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U.S. Considering Updating Terrorism Threat Advisory After Killing of Top Iranian General; Trump: Top Iranian General was Plotting "Imminent and Sinister Attacks" on Americans; Pentagon Deploying Thousands More Troops to Mideast as Iran Vows Revenge for Killing of Top General by U.S.; Interview with Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA); Trump Defends Drone Strike That Killed Iranian General: "We Did Not Take Action to Start a War"; U.S. Says Soleimani Came from Damascus, Was Planning Attacks on U.S. Troops and Diplomats. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:12]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. And we're following breaking news.

Increased security across the United States and for American interests abroad as Iran now threatening revenge for the targeted killing of the country's top general. CNN has learned that the Homeland Security Department is considering updating its terrorism threat advisory which currently does not include Iran. President Trump spoke just a little while ago publicly for the first time about his decision to authorize the deadly strike on General Qasem Soleimani, a leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard elite Quds Force. Mr. Trump saying that Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on Americans but adding that he's not seeking regime change and not seeking also to start a war with Iran.

Let's go straight to the Pentagon. Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is working her sources for us. Barbara, the United States is deploying now thousands additional troops to the Middle East as tension flares between the U.S. and Iran in the wake of this targeted killing.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Wolf. And in the view of the Pentagon, good reason to deploy those Forces. Iran continues to threaten revenge. The Pentagon tonight, keeping a watch on all of it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): President Trump's top military adviser, General Mark Milley, says he cannot rule out that an attack from Iran could still occur. When compelling intelligence in recent days showed Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian military commander planned to attack U.S. targets in the Middle East, the Trump administration made the decision to kill him according to Milley. "The U.S. decided to act because of the size scale and scope of the

planning by Soleimani," Milley said.

Is there a risk now to U.S. safety in the region?

"Damn right there is risk," Milley told reporters.

But to deal with that risk, the U.S. has stepped up its defenses and plans to send thousands of additional troops to the Middle East. The additional forces will come from the 82nd Airborne Division who had been on standby, other U.S. forces in Italy also now on alert.

New video showing the bloody aftermath of the U.S. drone strike near Baghdad's airport. U.S. intelligence learned that Soleimani was planning specific attacks on U.S. interest in multiple countries, including U.S. personnel, a congressional source briefed by the Trump administration tells CNN.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Mar-a-Lago on Sunday to brief President Trump on the Intelligence.

When the U.S. learned Soleimani was in Baghdad, President Trump decided to order the attack, despite concerns by some of the administration about potential Iranian escalation.

These images obtained by CNN showing the wreckage of the targeted killing. Pompeo telling CNN, the strike saved American lives.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There was in fact, an imminent attack taking place. The American people should know that this was an Intelligence-based assessment that drove this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: But that explanation differs from the Defense Department. The Pentagon saying in a statement, "This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans." The State Department urging any U.S. citizens in Iraq to depart immediately. U.S. embassies in Bahrain, Kuwait and Pakistan, all issuing security alerts.

As Iran's Supreme Leader warns, "Harsh revenge awaits the criminals" involved in the targeted killing. Iran's Foreign Minister claiming Soleimani's death will have consequences.

The Trump administration touting the celebrations by some Iraqis at the news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POMPEO: I saw last night there was dancing in the streets in parts of Iraq. We have every expectation that people not only in Iraq but in Iran will view the American action last night as giving them freedom.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: While Iranians instead took to the streets in protest.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (on camera): So tonight, the plus up of U.S. troops could wind up totaling about another 3500 Forces heading to the Middle East, Wolf. Very much it is expected that they will be used to protect embassies, buildings and other U.S. interests and U.S. infrastructure. Wolf?

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you very much.

President Trump talked briefly just a little while ago about his decision to authorize the killing.

[17:05:02]

Our White House correspondent Boris Sanchez is in South Florida near the president's Mar-a-Lago resort. The president, Boris, says he's not looking to start a war with Iran.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The president is saying that the strike was intended to prevent war, adding that they should have been done a long time ago. Trump citing an imminent and sinister plan by the Iranians to attack U.S. interests but the president not giving very many specifics about that plan.

And, Wolf, we're learning that the strike first came up in conversation during a meeting between President Trump, advisers, military brass and some key lawmakers at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday. We're told there was a robust internal debate with some of those advisers actually pushing back on the president, openly expressing hesitation to what kind of retaliation the U.S. could face from a strike on Iranian leadership. And further, what the broader policy in the Mideast is for the United States.

We're told that President Trump was adamant that the strike had to take place and that he was even defensive in that conversation. Some of that came through in the remarks the president gave today. Listen to more of what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Last night at my direction the United States military successfully executed a flawless precision strike that killed a number one terrorist anywhere in the world, Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. Today we remember and honor the victims of Soleimani's many atrocities and we take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over.

We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war. If Americans anywhere are threatened we have all of those targets already fully identified and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that in particular refers to Iran.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SANCHEZ: Now, Wolf, the president is drawing fire from critics for having bypassed Congress to take out this Iranian leader. The White House is defending that, saying that the president has legal justification. Of course, we're still asking about the evidence regarding that imminent and sinister plot that the president referred to. Right now he's speaking to evangelical supporters in Miami. We're obviously monitoring. We'll bring you any new information as it comes our way, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Boris, thank you. Boris Sanchez down in Florida.

And let's bring in our senior international correspondent Arwa Damon. She's joining us from Baghdad right now. We're also going to be speaking with our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen. He just arrived in the Iranian capital of Tehran.

Arwa, this is clearly an extremely significant escalation and tensions between the United States and Iran. What is the latest there? You're in Baghdad. What are you picking up?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it is also a significant escalation and perhaps potential destruction of the relationship between Washington and Baghdad. From the perspective of the Iraqi government, this was not just a strike that violated Iraq sovereignty. This was also a strike that as the caretaker prime minister himself stated that was an act of aggression against Iraq itself.

There has been a lot of focus right now on the killing of Qasem Soleimani. But also in that convoy along with him was the leader of Kata'ib Hezbollah. This is an Iraqi group that, yes, has very, very close ties to Iran. It is, in fact, the very same group that was targeted in those U.S. airstrikes that took place on Sunday. But this group is still ostensibly a part of the Iraqi security Forces and already, Wolf, prior to this targeted killing, you had a number of members in the Iraqi parliament that were saying that perhaps Iraq should be reassessing its relationship with Washington now that all of this has transpired.

There is an emergency parliamentary session that is due to be held on Sunday against a back drop in this country that was already debating whether or not America should be allowed to keep its troops here. And it is very difficult at this stage to see exactly how Washington plans on repairing both its military and its political relationship with Baghdad. When it comes to the Iraqi population, yes, there have been a handful of videos out there showing Iraqis celebrating. But, Wolf, Iraqis already know what the price of U.S. aggression is, especially when there isn't a plan for the next stage.

[17:10:01]

And while what we're seeing happening here right now is not an exact reflection of what happened with the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, it is still a monumental development where you do need a post-plan in place to make sure that this country doesn't end up suffering even more bloodshed than it already has.

BLITZER: It has suffered a lot of bloodshed. Arwa, stand by. I want to go to Fred Pleitgen. He just arrived in Tehran. Fred, how are you expecting Iran to respond to these decisions, these actions that President Trump has made?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Hi, there, Wolf. The Iranians certainly have said that there is going to be a response. The supreme leader has said that there is going to be revenge. The Foreign Minister Javad Zarif came out and he says that quote, "the U.S. bears the consequences," of whatever is going to come next. And then you basically, Wolf, had people from all sorts of walks of life, government officials, the Iranian president also saying that there was going to be some form of retaliation.

Now from what we're seeing on the ground, it doesn't necessarily look like that is something that is going to happen very fast. The first thing that is happening here right now, Wolf, and we're seeing this by the way, already in the short time that we spent on the ground here, a public mourning.

There is going to be three days of public mourning for Qasem Soleimani. A lot of that has already happened. There's billboards everywhere around the city, there is electronic billboards as well. They've already been -- as you just saw in Barbara's report, also these mourning marches that have been going on. That is going to happen in the next two days as well.

And the Iranians in the meantime and we know that today, Wolf, the supreme leader also chaired a meeting of the Security Council where they were talking about not only Qasem Soleimani succession but of course also their next move as well and certainly one of the things they've already said is that there is going to be some sort of response and that response is most probably going to be quite painful. Wolf?

BLITZER: We're going to get back to you, Fred. You just got to Tehran. Stand by. I know you're getting more information. Arwa, we'll get back to you in Baghdad as well.

Joining us right now is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Democratic representative Adam Smith of Washington State. Congressman thanks so much for joining us. Let's get your reaction. The president says he took this decision not to start a war, but to stop a war. What do you think?

REP. ADAM SMITH (D-WA): I'm very concerned about this. This is an enormous escalation. Look, we've had differences with Iran for 40 years now. And those conflicts have raged in a variety of different places. This is an enormous escalatory step and where is it leading. And also, I understand that the point of the attack, I believe, was to prevent Iran from attacking us. But I need more explanation on that because they have other generals.

Killing this one, I don't think is going to stop them from moving forward with the plans and were there not other options. If we knew specifically what their attack plans were, if the Intel was telling us that, weren't there other ways to prevent those attacks rather than this escalatory step. So where this is going, I don't think anybody knows but it definitely is a huge escalation of the conflict and it places American lives at risk going forward for all of the reasons that your reporter stated a few minutes ago.

BLITZER: What specifically, Congressman, are your concerns with the decision-making process that led up to this drone strike?

SMITH: Well, I mean, one of the biggest concerns I have is Congress certainly has not been consulted in this process. We had one meeting, gosh, four or five months ago with some leaders in Congress after the Iranians shot down our drone and about what the response should be. We haven't had conversations since then with the White House or the administration.

Also, I know that they're citing Article 2, self-defense on this, but this is basically a huge escalation in the conflict with Iran. There ought to be Congressional approval. If we're going to have an ongoing conflict with Iran through the drone strikes, through the bombings that we did against Hezbollah targets in Iraq and Syria, there ought to be an authorization from Congress for this military force.

That would be in keeping with the Constitution.

BLITZER: The administration says the decision to go ahead and launch the strike was based on the latest intelligence showing an imminent threat. You're the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have you seen that assessment?

SMITH: I have not. We have had briefings, like I said, periodically over the last couple of months. But we were never told about the specifics of this intelligence. I'm still hoping to get those briefings today. I'm going to be speaking with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley shortly. And then we'll try to get briefings next week. But we -- nobody as far as I know in Congress has been specifically briefed on what those intelligence findings were and why it was thought that this was the best way to prevent those attacks.

BLITZER: Don't you think at least the so-called gang of eight, the top leaders, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, who work on national security. Should they not have been briefed in advance of this strike?

SMITH: I believe they should have been. That is normal procedure under every president I've served under to date except for this one.

[17:15:02]

And I know for a fact that the gang of eight as you described were not told. I talked -- I spoke to the speaker last night and Speaker Pelosi was not informed, neither were our Republican counterparts.

BLITZER: Iran is now, as you heard, threatening very serious consequences against the United States. What options do you believe Iran has on the table, options to retaliate?

SMITH: They have a wide range of options. I mean the easiest ones are in Iraq, in that region where we have U.S. personnel and where they have militias and strong relationships with a number of terrorist organizations. But, look, Iran is supportive of Hezbollah, Hamas, and a variety of different other terrorist organizations. The Quds Force itself has presence throughout the world. They could conceivably attack us anywhere. Not just in the Middle East. And it is hard to imagine that they're not going to retaliate. And that is the big question.

If we took this strike to protect American lives, then there has to be an obvious answer to this question, does this strike or make it more or less likely that Iran is going to attack us. They would have to say it makes it less likely. But I don't see how that can be the case. So I'm deeply concerned about this.

And the final point is where is this going? The president pulled us out of the Iran nuclear deal and instituted a maximum pressure campaign against Iran. The goal, as the president has said, was to get Iran to negotiate. Well there is no evidence that Iran is going to negotiate. The conflict is simply going to escalate. So what now is the goal? Having pulled out of the JCPOA, all we've seen is an escalating cycle of violence with Iran and in the region. Where is this headed and what is the administration's plan for handling this escalating violence. That is not clear. And I'm going to be asking a lot of questions about it in the days ahead.

BLITZER: Very quickly, do you have a problem with the U.S. deciding today to deploy another 3,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to the region?

SMITH: Well under the circumstances, it is -- as General Milley said, there is only one conclusion, Iran is going to want to attack us more now than before. So protecting our interest is important. But again, it is also part of the escalation. 3,500 more troops is 3,500 more targets and how are we going to protect all of those interests when Iran clearly now has a very strong incentive to retaliate. I think we need to think this through in great detail and I'm not sure that the administration has.

BLITZER: Tensions clearly escalating big time. Congressman Adam Smith thanks so much for joining us.

SMITH: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, we'll get more reaction to the U.S. drone strike that killed Iran's top military leader. I'll speak with the former defense secretary and the former CIA director Leon Panetta. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:22:38]

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. The Pentagon just now confirming it has briefed key staffers from members of the Congress on the U.S. drone strike that killed the top military commander in Iran. The Pentagon is ordering thousands of troops to the Middle East and police increasing their -- more police to increase security at home as Iran threatens what they describe as harsh revenge.

Joining us now, the former defense secretary and former CIA director Leon Panetta. He served also as President Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff. Thanks so much, Mr. Secretary, for joining us. As you know, the president says this should have happened a long time ago. You served as defense secretary, you served as CIA director, was Qasem Soleimani ever on your direct target list?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: No, it wasn't, Wolf. We never had Soleimani on that target list. We had the names of terrorists like bin Laden, and obviously al Baghdadi and other terrorist leaders but Soleimani was never on that list.

BLITZER: Why wasn't he on the list if he had been responsible for the killing of so many U.S. troops in Iraq?

PANETTA: I think the reason was that he was a general in Iran who along with the leadership of Iran and other generals that were involved in Iran all were involved in planning what Iran was doing. And it was difficult to say that we ought to pick one general to go after and try to execute in some way when you're dealing with the entire country as a threat to the United States. That's what the United States needed to focus on, was the threat from Iran, not just one particular individual.

BLITZER: So did the president, President Trump, do the right thing in ordering the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani?

PANETTA: Well, you know, look, I don't think anyone should mourn the death of General Soleimani. He was a bad actor and he did kill thousands of innocent people and U.S. forces as well, hundreds of our men and women in uniform. But the real question is whether or not this action has given us less of a chance of going to war or increases the chances of war.

[17:25:07]

And I think right now we are closer to war with Iran than we've been in the last 40 years. And that is a danger that we have to pay attention to that was not dealt with, with one act.

BLITZER: The president says and the top generals say they were relying on U.S. intelligence that Soleimani and his associates were about to launch attacks against U.S. military diplomatic personnel. Do you accept that kind of intelligence assessment?

PANETTA: Well, I think it is important to really see the intelligence itself and determine whether or not that was truly the case. Look, there is no question in my mind that Soleimani played a role in planning further attacks. That is what he did as head of the Quds Force. But whether or not he himself would have conducted that attack, I think, is subject to question. He would have had his proxies conducting that attack. So simply going after him does not necessarily mean that the United States is not going to be attacked either by Iran or by other proxy forces. And that is the bottom line. I think we have got to focus on the fact that we are still subject to possible attack from Iran as a consequence of what happened.

BLITZER: What do you expect Iran to do in terms of their response? What exactly are their potential capabilities in attacking Americans?

PANETTA: Well, look, we are now caught in a punch and counter punch world. It is a cycle in which the United States is hitting Iran and Iran is now hitting the United States. That is the cycle we're in. And it is very likely that as a result of what happened to Soleimani that the Iranians are going to plan without question an attack on either U.S. forces or U.S. bases, either through their proxies or through Iran directly. We have a lot of troops stationed in the Middle East. We have a lot of targets that the Iranians could go after. And there is not much question in my mind that we are going to see Iran conduct some kind of act against the United States as -- as a sign of responding to what happened with Soleimani. It is going to happen.

BLITZER: And if they do that, what should the U.S. Do? Respond in kind?

PANETTA: Well, again, I can't imagine that if we see an aggressive act by Iran that cost American lives that the president of the United States is not going to respond in kind. The president of the United States is obligated to protect our country and protect our national security interests and protect our forces. So I would expect that the president, again, would have to respond. And that is the kind of cycle of violence that I think ultimately could take us to war with Iran.

BLITZER: This is an extremely dangerous situation. That is clearly unfolding. Secretary Panetta, as usual, thank you so much for joining us.

PANETTA: Thank you.

BLITZER: And to our viewers, stay with us. We have much more on the breaking news. Will Iran follow through on the threats of harsh revenge and a crushing response for the U.S. killing of its top general?

[17:30:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This hour's breaking news, President Trump forcefully defending his decision to order the strike that killed a top Iranian military leader as his convoy was leaving the Baghdad International Airport, an attack that has Iran vowing harsh revenge. Let's bring in our experts to discuss these latest breaking developments.

Peter Bergen, you've got a very timely new book entitled "Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos." The President says the strike was taken not to start a war but to stop a war, and senior State Department official now says the U.S. is ready to talk with the Iranians. What do you make of that?

PETER BERGEN, AUTHOR, "TRUMP AND HIS GENERALS: THE COST OF CHAOS": Well, it's part of his consistent inconsistency. I mean, with Syria, we're going to pull out, then we're not, we're going to pull out, and then we're not. And with the Taliban, we're talking to them, then we're not.

And here on Iran, you know, he's offered talks without preconditions before at the same time he has authorized military operations. So it's confusing, I think, both to our allies and our friends, this consistent -- you know, to both allies and enemies about what our actual red lines are.

BLITZER: The -- does it concern you, Susan, that there was very little, if any, coordination between the administration and senior members of Congress?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, that's right. I mean, this is one of those norms that has been just sort of exploded in the Trump era.

There is a special group -- the G-8, essentially, it's called -- inside Congress, the leaders of the intelligence committees, the leaders of the -- both Houses of Congress. They are supposed to be consulted in cases like this; they weren't.

And yet, members of Congress like Lindsey Graham, who are sort of in favor with President Trump, said he was actually read in on this secret earlier this week when he had played golf with the President at Mar-a-Lago.

We also have, all day long today, the Secretary of State calling up allies after the fact to let them know about this. You know, this used to be the exact opposite way American diplomacy used to be about bringing our allies along with us, Republicans and Democrats alike. This is a -- this is a pretty striking Trump era departure.

[17:35:03]

BLITZER: It's interesting, you know, Shawn Turner, the administration, they argue their lawyers concluded the President had the right to launch this kind of strike because it was a matter of self-defense. Was this strike legal?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND COMMUNICATION ANALYST: Well, you know, Wolf, when it comes to national security issues, the President does have a significant amount of latitude in terms of self- defense. But, look, this typically looks like this.

It typically is the case that when the President determines that there is an imminent threat to U.S. persons or to U.S. interests, he can take action -- if there's not enough time to go to Congress, he can take actions consistent with his Article Two responsibilities to protect individuals or protect U.S. interest.

The real challenge that this president has is that because there is such a dearth of credibility and trust in this administration, the President and his advisers were saying that this was based on an intelligence assessment and that intelligence was clear and unambiguous.

Well, I think that, in this case, because of that lack of trust, the -- this administration is going to be put in a position where we may need to see more of that intelligence to be absolutely reassured that this strike was not only necessary and legal but was also proportionate, which is another requirement of these kinds of attacks.

So, yes, the President does have the authority to do this, but the circumstances have to be very specific. And we simply won't know that until we see the intelligence.

BLITZER: Chris Cillizza, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, says the risk of inaction exceeded the risk of action. He speaks with some credibility.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Absolutely, and I think more than Donald Trump candidly. Because I think what's important in what I'm hearing from people, all three of whom know more about this than I as it relates to the foreign policy end of it, is this: there is context. These things don't happen in a vacuum, either domestically or internationally.

And the context here, I heard Jake -- our colleague, Jake Tapper, say this at the top of his hour, there is a credibility chasm that exists. Donald Trump has said, according to "Washington Post," over 14,000 things that are either not true or intentionally, or maybe unintentionally, misleading.

In that context, it is harder -- more questions have to be asked. More evidence has to be provided. I don't know that we're going to get that because if past is prologue with this President, that's not going to happen. But everything he has said and done up to this point -- whether it's dealing with foreign policy, with domestic policy, whether it's him lying about how big his inauguration crowd was -- it impacts these things.

BLITZER: It certainly does. Everybody, stand by. There is a lot more we're following right now, very, very critically important breaking news. We'll be right back.

[17:37:35]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our analysts and our experts.

Susan Glasser, we're just getting this in, the President's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, says Qasem Soleimani traveled to Baghdad from Damascus on Thursday, just ahead of the U.S. strike at the Baghdad International Airport that killed him. O'Brien has just told reporters that Soleimani was planning attacks on American troops in the region and diplomats.

GLASSER: Well, that's the interesting thing as we're almost 24 hours into the news of this strike. You know, the administration has said there was an intelligence basis for this, that there was, quote, an imminent threat. You know, there is a lot of questions about what exactly that was. Not only because of the credibility issue, which Chris raised earlier, but I think there's also, you know, the question of, well, are we safer?

That's what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier today on CNN. It's going to depend on, you know, what kind of response the Iranians have. Does it mean, for example, that this imminent attack is no longer possible to be carried out?

I mean, Soleimani himself was seen as the orchestrator of these terrorists' activities, but he personally wasn't, you know, blowing up bombs. So does that mean that the administration is actually claiming they have dismantled this actual imminent attack on the United States or not? We just don't know so much.

BLITZER: You know, Peter, the former CIA Director, Leon Panetta, was just on. And he said the U.S. is now closer to war with Iran than it's been in 40 years. And he also told me that the Obama administration, when he was CIA Director and Defense Secretary, never considered killing Qasem Soleimani.

BERGEN: We do know that, in 2006, there was a consideration of killing or capturing Soleimani in Iraq.

BLITZER: During the Bush administration.

BERGEN: During the Bush administration. That idea was dropped according to the Army history of the war, not clear why. So it's not -- it's an idea that has been around. But I think, I mean -- I mean, in terms -- Soleimani wasn't a designated terrorist, you know, for the Obama administration. Now, the organization that he leads has been a designated terrorist force. It changes kind of the legal issues around this a little bit.

BLITZER: Let me get Shawn to weigh in. You work with the U.S. intelligence community. What do you think?

TURNER: Well, I think that -- I mean, Susan's point is well taken, I just want to expand on it a little bit. Look, you know, the President's action has to be an action which we can reasonably presume would eliminate the threat.

[17:44:48]

And so, you know, it's really interesting that the administration is now providing -- you know, kind of dribbling out additional information because I think they understand that the concern here is not only going to be whether or not this action would eliminate the threat, but also whether or not the intelligence that kind of underlies this strike is intelligence that, across the board, intelligence officials would reasonably say represented a clear and present threat to U.S. citizens.

So I think there are a lot of questions here. This is going to be something that we're going to have to follow very closely because this is going to escalate tensions in the region more than anything that's happened in the past couple of decades.

BLITZER: Right, everybody's going to want to see this intelligence. And hopefully, they'll release it, at least as much of it as they can.

All right, guys, stand by. The breaking news continues next with more on the killing of Iran's top general and why the U.S. saw him as such a serious threat to American lives.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:21]

BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, President Trump saying he authorized the killing of Iran's top general because he was plotting, quote, active and sinister attacks on Americans.

CNN's Brian Todd is here with more on General Qasem Soleimani. Brian, he was head of the Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, one of Iran's top leaders.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he was considered by many to be the second most powerful person in Iran, more influential even than the President, answerable only to the Supreme Leader. Indeed, a key reason that American leaders and their allies are bracing for retaliation tonight is because General Qasem Soleimani's reach was so extensive.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): From Baghdad to the battlefields of Syria, to the heart of America's capital, the hand of General Qasem Soleimani seemed to be everywhere. Just how big a hit is it to Iran that the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, a man with a lot of American blood on his hands, has been killed?

CHARLES LISTER, SENIOR FELLOW AND DIRECTOR OF THE COUNTERING TERRORISM AND EXTREMISM PROGRAM, MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE: I mean, this is the most significant operation and killing that the United States has conducted in the Middle East for -- arguably, for decades, certainly much more so than the deaths of bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

TODD (voice-over): That's because, analysts say, unlike the al-Qaeda and ISIS leaders, Qasem Soleimani, at the time of his death, was still a critical operational commander, directing Iran's lethal proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Some experts say he answered only to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who gave personal condolences today to Soleimani's family. The end of an auspicious rise of a man with humble roots.

PATRICK CLAWSON, MORNINGSTAR SENIOR FELLOW AND DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: He was a construction worker with five years of education and made his name killing Kurds after the 1979 revolution and putting down an uprising there. Then rose rapidly during the Iran-Iraq War.

TODD (voice-over): During that war, Soleimani led a series of daring missions behind Iraqi lines. Iran's senior commanders knew they had a tactical genius in their ranks.

He was later given command of the Quds Force, a vicious arm of the Revolutionary Guard, handed the most dangerous and dirty missions beyond Iran's borders. Soleimani's units led battlefield operations, conducted assassinations, armed and trained their allies who were America's enemies.

LISTER: His signature sort of method was the development of something called the Explosively Formed Projectile. It was an especially effective IED bomb, a roadside bomb that could penetrate armored -- U.S. armored vehicles. And it was EFPs, as they were known, that came to symbolize Iran's successful efforts to kill American soldiers all across Iraq.

TODD (voice-over): Soleimani then moved into Syria where his forces were instrumental in helping dictator Bashar al-Assad hold on to power. But the deadly ambitions of the Quds Force also extended to America's shores.

TODD (on camera): The reach of Qasem Soleimani really caused Americans to shudder in 2011 when his Quds Force sponsored a brazen plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. right here at the popular Cafe Milano in the upscale Georgetown neighborhood, right in the heart of the nation's capital.

TODD (voice-over): Prosecutors said the Quds Force arranged to pay an Iranian-American operative $1.5 million using the operational code word "Chevrolet" to blow up the restaurant while the ambassador was inside.

CLAWSON: The Quds Force was so eager to get to the Saudi ambassador to the United States that they didn't care if the explosion's going to kill civilians. Indeed, they certainly didn't care if it was going to kill U.S. senators.

TODD (voice-over): The complaint cites the operative as saying they want that guy done. If a hundred go with them, eff them.

Tonight, analysts say the void left by a man with those kinds of ambitions could be nearly impossible to fill.

LISTER: I think this will leave a gaping hole in the immediate term in terms of what the Quds Force is able to direct, to centrally command, and particularly, frankly, a challenging time for Iran in the region. Protesters all across Iraq are protesting against Iran, not in support of Iran. So Soleimani would have been the person who held all those reins together.

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TODD: Now, analysts say, the Iranian regime will almost certainly try to avenge Soleimani's death with operations against the U.S. in the Middle East, possibly Afghanistan and possibly even with sleeper cells the Iranians support in Europe and inside the United States -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's an extremely dangerous situation. Brian Todd, reporting, thank you.

The breaking news continues next with the latest of the fear of a revenge attack on the United States by Iran for its killing of its top general.

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BLITZER: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in the SITUATION ROOM.

We're following breaking news on new fears of Iranian attacks against the United States or even all-out war. Tonight, President Trump says he ordered the killing of Iran's top military commander to prevent a war, not to start one. He says General Qasem Soleimani was planning imminent and sinister attacks against Americans.

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But the deadly drone strike has dramatically escalated tensions as Iran is now vowing revenge. Thousands of additional U.S. troops are being deployed to the Middle East as we speak.