• With: Dan Henninger, Mary Anastasia O'Grady, James Taranto, James Freeman, Allysia Finley

    This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," August 24, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

    PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," growing chaos in the Middle East as new evidence points to chemical weapons used in Syria. And Egypt titters on the brink of civil war. How should the U.S. respond?

    Plus, fresh outrage over the NSA's surveillance programs after the White House releases secret court rulings.

    And President Obama says he's on a personal mission to make college more affordable. We'll tell you what he's got planned.

    Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

    Growing concern both here and abroad about America's hands-off approach to the Middle East as new evidence of chemical weapons used in Syria surfaces and Egypt moves closer to civil war.

    Amir Taheri is a syndicated columnist and the author of 11 books on the Middle East. He joins me now from London.

    Welcome back to the program. Great to have you here.

    AMIR TAHERI, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST & AUTHOR: Thank you for having me.

    GIGOT: Good. Let's look at Syria first. A year ago, I think it was, the president famously, President Obama, famously said the use of chemical weapons would be a red line that Syria shouldn't cross and would have consequences. What is Bashar Assad's calculation that he would cross -- be willing to cross that red line?

    TAHERI: Well, he started by small-scale attacks and nothing happened. What happened recently was the sixth attack and now a pattern is emerging. Each attack has been bigger than the previous one, with the exception of just one in the middle. So he has been testing both the international public opinion, the United States resolve and also how far he can go inside Syria. Now we can establish that pattern quite clearly.

    GIGOT: So it is -- so he figures he's testing the U.S., testing the world and they are not responding, so he's going to keep pushing ahead to do what he needs to do to prevail.

    TAHERI: Yes.

    GIGOT: That's how you would see it?

    TAHERI: Yes. Also, you know, in every case, government media asked supporters of the government, to leave the areas targeted before. Sometimes they waited several weeks and then attacked. In every case, the aerial attacks were places picked by the opposition, by the rebels, as their administrative centers. Assad does not want to let the rebels create a government, a phantom government, if you like, or a parallel government. So we know it is clear that it is part of an overall military strategy on his part.

    GIGOT: Now, sources inside of the Obama administration are now leaking that the president is considering the use of force in the wake of these chemical attacks. Do you think that that would make a difference? And should the United States enter militarily in response to these attacks?

    TAHERI: The first thing to do is to make the United States position politically clear. The United States has lost a lot of credibility in the Middle East recently. People hesitate to take it seriously as a major power. And it has proved to be a fickle friend. The president says something, then nothing happens and so on. You know you have to restore confidence first, you know, before we can discuss the use of weapons. Otherwise, you know, if you fire a few rockets as President Clinton used to do in Afghanistan, and then sit back, that would be quite useless.

    GIGOT: But when you say establish, re-establish political credibility, what do you mean? Do you mean side with the rebels, for example, and say, look, we are going to enter more -- more assertively on their behalf?

    TAHERI: Well, first of all, no. To take a clear political position, I'm saying that we cannot, as the international community, allow President Assad to continue killing his people. That it is clear that the attacks were done by him. There's ample evidence. President Obama knows that. The French, the British, they have given him lots of evidence. The latest attack is enough to assign a team of American experts to study the area and you will find out that the attack has happened.

    GIGOT: Right.

    TAHERI: But President Obama is hiding behind the Russia's President Putin. In fact, two of them are working together in this sense. Putin threatens to veto and Obama says because of the threat of veto I can't do anything.

    GIGOT: So you would put together -- if you were President Obama, you would put together a coalition with the French and the Turks and the Saudis and others that would intercede in Syria more assertively on the part of the rebels? That's what I'm trying to get at you from you. Would you pick one side here and intervene?

    TAHERI: I -- well, if you want the clear things to do, first of all, you know to organize the refugee areas in Iraq and Jordan and Lebanon, in Turkey and so on, protect them against President Assad's attacks, to create a no-fly zone in areas liberated by the rebels, especially in the Kurdish areas of Syria so that president cannot use his Russian-made air force to bomb them. And then to try to tip the balance of armament in favor of the rebels by giving them some weapons with which they can defend themselves. You know, we are not talking of invasion by American troops, you know, any direct military participation by the U.S. But you know, indicating that the U.S. is not on the side of President Assad and is on the side of the rebels, and will not tolerate that situation (ph).

    GIGOT: All right. That sounds like an intervention on the side of the rebels, if not U.S. troops on the ground.

    Amir Taheri, thank you very much for being with us.

    TAHERI: Well, it is -- it is -- it is intervention lite in effect.

    (LAUGHTER)

    GIGOT: All right. Thanks.

    When we come back, new details spark new outrage over the reach of the NSA's surveillance programs here at home. But just how worried should we be?

    (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

    GIGOT: Fresh outrage this week over the scope of the NSA's surveillance programs, with the Wall Street Journal reporting Wednesday that the agency system has the capacity to reach roughly 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic. That news comes as newly declassified documents show that the NSA inadvertently collected as many as 56,000 domestic e- mails and other electronic communications per year between 2008 and 2011, an error the agency reported to Congress and to the FISA Court.

    Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; columnist, Mary Anastasia O'Grady; Opinionjournal.com editor, James Taranto.

    So, Dan, how concerned should we be about these latest revelations?

    DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: None whatsoever, Paul.

    (LAUGHTER)

    Now let's just posit, I'm an anti-terror absolutist, OK? The premise here is that the NSA exists to prevent mass murder by Islamic terrorists. That's their job. I'm glad they are doing it.

    Now, it seems to me the question is, what exactly is the problem here with the NSA? If I may analogize it, law enforcement agencies like the FBI or police departments, they have the capability clearly to do awful things. The police carry guns and billy-clubs. If they wanted to walk down the streets pistol-whipping and hitting people they can do that. They have the ability. They don't. Why don't they do it? Because there are laws and rules preventing them from doing it. There are laws and rules preventing the NSA from doing these awful things. There's no evidence that they have done it. There's never been a single identifiable example of a person who was -- e-mail was read or damaged by the NSA.

    GIGOT: Do you buy that analogy of the police? Give them guns and you can abuse guns, but where they don't, or if they do, they are punished to the -- have the capacity, the NSA, to listen in on 75 percent of our online communications?

    MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY, COLUMNIST: I don't buy that argument. This is about collecting information. We have a government that has repeatedly undermined our trust in Washington. And they're saying, don't worry, we have this covered. It is very hard for -- to put the American people in a position where they have to choose whether they will trust this government or, if they don't, they are going to be accused of, you know, not helping on the war on terror.