in perspective about which are the most important issues, that is going to exist and has existed from the beginning of this investigation. And that's OK. We had agreed to investigate and oversee all of these issues. And as long as we do that, I think it's perfectly fine if different members placed a different priority on where they think the investigation should place its greatest emphasis.

From my point of view, what the Russians did, how they did that, whether they had the help of U.S. persons, these are among the most important issues. So I'm determined that we not lose sight of that, not lose our focus on what matters most in the context of the Russian intervention, and that is just how they accomplished this unprecedented hacking of American democracy.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, do you believe that Mike Conaway, the new leader of the investigation, is serious about investigating Russia?

SCHIFF: Look. I think he's a serious guy. He's a pretty straightforward guy. We've had a good working relationship in the past. And he told me yesterday he's determined to follow the facts wherever they lead. So that's the assumption that we operate on going forward. And it's my hope that we can restore the kind of comity between the parties that we've had in the pass and do a credible and thorough investigation. That's going to be our goal. And it's a heavy responsibility.

INSKEEP: Congressman Adam Schiff of California, thanks very much.

SCHIFF: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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