Panetta: Intelligence shows ‘concerns’ about Syrian chemical weapons

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that U.S. intelligence raises “serious concerns” that Syrian President Bashar Assad is considering using chemical weapons against Syrian rebels.

Panetta warned that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line for the United States that would result in consequences, reiterating statements from the White House and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The warnings come as reports have emerged this week that Assad’s forces are taking steps to ready chemical weapons, including the mixing of chemicals needed to weaponize sarin gas.

“The whole world is watching, the whole world’s watching very closely,” Panetta said at a press conference Thursday.

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Lawmakers who have called for more U.S. action in Syria held a press conference Thursday, saying they would back the president’s use of force in Syria to stop Assad from using chemical weapons.

“If the president believes we need to use force to secure chemical weapons to stop them from being utilized to kill thousands more, we stand with him,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “I’m willing to do a resolution before the Senate seeking authorization to use force against Assad using chemical weapons against his own people.”

Graham was joined by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) at the press conference — all three have pressed the administration to take further steps like arming the rebels and establishing a no-fly zone — as well as by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).

McCain said that the president should use force to prevent Assad’s use of chemical weapons, provided there was sufficient intelligence to indicate that he was going to take that step.

“One of the difficulties that we have is to have that kind of hard intelligence,” he said.

McCain said after the press conference that he would support an international coalition of troops on the ground to secure the chemical weapons in Syria if needed.

“I think it should be international and I’m sure our allies would join with us,” McCain said. “If we had to do it — and I emphasize if — that would be just to secure the stocks, it would not be to engage in unnecessary fighting, it wouldn’t be an invasion. It would be securing these weapons caches that have weapons of mass destruction in them.”