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April 30, 2013

Obama: Need All Facts on Syria Chemical Weapons

by Kent Klein

President Barack Obama said Tuesday he needs more facts about chemical weapons use in Syria before committing to stronger action against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Obama told reporters at the White House that the United States would have to “rethink” its “range of options” if it can establish that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its people.

But the president said he would need more information before taking further steps.

“When I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I have got to make sure I have got the facts,” he said.

The president said there is evidence that chemical weapons were used in Syria, But he added the United States does not know who used them, how, or when.

Last week, the White House told lawmakers it believes "with varying degrees of confidence" that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used a small quantity of sarin gas, a chemical weapon, in Syria’s civil war.

On Tuesday, the president again called the use of chemical weapons a “game changer,” and said he asked the Pentagon last year for additional options for dealing with it.

Boston bombing

When asked about the investigation into the bombings at the Boston Marathon two weeks ago, allegedly by two ethnic Chechen brothers, Obama said Russia has been “very cooperative.”

He spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone Monday about this and other issues.

“He is committed to working with me to make sure that those who report to us are cooperating fully, in not only this investigation but how do we work on counterterrorism issues generally,” Obama said.

The president said there is still some lingering suspicion between the U.S. and Russian intelligence agencies, dating back to the Cold War, but that relations are improving.

Guantanamo

Obama took a question about the status of the controversial military prison at the U.S. Navy facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where dozens of prisoners are on a hunger strike.

He pledged to try again to close the prison, which he promised during his first presidential campaign in 2008.

“I am going to go back at this.  I have asked my team to review everything that is currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I am going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that is in the best interests of the American people,” Obama said.

Obama contended that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe, it hurts the nation’s standing in the world, it damages U.S. cooperation with allies on counterterrorism, and it provides terrorist groups with a recruitment tool.

Visit to Mexico

Finally, the president said he is looking forward to visiting Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto later this week.  He said that unlike many past meetings, this one will focus on economic issues.  

“We have spent so much time on security issues between the United States and Mexico that sometimes I think we forget this is a massive trading partner, responsible for huge amounts of commerce and huge numbers of jobs on both sides of the border.  We want to see how we can deepen that, how we can improve that and maintain that economic dialogue over a long period of time,” he said.

Obama said the U.S. and Mexico have made “great strides” in improving their cooperation on cross-border security, but he acknowledged that the situation can be improved.

On his trip, the president will also meet with the leaders of Central American nations and the Dominican Republic in Costa Rica.