Return to Transcripts main page


U.S. Strike at Iranian Assets in Retaliation for Shooting Down of U.S. Drone Reportedly Called Off at Last Minute. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired June 21, 2019 - 08:00   ET


RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: -- brought this operation to a halt before it could be carried out against these targets in Iran. We were told that targets were in fact missile batteries and associated radar sites. That would be in line with a kind of proportional response. A radar site and a surface-to-air missile launcher was what struck that drone, downing it over the Gulf of Oman. So it would have been a response to that.

But we're not exactly sure why it was called off so late in the game. We are also told there are a lot of military assets already in the region. The U.S. has been increasing its footprint in the region for some time. There are strike aircraft, there are ships that have missiles capable of striking a range of targets already in theater, so it wouldn't require a lot of advanced activity to get in position.

Similarly, it could be called off relatively late in the game without many headaches with regards to turning it down. So we're still attempting to get information. The Pentagon providing no information as of now as to what exactly occurred. There's actually a surprising lack of transparency with regard what exactly took place. Back to you, John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Ryan Browne at the peninsula, we'll let you get back to working your sources. Let us know when you hear more.

We do, CNN has a reporter on the ground inside Iran. CNN's Frederik Pleitgen live in Tehran. Fred, any response from the Iranians yet to this attack that was apparently under way before it was called off at the last minute?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. Well, there's been a little bit of response today at Friday prayers. Of course, Friday is usually the time that you hear very hard lined religious speeches here in Tehran. Apparently when the speech leaders at the main Friday prayers in Tehran said that President Trump had --

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Obviously we are having trouble with Fred's audio from Tehran. We'll get back to him as soon as possible.

But joining us now, John Kirby, former Pentagon press secretary and CNN military and diplomatic analyst. We also have Susan Glasser, staff writer at "The New Yorker" and CNN global affairs analyst, and Abby Phillip, our CNN White House correspondent. So while we wait to go back to Fred, Admiral Kirby, just tell us how unusual this is, what we saw happen last night, where these orders were given, planes were in the air, according to "The New York Times," ships were in position, and then it was abruptly called off?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Very unusual, Alisyn. I can't recall a time in my military career where a strike was that far along in execution, let alone planning, and then to be called off. As Ryan rightly pointed out, you can make those decisions relatively quickly in this particular space because the resources are already there, and they're already prepared and the communications are so instantaneous. That said, it did put peoples in harm's way just to get that far along and then to turn them back. So it's very, very unusual.

BERMAN: And I just want to tell you, Fred Pleitgen we had on the ground in Tehran reporting what he is hearing from Iranian officials this morning. And one of the messages that they are putting out in Iran is that in addition to the unmanned surveillance aircraft, the drone, that Iran does say it shot down, there was also a manned U.S. aircraft. They're saying it was a P8 spy plane with 35 crew on board. The Iranians are saying there was a U.S. aircraft in the air. They decided not to target that, and they claim that aircraft had also violated the Iranian airspace, or was in the vicinity at least of the drones. What the Iranians are trying to do is send the message that they showed restraint here by targeting only the unmanned drone.

Susan Glasser, again, to you, the breaking news from overnight that this attack, the planes were in the air on their way to hit these targets inside Iran, the fact the president called it off, 7:00 it was happening, by 8:00 it was off, what does that tell you?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think there's going to be a lot of scrutiny, rightfully so, on what kind of a national security operation we have in the midst of a crisis. Many people have observed that so far President Trump has actually been lucky and hasn't had a major external interview crisis. Some people would argue this is crisis of his own making. One way or the other a lot of people are looking at the apparently haphazard nature of the decision- making process, the lack of transparency, the fact the president has not had a confirmed secretary of defense for longer than any president in the history of this position. Jim Mattis quit in December. Just this week -- it feels like a year, but it was just this week the acting defense secretary Shanahan pulled his nomination for the permanent job. So you have a lack of leadership, a lack of permanent leadership at the Pentagon, the lack of a clear-cut security decision- making process.

I found that latest report from Tehran interesting in that it appears Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has tried to draw a specific red line and communicate the message to the Iranians earlier this month in a visit to Baghdad that if even a single American life was harmed, that that was the American red line.

[08:05:06] So it may well be that this is very explicit message from Tehran to Washington this morning saying, listen, we heard you, we heard the secretary of state, and we actually are abiding by the terms that we believe he set forth. But, again, misjudgment comes if nobody understands clearly the messages that are being sent from capital to capital. And this morning I don't know what message President Trump is sending. So I imagine it's hard for the Iranians to discern that as well.

CAMEROTA: Abby, do we have reporting what was happening inside the White House yesterday when there were mixed messages? First the president said he didn't thing that striking down of our aircraft could possibly be intentional, and then obviously a few hours later he was launching this strike. What was going on with Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, or John Bolton, et cetera?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's not clear ultimately what the president decided and why this was called off, but it's clear that for much of the afternoon yesterday they were in a decision-making process where they were trying to deliberate over what the options were and how the president ought to move forward.

And there were a couple of pieces of data points that we were getting throughout the afternoon. Around 6:00 p.m., shortly after that, you started to hear from the president's allies on Capitol Hill using very specific language to kind of characterize what the president ought to do as something limited in nature. They were describing it, frankly, as very conservative. So they seemed to be telegraphing that this is where President Trump was going.

And at the White House later that night we could see that Vice President Mike Pence had left the building probably around 7:00 p.m., a little bit before 7:00, and then he returned later, which was odd, around in the 8:00 hour. So we were noticing that there were people here much later than usual. Mike Pence is usually not at the White House at this hour. He usually returns back to his home in upper northwest Washington. So there was a sense that there were things happening, but the fact that Pence then later left shortly after he returned to the White House seemed to indicate that what we were waiting for was not going to happen.

And I think that President Trump himself is going back and forth on this. He himself has not settled on where he wants to be. He has always reiterated this red line, as Susan put it, that there was no American on that drone, and that had there been, it would have been a different story. And he said, we'll see when it comes to military action, but he's clearly conflicted, even giving the Iranians way more of a pass on this by suggesting it was an honest mistake in some ways than even the Iranians want to be given. The Iranians are saying this was not a mistake, this was intentional. And the president is the one who is going back and forth on this. So we're still waiting to see what more we can learn about what really happened in those final decision-making moments last night.

BERMAN: Admiral, Barbara Starr reporting the intended targets were Iranian radar sites and missile installations. What does that tell you?

KIRBY: That they were trying to seek some sort of proportionality with respect to the targets. My guess is that they were going to be going after radar and missile sites directly connected or closely connected to the strike on this drone. That's proportionality, it's precision, and it's targeted to send a very clear message to the Iranians about, a, how seriously we're taking the downing of our aircraft, and, b, our capabilities to limit their offensive activities. But again, that would have been a major escalation of this whole crisis. And not that the downed aircraft wasn't an escalation, it certainly was, it was serious, and I do think that a response of some kind is probably warranted here. But to go after facilities in Iran on their sovereign territory, that would have been a major escalation and it would have done nothing to try to calm the situation down.

CAMEROTA: But Admiral, then, a response of some kind that you think is warranted, what would that look like?

KIRBY: I think there are military options, Alisyn, that you can do that are robust and not provocative. For instance, you could have fighter escorts of other reconnaissance flights that you're conducing in the region that can protect these assets. You could put more ships in the Strait of Hormuz, maybe do some minor, it doesn't have to be a major escort mission of oil tankers, but you could provide some protection for oil tankers in the straits. You could increase our force presence, our visible force presence in the region. There are things you could do from a military perspective which also might be able to pull in allies. Our allies would be, I think., more willing to help us if we were doing something that was not so provocative. There are options available. I was, frankly, surprised, that they went so quickly to a decision to make a kinetic strike like this, which I think would be a mistake.

BERMAN: Susan, there does seem to be some kind of a divide within the administration itself. And let's remember, there is no permanent defense secretary, hasn't been for some time. In fact, we're between acting defense secretaries. But you have the National Security Adviser, John Bolton, who seems to be for regime change, for extreme action vis-a-vis Iran. And then Mike Pompeo, if you believe the reporting, is trying to triangulate, put himself between Bolton and the president. Do you see that?

[08:10:11] GLASSER: Look, I think it's important to remember that also Mike Pompeo, if there's one issue that he came into the Trump administration already caring extremely passionately about, it was Iran. He was probably one of the leading congressional critics of the Iran nuclear deal. It seems to me that he and Bolton have often differed over tactics over the last year, what exactly they should be doing at any given moment.

But I think that he in his own right is as much of a hawk, perhaps not as much of a hawk, but an extreme hawk on Iran, and then measures that are necessary to take to counter their aggression in the region. What's striking to me is that the disagreement seems to be between President Trump and many of his advisers, and that the president himself I think is really on the hotseat here in a way that many controversies of the administration, you could say, well, others are involved, or he isn't left pinned with the blame. But in this situation the president is given extraordinary latitude. It really comes down to him. And I think that is the risk of a major embarrassment for the president.

Essentially, the Iranians are calling his bluff here, and they are taking a measure of our president and thinking that he himself does not want to take these military measures even if his advisers do. So they're sort of calling his bluff here. And Trump is going to be looking at TV this morning. He's going to be following the criticism, the apparent weakness of ordering a strike and then calling it off. And so I think that makes today a potentially very volatile day given how much the president himself is on the hotseat with this one.

BERMAN: The president perhaps at odds with himself, not just his cabinet here.

CAMEROTA: And that's why we are monitoring minute by minute. Susan, Abby, Admiral Kirby, thank you all very much.

BERMAN: There's also obviously a very important congressional angle here. What does Congress think? How much do they know? Will they be asked for approval? A key member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee joins us next.



CAMEROTA: New reporting this morning from CNN's Barbara Star at the Pentagon about the military operation that was set to strike Iran last night. But then President Trump reversed course. The New York Times reports that U.S. military planes were in the air, ships were in position, before the President abruptly called it off.

So joining us now to talk about what's happening is Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch from Florida. He is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Congressman thanks so much for being here.

REP. TED DEUTCH (D-FL): Thanks Allison.

CAMEROTA: What do you and your colleagues on Foreign Affairs know about what happened last night?

DEUTCH: Not enough Alisyn. That's the problem and that's the problem with the administration's approach to Iran. We don't know. Obviously like everyone else we want to understand. We want a little clarity into what happened, why this happened, the President's decision to call this off. But more than that, we want to understand if there's a strategy here.

We want to understand what it is the administration is trying to accomplish when you have different messages coming from - you have one coming from John Bolton, you have one coming from Secretary Pompeo, and then you have a different one coming from the President. This gives us an opportunity I think to try to understand that but if they don't provide clarity there's no leadership of Congress and then - and ultimately no leadership of our allies, it's hard to have a strong and coherent foreign policy.

CAMEROTA: Maybe what they're trying to accomplish is getting Iran to stop blowing U.S. aircraft out of the sky.

DEUTCH: Well look there's no questions Iran is a dangerous regime. That's why this discussion is so important. They're the world's largest state-sponsor of terrorism. What they're doing in the region is dangerous. They put our troops at risk, they support Hezbollah which is a risk throughout the region to our allies.

So there's a real concern about Iran and their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. That's why it's so important that there is a clear and coherent policy about what we're trying to accomplish and how we're trying to accomplish it. And it just doesn't seem like we have that now, not from the people I've talked about.

There's still no confirmed Secretary of Defense. It's hard to assert leadership when there's such mixed messages and last night I think was the perfect example of that.

CAMEROTA: Should Congress have had to have approved the military action last night?

DEUTCH: Well there's no question that if there's going to be a war that Congress needs --

CAMEROTA: Well not a war. I mean just that action, where they were going to hit the missile sites.

DEUTCH: Right but it's not just a question of looking at whether this is a proportional response or not, it's part of the larger discussion that's been taking place. It's putting this in the context of the discussion we had in my subcommittee this week when the President's point person on Iran, Brian Hook, could not even acknowledge that the United States' Constitution gives Congress that authority to declare war. It's part of this broader issue of where are they going.

With Iran it's not just - again it's not just a question of one strike, it's understanding that that one strike could then lead to attacks on our troops in Iraq or in Afghanistan. That's the concern that we have.

CAMEROTA: What did you say to Brian Hook when he said that he didn't think that Congress was supposed to approve war?

DEUTCH: Well I actually asked - I ask Brian Hook to please confirm for the United States Congress and the American people whether this administration intends to rely on the 2001 authorization to use military force to go to war with Iran. Whether - the fact that there is some al-Qaeda operatives who have traveled through Iran is sufficient for us to go to war with Iran. His response every time was, "I can't answer that. You'll have to talk to the lawyers in the administration."

And when he couldn't even answer the question about the Constitution again it raises real concerns about the way our Iran policy is being carried out, what we hope to achieve and whether we can expect any sort of American leadership on a really critical issue that impacts us, impacts our security, and especially impacts the men and women serving in our armed forces.


CAMEROTA: But I mean what would Congress really have done? Or what - what do you suggest doing? The fact that Iran used a surface-to-air missile to explode one of our U.S. surveillance aircrafts, that had a price-tag of $130 million, what - and then, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard said that it was designed to be a message to the U.S. and to Washington. What would you have done in retaliation if anything?

DEUTCH: Right well again Alisyn it's not just a question of retaliation. And I understand - look the regime in Tehran is dangerous. The IRGC is obviously a threat but it's not just a question of this action. It's also understanding what will happen next.

Yes Iran attacked ships, they downed this - they downed this spy plane, and the question is where do we - where do we go next. If there is a response - a military response against the satellite - against the missile batteries or against the satellites that were used, the areas to monitor the strike, perhaps that's proportional.

But there needs to be some discussion with Congress and our allies about what our plan is. We can't simply wait and expect that we're going to be able to do something with respect to Iran that benefits America without understanding what our plan is.

When the Secretary of State's position is laid out, you (ph) have 12 things that Iran has to do, and John Bolton's position is regime change and the President's position went from that was a very minor action to perhaps it was an accident to actually authorizing the use of force and then pulling back, all of that suggests that there's just no clear path forward.

I think it's imperative that the administration send their intelligence officials and defense officials up to Congress today to explain where this is all going. That's the least that I think they can provide the United States Congress.

CAMEROTA: Well as we wait to hear from the White House and the Pentagon about what the plan is today, very, very quickly I just want to ask you about the experience with Hope Hicks yesterday because you released the transcript. So I'll just quickly read it.

You asked her, "Did the President tell you that he was making those calls to Don McGahn" which was the White House Counsel. Her lawyer said, "Objection."

You said, "Did you ever learn that Mr. McGahn was considering resigning after that weekend as a result of the President's calls?" Her attorney said, "Objection."

Did you get any of your questions answered?

DEUTCH: None of them. None of them Alisyn. And what was so frustrating that 155 times we asked questions that were fair questions, that the American people deserve to have answers to, that stem right from the Mueller report and testimony that she had given to the Mueller report and the White House lawyers refused to allow her to answer.

What this means going forward is that we'll go court, the court will have to step in, as I'm sure they will, and say that there is no blanket of immunity that prevents her from answering questions even questions about whether or not she told the truth which the White House objected to.

When they do, that will open it up for us to have Hope Hicks to come in and testify again in public, for Don McGahn to come in and testify in public for the American people to hear and everyone else who's in the Mueller report.

The Mueller report makes clear here are the cases of obstruction of justice, it's up to Congress now to move forward. That means we need to hear from those subjects and we're only going to be able to do it when the White House stops stonewalling. And if they're not going to do it, then the court's going to have to force them to and that's where I'm sure this is headed.

CAMEROTA: Congressman Ted Deutch thank you very much for all --

DEUTCH: Thanks Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: -- the information this morning. John --

BERMAN: All right we're getting much more information in about the news from overnight. President Trump order strikes on Iran then called them off. What is the strategy to protect U.S. troops and assets if there is a confrontation? We'll discuss that next.



CAMEROTA: An operation to strike Iran was ordered last night then abruptly called off by the President. This was in response to the downing of a U.S. spy plane and weeks of escalating tensions with Iran. So how would a military conflict affect that region? CNN's Nic Robertson takes a look.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: The last time the U.S. went to war in the Mid-East, Iraq 2003, this is what it looked like, shock and awe (ph). The dictator felled (ph) in weeks followed by years of terrorist insurgency. The war with Iran won't be the same.

It risks spreading to the whole region and fast. Here's why. Iran will fight an asymmetric war, use it's network of regional proxies to target the U.S. and it's allies far from Iran. Sheer militia in Iraq could target U.S. forces as (ph) Beirut (ph) and Lebanon could fire missiles on Israeli cities. As could Hamas from Gaza. Hezbollah and sheer militias in Syria could target U.S. forces there.

Houthi rebels in Yemen could target U.S. and Saudi forces in Saudi and the UAE. Even in Afghanistan, Iran has loyal fighters who could attack U.S. troops there. The U.S. would suddenly be threatened on many fronts far from Iran.

Iran would also use its conventional forces currently close to 1 million service personnel to target U.S. allies and bases in the region. Its navy would likely shut-down vital oil shipping routes in the Strait of Hormuz cutting the world from 1/5 of its energy supplies.

And Iran may very possibly fire missiles at Amarete (ph) and Saudi cities. As well as Israel too.