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U.S. Military Targets Limited to Iranian Radars & Missile Batteries; Trump Approves Strikes on Iran, Calls It Off; Sen. Gary Peters is Interviewed about the Called Off Strike on Iran. Aired 7- 7:30a ET

Aired June 21, 2019 - 07:00   ET


RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Strike aircraft, the number of ships that are capable of launching missile attacks against these proposed targets, which we're being told were Iranian radar sites and missile batteries. Likely, the same time of facilities that were used to target and shoot down that U.S. RQ-4 drone, which has kind of sparked this latest increase in tensions.

[07:00:24] Unclear exactly what caused the president to pull back the operation relatively late in the game. We'll be looking into that. But we've heard nothing officially from the Pentagon about any of this. Not saying anything at all about what exactly happened last night, officially. But we're looking into what possibly could have caused the president to cancel this operation so late in the game -- Alisyn.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Ryan, thank you for the breaking news from the Pentagon.

So Iran's state television has aired images of what it claims is debris of this downed U.S. surveillance plane. Frederik Pleitgen is live for us in Tehran with more -- Fred.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Alisyn, yes. Getting some new information now from the Iranian military, as well. As you said, we now have also video and not just still images of those alleged drone parts.

And as you can see on that video, a lot of those parts are very small, and a lot of them seem to be the outer shell of that drone that -- allegedly, of that drone that the Iranians shot down.

Now, the Iranian general who was in charge of the Revolutionary Guard aerospace forces, he just came out and basically confirmed why those parts are so small. He said that the plane was flying at an extremely high -- the drone was flying at an extremely high altitude of about 50,000 feet when it was shot down. It then, obviously, hit the water but very hard.

And he says that the parts that we're seeing there are, indeed, mostly from the outer shell of the body of that drone. And he says the reason why the Iranians were able to recover those is because those were floating on the surface in Iranian territorial waters. He said the water there is about 400 feet deep. That's why they weren't able to recover more of that drone.

The Iranians also coming forward and now claiming, still obviously, that that drone violated Iranian air space. But also claiming now that the drone was warned several times by the Iranian military. They say that the last warning to that drone came about ten minutes before it was shot down.

So the Iranians obviously sticking by their story that they say that this unmanned aerial vehicle violated Iranian air space. Of course, we know the U.S. has a very different take on that, saying it was shot down about 20 miles off the coast of Iran, which would put it, obviously, in international air space.

All of this, of course, as the tension between the U.S. and Iran continues to remain extremely high. Ryan was just talking about the fact that, apparently, that strike on Iran had already been called for.

The Iranians have not reacted to that report, but they have said that, if there is a strike by the U.S., that there would be what they call a crushing response by the Iranians.

And just to give you a little bit of an idea of how tense the situation is herein this part of the Middle East, the FAA has told U.S. airlines not to fly in the Persian Gulf area, Strait of Hormuz area.

And we know from several international airlines that they have already either canceled or rerouted flights; also not flying in that area. So massive disruptions in what is a very, very busy aviation corridor, guys.

BERMAN: All right. Frederik Pleitgen for us in Tehran. Fred, we're lucky to have you there. Please stand by. Let us know if you do get reaction from Tehran about this attack that was apparently called off overnight.

Joining us now, one of the reporters that first broke this story in "The New York Times," Maggie Haberman, White House correspondent for "The Times," also a CNN political analyst.

Maggie, let me just read a bit of the reporting here. And again, "The Times" was the first to have this last night. "As late at 7 p.m., military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike. The operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off. Planes were in the air. Ships were in position. The strike was set to take place just before dawn Friday in Iran to minimize the risk to the Iranian military and civilians, but military officials received word a short time later that the strike was off, at least temporarily."

We do have some new video from overnight at the White House. We have pictures of Mike Pence, the vice president, showing up there at 8 p.m., walking in there. You can see that there.

So Maggie, I guess my question to you is, you know, walk us through the reporting and the timeline here of how this unfolded.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: So our understanding is -- and this is obviously still developing. But our understanding, as of last night, was that this discussion had been going on all day. Initially, in the situation room and then in subsequent conversations.

As of 7 p.m., the strike was supposed to be on. And then suddenly, shortly before 8, word was given that the strike was going to be pulled back. We don't know specifically why. We don't know whether it might go forward at some point. Or whether that had been the plan.

This is obviously unusual to, A, have such a thing happen; and B, have us hear -- all hear about it relatively quickly. As was said here earlier, it's not on the show, it's not a huge surprise that they were able to get jets going, get planes in position and so forth. And then not have any missiles deployed. Because we do have all these military assets in that region.

[07:05:09] But look, this -- we don't know what happened yet, so I don't want to speculate on why this order was pulled back.

But we certainly saw yesterday in real time, in public, how uncomfortable President Trump is with, you know, going full out being bellicose about Iran and trying to balance the promises that he made during the 2016 campaign of no more foreign wars.

CAMEROTA: Yes, we saw his ever-changing moods, as we've called them. Because first, he was angry that they had shot down this aircraft. Then he said, "Well, I don't think it could be intentional." So he had backed off and given them a big pass that he thought it was a bad mistake.

And then I don't think that you launch a strike or get things in position for a strike for something that's not intentional. So these are the fluctuations that we just watched play out.

HABERMAN: Right. And I don't know how much of it is an actual fluctuation, versus something that we saw a lot in 2016, which was President Trump saying two things, so that people can hear what they want to hear. And those two things are often in conflict and sometimes said within the same sentence, as he did yesterday in public, in his public remarks about this.

But look, we're going to learn a lot more today about exactly what happened and why this was. We know that, you know, the president has advisers who supported this strike. Mike Pompeo supported it. John Bolton supported it. Gina Haspel supported it.

We know that the president himself -- and we talked about this yesterday on this show -- is not really comfortable with an engagement with Iran. This is not Syria. This is not like what we saw in 2017.

And so it's not a surprise that he's struggling with it. But struggling with it, if that is what it was, struggling with it up to the point where missiles are about to be launched and thin pulling it back is what would be unusual. BERMAN: Admiral Kirby, who's been with us all morning, pointed out

before one line that was in your reporting, which is that no one objected to "The Times" going forward with this.

HABERMAN: That's right.

BERMAN: Which leaves the impression they're OK with this message getting out there, that there was an attack that was imminent or underway, then pulled back at the last minute.

HABERMAN: I don't know if that means that they were OK with it. I don't know if it means that they just didn't want to raise issues with it. I don't know if that means that there were additional details that we didn't know, and they didn't want to open the door to that.

But certainly, we did not get a, you know, a "Please don't publish this" pushback that -- from - either from the Pentagon or from the White House.

Again, there's a lot we don't know. I keep coming back to this. But this raised all sorts of questions last night as we were untangling this and we were learning about it. And I think we will learn more today about -- I hope we will learn more today about why the president, you know, rescinded his approval for this strike.

I'm also curious to find out what legal justification they used for approving this strike in the first place.

CAMEROTA: And for going around Congress.

HABERMAN: Right. And so this has been -- obviously, this has come up at other times in this administration. And generally speaking, there has been an opinion issued where the justification was, well, the threat of escalation was not high. So therefore, you didn't need congressional approval. I think it's hard to argue here that there's not much threat of escalation.

CAMEROTA: Just explain the -- the dynamic again in the situation room. We know that the national security advisor, John Bolton, wants regime change in Iran, as he has for many, many years. We know that the president, Trump, at least what he said on the campaign trail is he wants out of any of these entanglements. So Mike Pompeo, in your reporting, is called the triangulator. But what does that even mean?

HABERMAN: Well, what I think it means is that he's basically a person who the president is relying on more frequently now for counsel, because the president, according to my reporting, has become more skeptical of what he hears from John Bolton, because of what you just said. Which is this is somebody who has had a certain view of the way things should be for a very long time that is sometimes at odds with what this president wants.

The president is known to privately say, you know, John wants war. And so I think it just means that he tunes out what he hears more often than not.

BERMAN: I've got two quick questions. There's no ambiguity that the president approved and/or ordered this?

HABERMAN: No. That is our reporting, is that there's no ambiguity.

BERMAN: OK. The second thing here is -- and again, and I understand the president does sometimes say different things, but one of the things he seemed to say yesterday was setting a line, not a red line. I don't want to use terms like that. But we talked about it being much different. Had there been a pilot --


BERMAN: -- in this U.S. aircraft that was shot down. It was an unmanned surveillance aircraft, a big one.


BERMAN: But unmanned. He seemed to say, had there been a pilot, everything would be different.

HABERMAN: Yes. I mean, that was -- that was, I think, not what he seemed to say.

BERMAN: He said that.

HABERMAN: That is what he said.

BERMAN: But I wonder if that's setting some kind of a lighter boundary?

HABERMAN: I think a lot of people took it that way. Like you, I'm reluctant to set this as a red line. As we learned in the previous administration, those red lines don't necessarily serve as much of anything. But certainly, it didn't with Syria with the Obama administration.

But he seemed to be setting at least new parameters or moving the goal posts for why he himself might not authorize something that he then later did authorize. Again, this was a limited strike that was authorized. And this was on specific targets. It was supposed to minimize any civilian interaction.

But this is -- this is still a strike, and I think this is still something that he has been counseled on by a number of people who he speaks with on the phone not to do it.

[07:10:07] CAMEROTA: Very quickly, yesterday when you were on, we talked about how the president is infamously, likes to call himself a counterpuncher. And the feeling was that, if you shoot down an American aircraft that cost 120 plus million dollars, he's not going to sit idly by.

But you said that he often can be more measured than we see in public. And so is there any reporting that he was more angry about it and that this was in retaliation, rather than just a strategy?

HABERMAN: I think he didn't know exactly how to proceed. And I think that he was getting advice that was at odds with how he himself wanted to proceed. And I don't think it's more complicated than that.

I think you saw that tweet that he did, which was his first reaction, which happened, actually, pretty shortly after we were on air here, where it was "Iran made a big mistake!" Exclamation point.

And then later on when he spoke publicly, it was -- actually, it was literally a mistake. It was not, you know -- this was a bad idea.

I think that he is, you know, I think you described it as fluctuations. And I do think that is a good word. I think that he has two conflicting impulses. And I think he was getting conflicting advice, at least from certain people he listens to, not necessarily within his government.

I think within his government, there was a fairly uniform view. Not necessarily everybody, but a fairly uniform view that, if you don't do something, that is also sending a signal to Iran, and that is a dangerous thing.

BERMAN: In your reporting, it was Haspel. It was Pompeo.


BERMAN: It was Bolton. It was across the board there.


CAMEROTA: Maggie, thank you very much.


CAMEROTA: All right. We want to bring in now John Kirby. He's a former Pentagon press secretary and CNN military and diplomatic analyst.

OK, so Admiral Kirby, help us with the timeline here. So we know that, at 7 p.m. last night, the planes were in the air, and boats -- ships were in position for what was going to be some sort of limited military strike on Iran.

At 8 p.m., we saw Vice President Pence show up, and it around that time it was, we think, called off and halted. Back time it for us. What time would the plan and orders have had to have been issued for all of that to happen at 7 and 8 p.m.? What would have had to have happened in the afternoon?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the timeline to get forces ready and prepared is relatively short, because there's so many in the region already. We have ships. We have combat aircraft there.

I would -- I would guess that those ships and those aircraft were told to be ready by about, I'd say, early afternoon yesterday, early to mid- to late afternoon. Somewhere in that time frame. I'd say somewhere between 2 and 5 p.m. would be my guess, and I'm just guessing. But it only takes a matter of a few hours to get that spun up.

Because it's not like the -- the military doesn't have pre-existing plans for strikes in that part of the world. It's just a matter of kind of dusting those plans off, re-establishing the coordinates, kind of getting a sense of what you need to do.

It sounds to me like, from our reporting at the Pentagon, that these were fixed sites. Radar sites, missile sites. Not mobile sites. Which means you already know where they are, and it's not that hard to re-establish the contact there for the censors.

So I'm guessing a few hours, maybe, before the actual order to go was given, they were -- they were given preorders to get ready to go and to be ready and on station and armed. It does take a little while to arm these aircraft and to get -- and to get the missiles, if they were Tomahawks, for instance, going from ships, to get them -- to get them armed and ready.

But it's not a very long time line. I mean, that's -- that's one of the benefits, quite frankly, of having forward-deployed forces in these parts of the world.

BERMAN: Let me read you -- and you alluded to this -- Barbara Starr's reporting on the intended targets. "The U.S. military targets were a limited set of Iranian radars and missile batteries."

What does that mean? What does that tell you about the overall intentions of the U.S.? And Admiral, how would Iran respond to that?

KIRBY: So first, it's clearly an indication that -- that they were trying to be proportional in their response.

We get a -- we have a downed aircraft, downed by a surface-to-air missile, which those missiles can't operate without radars to guide them and to detect the target. So you're going to go after the exact facilities and the exact capabilities that brought down that drone.

And I'm guessing that these were IRGC sites, as well, not just traditional Iranian military sites. So you're going right down the Revolutionary Guard's throat on how they got at you. So that's -- it's proportional from a tactical perspective. That's what that tells me.

Now, how Iran would react at that, John, is the larger question. And I suspect that was what led to a lot of the internal deliberations.

We know, and I know from my time in the Pentagon, that -- that the Iranians are prepared, should they be attacked, to strike back not just right in the immediate vicinity, but in the region. They have proxy forces in Iraq. They have proxy forces in Syria. They have influence with the Taliban and Afghanistan. And it would not be at all atypical for them to try to strike back at American assets, American personnel outside the immediate region. For instance, having these militias maybe attack American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[07:15:09] And the Pentagon knows that. And I suspect that that was part of the calculation as to why we should be reticent before launching a strike like this.

CAMEROTA: And that's how things can so quickly escalate.

KIRBY: Absolutely.

CAMEROTA: Admiral, we don't have a permanent defense secretary. Is the Department of Defense just such a big juggernaut that it can -- it can do all this and doesn't need a defense secretary right now?

KIRBY: No, no. Of course, Alisyn, we need a defense secretary, a Senate-confirmed cabinet official that can have the influence and the ear of the president, and our allies and adversaries know that.

And inside the institution too. I mean, one of the reasons why there's so many vacancies there at the Pentagon is because nobody wants to work for an organization when they don't know who the boss is going to be from month to month. So it matters strategically.

Did it matter tactically yesterday? I'm not so sure. You've got a very competent chairman of the joint chiefs in General Dunford. General McKenzie at Central Command I've known for many years. You're not going to find a more sober -- sober, serious officer.

And both Mr. Esper and Mr. Shanahan, the incoming and outgoing acting defense secretaries, as we've been reporting, were involved in the decision-making process yesterday.

So I'm confident from a tactical perspective, it didn't have a major effect. But look, we don't have a coherent Iran policy. It's clear that the decision-making process, from Maggie's reporting, is chaotic at best. We need a confirmed defense secretary to handle these issues long-term. There needs to be a more cohesive strategy and policy with respect to Iran. And you're not going to get that with just acting personnel.

CAMEROTA: OK. Admiral Kirby, thank you so much for all of your expertise in these matters. We really appreciate having you on --

KIRBY: That's good.

CAMEROTA: -- stand-by.

BERMAN: I learned so much right there. Very interesting.

CAMEROTA: All right. So how will the president respond this morning to the downing of this American spy plane? We're going to talk to a senator on the Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees, next.


[07:20:44] BERMAN: All right. The breaking news: CNN has learned that President Trump was ready to strike Iran last night. He had approved military action, but then called it off abruptly. Planes were turned around mid-air when the president changed his mind.

Want to bring in Democratic Senator Gary Peters. He is ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee and a member of the Armed Services Committee. And Senator Peters also served in the U.S. Navy Reserve, including in the Persian Gulf.

So you know how tense this situation is and exactly how complicated this area is. Senator, have you been briefed on this activity overnight? The military action underway, then abruptly called off?

SEN. GARY PETERS (D-MI): We haven't -- I haven't been briefed on this, the action that we just had. We did have a briefing of members of the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. That was a classified briefing to kind of give us an assessment of the overall situation on the ground.

BERMAN: Had the military strike gone under -- you know, had they gone through with the military strike, would you have approved of such action?

PETERS: I think we're all very concerned about that. I think right now we need to have intense diplomacy. We can't let this escalate out of control, and that's what clearly could happen.

I think it's important for the president now to engage our allies. If you look at -- look at the strategic significance of the straits and the fact that the world's oil supply, a large percentage of it, particularly for Asian countries and other countries, everybody has a stake in making sure that there's freedom of navigation in that part of the world.

We have to actively engage our allies now, do this in a concerted fashion. I think there's a great deal of concern, particularly with my colleagues that an action and a reaction will then lead to further escalation that could spin out of control.

BERMAN: Are you happy this attack did not go through?

PETERS: I think right now, it's about -- Yes. I think right now, it's about diplomacy. It's like we have to make sure that we're getting our allies involved.

And quite frankly, it's very tough. This administration has not been engaging our allies in the way that they should.

BERMAN: Let's put that map back up so the senator can take look at it again. There's a dispute. The U.S. says that the U.S. military surveillance aircraft, unmanned, was shot down in international waters. I think we actually have the points here on the map. Iran says it happened in Iranian air space.

Do you have any reason not to believe U.S. intelligence that was it was international waters?

PETERS: No. I have no reason not to believe, and I have confidence in our intelligence and in the U.S. military. I will always believe them.

BERMAN: So as of 7 p.m. last night, the planes were in the air. PETERS: Right.

BERMAN: As of 8 p.m., the attack was called off. That's the reporting from Maggie Haberman, who was here just moments ago. What message does that send to you and to the world about the coherence of the Trump administration's policy toward Iran?

PETERS: I don't think there's any coherence. And I think that's what was very clear to me, too, is we don't have a strategy to deal with this escalation from the administration.

Of course, the Department of Defense is in chaos right now. We have an acting secretary going to another acting secretary. Many of the key positions aren't filled. It's difficult to engage in these kinds of actions if you don't have coordinated leadership and permanent leadership. You can't do it when the department's in chaos, and you have no strategy, and you're not engaging your allies. This is not the way to conduct foreign policy.

BERMAN: Based on your experience in the region and what you know in Armed Services, had we hit the limited set of Iranian radars and missile batteries -- we understand that was the intended target -- how do you think Iran would have responded?

PETERS: That's the big question. We don't. Certainly, that sounds that it would have been a proportional response in the fact that these were the sites that were related to the attack on the drone.

But you're dealing with a -- not a traditional country. One that is a bad actor within the -- within the region. They could act very dramatically and attack other assets around the region. They could hit American personnel. It's hard to know how they would react.

Which is why right now, it's important to put really significant diplomatic pressure with our allies on the Iranians. This type of behavior is simply unacceptable. They can't knock down a drone over the straits, particularly given the fact that the straits are so important to world commerce. And we have to make sure that freedom of navigation is -- is secure in that region.

BERMAN: Has the Trump administration given you, given Congress a legal justification for military action against Iran?

PETERS: We don't believe so. We think the Congress needs to act and take action in terms of authorization, whether or not there's any kind of military force. And so that's where we're pushing, that the president doesn't have authorization to go to war with Iran. He needs to come to Congress. Those powers are very clear in the United States Constitution, and he needs to abide by it.

[07:25:12] BERMAN: And he has not asked you for any authorization?

PETERS: He has not.

BERMAN: One of the things that's been reported is they're going to justify it based on the 2001 war authorization against al Qaeda, suggesting there are some kind of al Qaeda ties with Iran. Are you persuaded by that?

PETERS: I'm not persuaded. We think that's a stretch at best.

BERMAN: If you could tell the president anything -- and again, you're not in Washington. It is the weekend here. But you, as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, ranking member of Homeland Security, deliver a message to the president as the administration is weighing whether to engage in military action against Iran, what would it be?

PETERS: Well, two things. First, you have to actively engage Congress. You have to be more forthcoming. We need to be informed of exactly what's happening.

And you have to engage our allies and ones that have actually suffered attacks already in that part of the world. And we have to have a coherent strategy.

You know, it's surprising to me, given the fact that we have put a pressure campaign on Iran, have increased sanctions. It doesn't seem as if this administration has actually thought through what are the repercussions of that? And if you're going to be engaged in these kinds of policies, you need to thinking about what's plan "A"? What's plan "B"? How do we react to certain types of activities on the part of the Iranians? We haven't seen that, and to me that's irresponsible.

BERMAN: And do you need a permanent defense secretary?

PETERS: We definitely need a permanent defense secretary as soon as possible. And we need to have key positions within the Department of Defense appointed, as well. You need to have that permanence and structure in order to put together a strategic plan for our country.

BERMAN: All right. Senator Gary Peters from Michigan, again, thank you for joining us with this breaking news about this attack, called off, apparently, at the last minute.

PETERS: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: All right, John. We do have much more on our breaking news out of Iran. That's ahead.

But first, President Trump says all he needs are his most ardent supporters to win re-election. We give you a reality check on that, next.