"What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria," he acknowledged before launching a recitation of what he doesn't know. "We don't know how they were used, when they were used, (or) who used them. We don't have a chain of custody that establishes exactly what happened." He stressed that when he is considering military action or taking steps to protect the nation's security, "I've got to make sure I've got the facts."
That, he said, "is what the American people would expect." He warned of the consequences of acting rashly. "If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in the position where we can't mobilize the international community to support what we do."
Unlike what he believes was Bush's rush to war in Iraq, Obama outlined a go-slow reaction to what he calls the "game-changing" use of chemical weapons in Syria. Noting a desire to have regional and international support for any response, he said, "It's important for us to do this in a prudent way." To that end, he said he has ordered his team "to do everything we can to investigate and establish with some certainty what exactly has happened in Syria." He promised to use "all the assets and resources" at his disposal while coordinating with other Middle Eastern countries and the United Nations.
When asked what he means by "game changer," he said he means "that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us." But he refused to talk about the specific options.
The president also was more than willing to outline his differences with Bush policy when asked his reaction to the challenge of so many detainees at the Guantanamo Bay facility maintaining a hunger strike. Currently, 100 of the 166 detainees have refused to eat since Feb. 6, raising concerns that some detainees may die. His response was to cite his 2008 campaign promise to close the facility.
"It is not a surprise to me that we've got problems in Guantanamo," he said. He still hopes Congress will reconsider its ban on him keeping that promise. "I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo," he said, calling it "not necessary" to keep America safe. "It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists."
Promising to "go back at this" with Congress, he said the current policy is "not sustainable." He derided "the notion that we're going to continue to keep over a hundred individuals in a no-man's land in perpetuity" at a time when the war in Iraq is ended and the fighting in Afghanistan is winding down. He bluntly suggested defenders of the facility find it "easy to demagogue the issue." Without mentioning Bush by name, he said he understands why certain decisions were made in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. "But we're now over a decade out," he said. "We should be wiser. We should have more experience ... in how we prosecute terrorists." He predicted the problems at the Cuban facility are "going to get worse. It's going to fester."