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U.S. To Deploy Thousands Of Additional Troops To The Middle East; Iran Vows Harsh Revenge After U.S. Kills Top General; Democrats Not Briefed On Operation To Kill Top Iranian General. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 13:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat of the Foreign Relations Committee, thanks so much for joining us on this critically important day.

I am Blitzer in Washington. I'll be back 5:00 P.M. Eastern in The Situation Room. In the meantime, Brianna Keilar picks up our breaking news coverage right now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I'm Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, breaking news, thousands of additional U.S. troops will be deployed to the Middle East following a dramatic escalation of hostilities between the U.S. and Iran. In a targeted airstrike in a Baghdad Airport, the U.S. killed Iran's most revered and feared commander, Qasem Soleimani. And he was considered really the second most powerful person in Iran. He was the head of Iran's elite Quds Military Force, the visionary behind the proxy wars in the Middle East. He oversaw operations that killed hundreds of U.S. servicemen.

And while this move now threatens to trigger violence from the Gulf to the shores of the Mediterranean, the secretary of state provided this reason for the strike.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: President Trump's decision to remove Qasem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives, there is no doubt about that. He was actively plotting in the region to take actions, a big action, as he described it, that would put dozens, if not hundreds, of American lives at risk.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: Now, in Tehran, there is anger against the west spilling onto the streets of the capitol as protesters chant death to America, and burn American, British flags and Israeli flags. We have team coverage of this story. We have CNN's Ryan Browne who is at the Pentagon and Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon there in Baghdad, where Soleimani was killed shortly after arriving at the airport. I want to begin with you, Ryan, because we're learning that troops will be deployed. Tell us if you know when.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: We don't know exactly when yet, Brianna, but we're told soon, there will be thousands of additional U.S. military forces headed to the region. Now, these troops are coming from the 82nd Airborne division. They are part of this kind of rapid reaction force that is designed to deploy quickly.

They had been put actually on alert, prepared to deploy orders during the crisis surrounding the American embassy, the attempt to storm the embassy by those militia groups backed by Iran. They had been put on alert. 750 paratroopers from that same unit had actually already been sent to Kuwait during the embassy response. So these forces kind of joining that response, kind of really upping the U.S. military presence in the region.

And in the last few months, the Trump administration has deployed some 14,000 troops to the Middle East, citing threats from Iran and Iranian-backed proxy groups. So given the death of Soleimani and the U.S. military strike, the U.S. very much believe they will need additional forces in the region to respond to a crisis if one emerges.

Now, the U.S. has also put all of its forces in the Middle East, stretching from Egypt all the way to Pakistan on alert, on an additional force protection measures, citing specific intelligence about threats to U.S. forces in the region. Now, that's not something that they don't often do unless they have specific intelligence saying that there is a threat.

Given the statements by Iran about some potential retaliation, the U.S. military very much bracing for any changes in the situation.

KEILAR: And, Arwa, last we spoke yesterday, the anti-American riots that were happening in the U.S. embassy there in Baghdad, which were largely orchestrated by former Iran-backed militias, they'd finally receded after two days, but now this. So tell us where things now stand in Baghdad.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Brianna. 24 hours ago, it seemed that at the very least, there was some sort of tenuous calm per se. When it comes to this proxy warfare that is unfolding in Iraq between Washington and Tehran, but that has all changed dramatically with this targeted killing that not only took out Qasem Soleimani, but also worth mentioning the leader of the group known as Kata'ib Hezbollah.

This is the same group, Brianna, that we have been talking about, the group that was targeted by the U.S. in those strikes on Sunday, the group that America says is responsible for the uptick in attacks against U.S. military installations across Iraq.

Now, the Iraqi government has come out and said that this is not just a violation of Iraq sovereignty. Remember, the Iraqi government is already incensed at the U.S. over Sunday's airstrikes. They are also saying are that this is also an act of aggression against Iraq itself, because the leader of Kata'ib Hezbollah is also the second in command of what's known as the PMF, the Popular Mobilization Force.

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This is this predominantly Shia paramilitary force that is, yes, very closely tied to Iran, one that, in fact, Qasem Soleimani himself was often seen on the battlefield with or reported to be on the battlefield with when it came to the fight against ISIS.

The Iraqi parliament is going to be meeting on Sunday. There is a big funeral procession planned in Baghdad and then to move further south tomorrow. And you also have all these various, different Iranian proxies right now who are saying that their fighters are at the ready. Radical Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, on the one hand, calling for a certain degree of calm, but also saying that he is going to lift the freeze on his Mahdi Army and that they too should be ready.

When you look at this from the perspective of the Iranian government, this very much potentially a declaration of war. The bottom line is, Brianna, this is really pushing the region into uncharted territory.

KEILAR: Indeed, it is. Arwa Damon on the ground in Baghdad, Ryan Browne at the Pentagon, thank you.

And Iran says the U.S. will receive a crushing response for the death of its top commander, Qasem Soleimani, and that could come in the form of one of Iran's established patterns for retaliation, attacking areas with U.S. military presence.

With U.S. embassies and consulates across the globe, all of these are potential targets. The anger against the U.S. is resonating, as you can see here on the streets of Tehran. Thousands have filled the streets chanting death to America, ripping up, burning American flags. Soleimani's body is expected to arrive back in Iran tomorrow during a three-day period of mourning.

CNN Journalist Ramin Mostaghim is in Tehran. And, Ramin, can you just give us a sense of what the situation is like right now in Tehran.

RAMIN MOSTAGHIM, CNN JOURNALIST: I mean, since Saturday morning until now, almost every town, single town and city in Iran are Mourning, are just involved in mourning service to commemorate what they call the martyrdom of Qasem Soleimani and his companion and some of his friends.

And now, we have had the supreme leader, has paid a visit to Qasem Soleimani's home to say condolences and we sympathize with your family and told that Qasem Soleimani's path will be followed by more Qasem Soleimani.

so Iran is wrapped up by sort of I can say the cloths of their mourning and then everybody is here anticipating the days to come and middle class are worried about all-out war, but at the same time, it seems that officials are showing some sort of self-restraint and they are thinking catching American interest by surprise. So then it is a matter of when the retaliation comes.

KEILAR: Yes, when, not if. Ramin, thank you so much. Ramin Mostaghim, I very much appreciate that report out of Tehran.

President Trump's order of a drone strike on Iran's top commander could be one of the most defining moves of his presidency. And for more now on how all of this unfolded, let's go to White House Correspondent Boris Sanchez.

Boris, it's worth noting this happened as the president is on holiday at Mar-a-Lago. What else do you know?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Brianna. Very quickly, we should point out that we just got some guidance that President Trump is going to be making a statement on this strike in Iraq. That should come later at about 5:00, coinciding with this rally for evangelical supporters that he's holding in Miami. And you're right, all of this unfolded as the president was enjoying the holiday at his Mar-a-Lago estate just over my shoulder.

And what we've heard from sources at the club is that it was like any other night, just a standard night at the club, the president dining with family, friends and officials, eating meatloaf and ice cream. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, was there. We're also being told that National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien was on hand. There was nothing, according to sources, that would indicate that something was afoot, except that sources did say that Trump was seen leaving a secure room at Mar-a-Lago around 6:00 P.M., right around the time that we first started hearing about strikes near the Baghdad Airport.

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We also should point out that we've heard from Senator Lindsey Graham that he had been briefed about this plan days before it happened. Of course, you know, he was here in Florida golfing with President Trump. He made clear on Fox News that he had been given some idea of what might happen, even though other congressional leaders were not briefed.

As for today, President Trump, we have been told, has been serving allies and aides about how this strike is being received. We're told that advisers have expressed hesitation to the president about Iran's potential response and the broader Mid East policy for the United States. The president, we're told, has strongly defended his decision. Brianna?

KEILAR: Boris, thank you so much for that report from West Palm Beach, Florida.

And, again, the justification for this, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is that intelligence officials believe there was a, quote, imminent attack that could cost American lives in the Middle East.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POMPEO: We know it was imminent. This was an intelligence-based assessment that drove our decision-making process. The risk of doing nothing was enormous. The Intelligence Committee made that assessment and President Trump acted decisively.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: And with me now, retired Major General Spider Marks and Susan Glasser, our Global Affairs Analyst here with us in our Washington studio.

And this -- the latest news have is that there were these 4,000 troops, they've been put on standby. Now, they're going. Now, they're going to be deployed. What does that mean exactly for how you view this situation and how the U.S. is preparing here, General?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES SPIDER MARKS (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: The way I view this is that the deployment of these forces to the region are to be available as necessary. They're not going in to conduct a very specific operation against a very specific target. They're going to the region so if something flares up, there's a much quicker closure time between where they are and where they may need to be employed.

KEILAR: Do you see, Susan, a discrepancy between Pompeo saying that this was done to disrupt an imminent attack, and then the Pentagon saying that this was to stop future Iranian aggression?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, that's right, Brianna. I think there is a big difference obviously between deterrents and an imminent plot that you're disrupting. We haven't seen any formal statement laying out the grounds for this. President Trump has yet to speak. He's going to speak later. So far, he's just been on Twitter.

The New York Times right now is reporting a single source from the Pentagon saying that there was no new threat, but just the general threat. Now, again, this is someone who has clearly a long history of orchestrating deadly plots against American interest, right? So the question from the administration is why now. And that's something that we don't really have a direct answer to.

Two previous administrations, both the Bush and the Obama administration, considered launching such an attack on General Soleimani and decided not to because of the risk of blowback.

KEILAR: They decided not to because they were concerned that this would escalate, which is a huge question mark at this point in time.

And when you listen right now to Democrats and Republicans, I mean, it actually sounds like the debate might have been different if it were under a different president. But they seem to be uniformly arguing that Soleimani deserved a comeuppance. I mean, no one likes the guy. They blame him for the deaths of Americans.

But, General, what's under debate is whether killing him in this manner serves the U.S. national security interest. I mean, what do you think about that? MARKS: There clearly was a risk reward type of determination. I mean, that's what goes in to anytime you conduct a strike like this. You should walk through what the possibilities look like. And America does a really good job. And the military does an incredibly good job of planning for consequences.

What hasn't been addressed is what were those considerations and what the possible consequences might be. The fact that it has become a political discussion clearly is troubling. You would think that politics would die at the water's edge, like Soleimani, not trying to be fluid (ph).

But my point is why are we discussing this now in political terms. Why don't we say, look, this was an incredibly bad guy, of course, he needed to go away, of course, there will be consequences. Let's have a discussion about what that looks like and let's have a discussion about what the strategy is. Because strangling Iran is not a strategy. And you've got to have a discussion of ends weighs (ph) means. That's a means to an end.

So what is the end? I would hope that that would be in Iran, where we can have some type of normalcy going forward. There's very little likelihood that that's going to be achieved if it's simply a military relationship that exists between those two nations.

KEILAR: What do you think, Susan?

GLASSER: Well, a couple of thoughts. First of all, it's notable, isn't it, that both America's closest allies and also its congressional leadership are only finding out after the fact. There appears to have been very close coordination on the ground with countries in the Persian Gulf with Israel and yet not with European allies who were in partners in the Iran deal, which, of course, was withdrawn from by President Trump, and who historically had been very closely working with the United States on its Iran policy.

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So whatever the strategy is, I think, first of all, we're not clear on what that is. Second of all, it's going to be hard to do it if you don't have your allies and partners on board. And then third, it is striking to see Secretary of State Pompeo talking about intelligence as the justification for doing this after the administration has spent the last several years essentially, opportunistically attacking intelligence when it didn't suit their political purposes.

We're seeing the consequences, essentially, of a Washington right now that is very broken where the administration has burned through a lot of credibility, has politicized national security in all directions. And so I think it's a notable goal but it seems very unrealistic in many ways that we're going to get to any kind of unpoliticized discussion of Iran. And the aftermath of this is we're bracing for it, really.

KEILAR: And I wonder what you think, General. The secretary of state has said that Americans are safer in the region after the killing of Soleimani, but we're seeing this troop buildup and the U.S. State Department is urging all American citizens to get out of Iraq. And I really haven't heard anyone agree with Secretary Pompeo on that assessment. What do you think?

MARKS: Well, there is an abundance of caution that's necessary, and in this particular case, I think it's prudent that we put some additional forces there.

KEILAR: But are Americans safer in the region right now?

MARKS: I don't know that Americans in the region or elsewhere -- and that's really the big thing -- what Iran is really, really capable of is what we know as asymmetric attacks. We are not going to see another attack against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. That's going to happen. We have marines on the roof, those are killers, those will engage. And that will be a nasty outcome for anybody that tries to do that at the Baghdad embassy.

Elsewhere in the region is where you have softer targets. Those are likely to be targeted but they are targeted as a matter of routine, anyway. That's my point, Brianna. Of course, we should be concerned about the consequences.

But Iran has never indicated at all and has ever demonstrated self- restraint. I think it's important that we acknowledge that. It's almost like they do what they do. It doesn't matter what we do. We just have to be ready wherever we are because we have this vitriolic relationship with those guys.

KEILAR: General, Susan, thank you so much to both of you for coming into the studio for this discussion.

We'll have reaction from lawmakers, and that is pouring in as Republicans applaud the president. The top Democrats say they were kept in the dark about this strike. So how is Congress going to respond?

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KEILAR: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the Trump administration will brief lawmakers next week when they return to town on the U.S. killing of top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Typically, top lawmakers from both parties would have been given a heads-up about an operation of this magnitude. That is not the case here.

Top Democrats say they were kept completely in the dark, whereas Senator Lindsey Graham says he learned about the possibility of the killing earlier this week while at Mar-a-Lago with President Trump.

Let's bring in CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju live for us from Capitol Hill. Manu, do you have a sense of why Senator Graham was the only person apparently read in on this considering Kevin McCarthy was with Trump at Mar-a-Lago last night? Did Trump tell anyone else, do you know?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's the question of the hour here on Capitol Hill, particularly among Democrats who would be part of that briefing. In fact, I just spoke to one of those Democrats, Mark Warner, the top democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He's part of that so-called gang of eight, the group of individuals, leaders of Congress who do get access to that very sensitive information.

Typically, what is custom that the members will get briefed about something so significant before it would happen. But Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, is also part of the gang. They did not get briefed, neither did Mark Warner, neither did Chuck Schumer, neither did Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman.

But Mark Warner told me that he was not given any real rationale about he was not briefed by administration officials. But he did just speak to the CIA director, Gina Haspel. And I got a chance to ask him about what he learned and he raised some serious concerns about the ramifications of this attack.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA): Soleimani was a bad guy. He had blood of Americans on his hands and no one in America, in the west, should mourn his passing.

But the concern I have is America should have the ability to choose the time and place to take action.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: He went on to say that he was concerned that protests could develop in the region, they could get violent, they could target Americans overseas. He's concerned there wasn't a fully thought-out through a plan to deal with that. But what he's demanding is a full briefing, something that hasn't happened yet, at least from the gang of eight, perspective, next week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that all senators will take part in the senators' classified briefing. This afternoon, some Senate staff had been briefed, Adam Schiff got briefed as well. But the concern that Warner had is that these members of the gang of eight should have been briefed ahead of time so they could provide back and forth, they could provide their feedback, they can understand the ramifications, particularly when it comes time to potentially, at some point, if Congress were to vote to authorize military action, all of these matters are critical, he believes, and Congress being fully read in about exactly the military action that's taken place. And that did not happen here.

But we should note, Brianna, he did -- the president did speak to Lindsey Graham, one of his closest confidants and allies in Mar-a- Lago, in South Florida earlier this week.

[13:25:07] Graham though is not part of the gang of eight. He's a Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, typically would not get a read in on this, but the president tends to keep his allies very close and keep his adversaries much further away. Brianna?

KEILAR: Manu Raju, thank you.

The Trump administration called him an imminent threat. Coming up, what we know about General Qasem Soleimani and how concerned Americans in the region should be about retaliation over his death.

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