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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Former U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice; Interview With Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI); Trump Administration on Path to War With Iran?; Trump: Iranian Commander Killed by U.S. Was Plotting "Imminent and Sinister" Attacks Against Americans; DHS May Update Terror Threat Advisory After U.S. Killing Of Top Iranian General. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Thousands of additional U.S. troops are being deployed to the Middle East as we speak. Homeland Security is on alert for potential threats right here in the United States and is considering updating its terror advisory.

First, let's bring in our senior national correspondent, Alex Marquardt.

Alex, we're hearing that U.S. officials targeted Soleimani because they said there was direct evidence he was plotting to kill Americans.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Kill Americans in the Middle East and a number of countries, and that these attacks were imminent.

And, Wolf, we heard just moments ago from the national security adviser, Robert O'Brien. He just gave a briefing in which he said Qasem Soleimani had just arrived in Baghdad when he was killed.

He came from the Syrian capital of Damascus, where O'Brien said that he had been there planning attacks against U.S. forces and diplomats.

Now, since this killing happened, the major question has been, why now?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT (voice-over): The car carrying Iran's most powerful military commander destroyed beyond recognition by the missile strike from the American military drone flying overhead, confirmation coming quickly that the ruthless and cunning Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, was targeted and killed.

Top U.S. officials tell CNN that attacks against U.S. targets planned by Soleimani were imminent, though the Trump administration has yet to provide any evidence. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying today there was compelling intelligence that Soleimani was planning a significant campaign of violence in the coming days, weeks and months, General Mark Milley adding: "Damn right there is risk to U.S. safety in the region" and "We would be culpably negligent if we didn't take action."

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: He was actively plotting in the region to take actions, a big action, as he described it, that would have put dozens, if not hundreds of American lives at risk. We know it was imminent. This was an intelligence-based assessment that drove our decision-making process.

MARQUARDT: Ahead of a possible Iranian response, the Pentagon sending around 3,000 more troops to the region, adding to the beefed-up presence that followed violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Hundreds of U.S. service members have been killed by Soleimani's actions, according to U.S. officials, thousands more maimed, mainly by improvised explosive devices that Iran sent to insurgents in Iraq. U.S. officials tell CNN that Soleimani was planning more attacks against U.S. targets in multiple countries across the region.

Intelligence reports, they say, highlighted threats that were more significant than usual.

POMPEO: We watched the intelligence flow in that talked about Soleimani's travels in the region and the work that he was doing to put Americans further at risk.

MARQUARDT: Sixty-two-year-old Soleimani joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. For over 20 years, he had been at the head of its shadowy Quds Force, orchestrating military action and terrorist attacks in the Middle East and around the world.

He supported and directed efforts of proxy forces like Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel and militias in Iraq against ISIS, which also committed war crimes against Sunni Muslim civilians.

The Trump administration says that Soleimani approved those attacks this week on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. But the killing of Soleimani has left the U.S. presence in Iraq in doubt, with powerful forces demanding the eviction of the Americans, the Iraqi prime minister calling the attack a flagrant violation of the U.S.-Iraq security agreement.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT: And the Pentagon has raised the force protection level for troops in the Middle East, meaning they believe an attack against those troops is likely.

Troops in Italy have also been put on alert, ready to be deployed. American citizens have been told to leave Iraq immediately. Wolf, the question of an Iranian response to this attack is almost certainly not if, but when.

BLITZER: And everybody is bracing for that. And we will watch it. And then what the U.S. does in response to that will be critical as well. Alex, thank you very much.

Now to President Trump and his first public remarks about his order to kill Soleimani.

Our White House correspondent, Boris Sanchez, is traveling with the president down in Florida.

Boris, the president seems to be trying to tamp down the fears of war with Iran.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf, the president saying that he carried out this strike in order to prevent a war, not start one, also saying, though, that they should have been carried out a long time ago, and citing a specific imminent threat from Iran, a plan apparently to attack U.S. interests, though the president did not give very many specifics about that plan.

We are learning, Wolf, that the strike was in the plan for some time. However, talks over actually carrying it out ramped up starting on Tuesday here at Mar-a-Lago, the president holding a meeting with some of his top advisers, with military brass, also with some friendly lawmakers.

Apparently, we're told, in that meeting, there was some very robust debate, the president hearing flat-out hesitation from some of his close advisers about what kind of retaliation the United States might see from Iran following a strike and further about the broad policy of the United States in the Mideast.

[18:05:06]

We're told the president, though, was adamant about carrying out this strike, even defensive. And we heard some of that in the remarks that he made to reporters this afternoon. 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 the 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 facing criticism for bypassing Congress on this strike.

There are still some questions from Democratic lawmakers about the legal justification that he used to carry out this strike. We should tell you the president right now is speaking to a group of evangelical supporters in Miami. So we're monitoring that.

And one more note, Wolf. The national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, just said on a call with reporters that the administration stands open to talking to Iran without any preconditions. However, they have been rebuffed.

We should point out the United States was rebuffed to -- by Iran to these potential talks well before assassinating this top general -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Boris Sanchez down in Florida for us, thank you very much.

Let's go inside Iran right now, where leaders are vowing a crushing response to Soleimani's death.

Our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, is now on the ground in Tehran for us.

Fred, President Trump says he's not seeking a war with Iran. What are you hearing, first of all, from the Iranians?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Iranians are extremely angry, Wolf, especially the Iranian leadership.

We heard from the top leadership today, from the supreme leader, who said that there would be revenge, as he put it there, and who also, quite frankly, said that, despite the death of Qasem Soleimani, whom he obviously hailed as someone who was a freedom fighter, as he put it, for the Iranians, that, despite his death, that the Quds Force, that force Qasem Soleimani commanded, would continue exactly the way that it had before.

Because, of course, this is a force that does not only consist of Qasem Soleimani, even though he was a very giant figure in that force, but it certainly has a lot of other top generals as well who, of course, have a lot of the same battlefield experience that Qasem Soleimani had also, being in Iraq, being in places like Syria, being in places like Lebanon as well.

So the Iranians are saying, look, all this isn't going to stop. And then they're also saying that there would be revenge as well, the supreme leader saying that, the foreign minister saying as that as well, and the Iranian president also saying that they believe that the U.S. would be responsible for any retaliation that would take place.

Now, where could that take place? I will tell you what, Wolf. There was one Iranian senior former commander who once told me, look, the Americans need to understand that in every single base that they have in the Middle East, there's a group that's controlled by Iran right next door.

So, certainly, the Iranians are saying it could happen anywhere in this region, and it could happen in many forms. Not exactly clear when they would retaliate. Of course, right now, Wolf, there are three days of mourning scheduled here in Iran. Some of that already took place.

That's probably going to go on for the next couple of days. It's going to be a big event on Sunday in Qasem Soleimani's hometown. But the Iranians, of course, already plotting.

The supreme leader himself, Wolf, today chaired a meeting of Iran's National Security Council -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, this is an extremely tense moment right now.

Fred Pleitgen, we will get back to you.

Joining us now, Senator Jack Reed. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. JACK REED (D-RI): Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: And let me get your immediate response.

The president says he took this action to stop a war, not to start one. What do you make of that?

REED: What has happened has been an increased acceleration and escalation in our anticipation of Iranian attack.

So, rather than stopping conflict, he's accelerating the conflict. I think that's essentially what General Milley said, where he would be irresponsible if he didn't prepare for the consequences, as they see them.

So, this is going to accelerate retaliation by the Iranians. They have political, as well as the geopolitical reasons to do that. Soleimani was very, very popular. He was a figure of major import in Iran.

[18:10:08]

But, in addition, they have to maintain their presence and their sway in the areas of the region which they control.

BLITZER: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, also says there was clear evidence that Soleimani was planning what the general described as a significant campaign of violence against the United States.

Do you have any reason to doubt General Milley?

REED: I don't have any reason to doubt General Milley.

I think the issue, though, is how best we could have reacted to disrupt that plan. And the question there is, was the assassination or the killing of Soleimani the best approach to disrupt that plan?

The consequences of taking out Soleimani is now this heightened tension, this escalation. You spoke about the theory of the revenge by the Iranians, the concern not only in Iraq and Iran, but throughout the region and worldwide, about a possible response by the Iranians.

That, I don't think, was effectively factored in.

BLITZER: When do you expect personally to be briefed by the administration? Some of your committee staffers, I understand, they have already been briefed earlier this afternoon.

REED: We hope by Tuesday, when we reassemble for the Senate sessions, that we will get a detailed highly classified briefing.

We don't know yet the critical facts that they relied upon, because it is highly classified. But we have to have those facts in order to establish the credibility of the claims that this was imminent and that there was no alternative, no effective alternative, other than taking out Soleimani.

BLITZER: What information do you need to see, Senator, from the administration to determine specifically that this strike was justified?

REED: Well, we have to see what the proposed targets were, what the plans -- as detailed as possible, and what role Soleimani was playing.

Was he simply the -- sort of the general coordinator, or was he so intimately involved in every operation that his absence stops them?

In fact, I think it's been pointed out previously that, if these plans were so detailed and so intimate and so evolved, there's no reason to suggest they can't be put forward by someone else, maybe not with the same skill, but certainly there's an infrastructure in place, the Quds Force.

If the plans are in place, then the idea that just taking Soleimani out is going to make the problem go away, I don't think, is -- holds up.

BLITZER: Back in 2005, Senator, you and I were in Iraq. We went with General John Abizaid, who was then the U.S. military's commander of the Central Command.

And we spoke extensively. Did you ever think then, back in 2005, when we were in Fallujah or Baghdad or Mosul or Basra, that, 15 years later, Iraq would be such a disaster?

REED: No, I did not. I think we were cautiously hopeful. There was many, many days ahead.

We know that it would be difficult. But we thought that we would see some progress.

And I returned to Iraq about a year ago, and there was some improvement. But what has happened and what I think the studies have pointed out, particularly the major study commissioned by the Department of Defense and Department of the Army, is that the real winner in the Iraq War was Iran.

They were able to insert themselves into the political process, into the military affairs of the country so distinctively, that now they have great leverage there.

And you also have heard from some of your reporters that the -- at least threats by the prime minister and other parliamentarians to evict the U.S. forces. They have the right to do that. We're only there at their discretion.

And that's something else that I think the Iranians will try to use their political influence, as well as their tactical and operational skills.

BLITZER: All right, Senator, Senator Jack Reed, thanks so much for joining us.

REED: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead: U.S. officials are clearly on alert right now for possible revenge attacks by Iran or its supporters. How and when will they respond?

I will speak with President Obama's former National Security Adviser -- there you see her -- Susan Rice. We will discuss the consequences of the deadly attack on Iraq -- on Iran's top commander.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:18:24]

BLITZER: We're following all the breaking news on the significant and very dangerous escalation of tensions after the U.S. killing of Iran's top military commander.

President Trump insisting tonight that he ordered the attack to protect Americans from an imminent threat, not to start a war.

Joining us now, the former National Security Adviser to President Obama Susan Rice. She also served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Her new book is entitled "Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For," a very personal and important book.

Thanks very much, Susan Rice, for coming in.

Let's talk about what the president just said a little while ago. He said the U.S. should have killed General Soleimani a long time ago.

Was that ever under serious consideration during your tenure during the Obama administration?

SUSAN RICE, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, during my tenure as national security adviser, we didn't have the opportunity, to my knowledge.

Had we had the opportunity, and -- we would have given it, obviously, very careful consideration, weighing the pros and the cons. And, frankly, as then and as now, it's not clear that, when you look at the strategic landscape and the costs and the consequences of such an action, whether the benefits outweigh the real risks.

But the most important thing, Wolf, is, we took these such these serious situations under very careful consideration. We would weigh deliberately the risks and the benefits. We would have considered the second- and third-order consequences.

And, most importantly, we would have made very sure that, before we took such an action that was undoubtedly going to lead to escalation, that we put in place the preparations to protect and defend American personnel in the region.

[18:20:03]

BLITZER: Because you knew clearly that Qasem Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

RICE: He was indeed. And that's why, during the Bush administration, as has been reported, there was an opportunity and the -- serious consideration was given to it.

But, at the same time, as we experienced during the Obama administration, and in the early stages of our involvement in Iraq, the Iranians were very active in targeting American personnel with very dangerous weapons. That fell off after 2011.

And it escalated again in recent months, as the pressure on the Iranian regime increased, in the context of President Trump's massive -- massive pressure campaign -- or maximum pressure.

BLITZER: Well, clearly, in recent days, the U.S. had the intelligence of where Qasem Soleimani was. They had the military capability, a drone strike, of killing him.

Did the president, President Trump, do the right thing?

RICE: I think, Wolf, that's a very complicated question. And I am doubtful that, ultimately, it will prove to be the right thing.

In the first instance, obviously, any of us who are familiar with Qasem Soleimani and the extraordinary blood he has on his hands has to be happy to see him off the battlefield. He was a murderer and a terrorist of the worst order. Having said that, the question is whether we are safer and Americans

in the region and around the world are safer as a result of his targeted assassination than they would have been had we pursued other means to deal with whatever was purportedly the imminent threat at hand.

BLITZER: So, what do you...

RICE: And so I am not sure about that. I'm quite concerned, as I look at this, that there are very few ways to de-escalate this situation that doesn't lead to a wider conflict.

President Trump saying, I did this to stop a war, not to start it, seems to imply that he gets all the votes in this. And, of course, the Iranians get a serious set of votes. And there's no question in my mind that they will retaliate in a very serious way at a time and a place of their choosing, and maybe multiple times in multiple places.

And the question then is, what will President Trump do? Will he respond as well, in which case this escalatory cycle increases and the risk of war gets greater and greater? Or does he back down?

And if he backs down, the Iranians will then, in all likelihood, interpret that as an opportunity to push further.

So, either way, we're likely down a path of conflict, I'm afraid.

BLITZER: Are Americans safer today than they were two days ago?

RICE: I don't think so.

I think, for the moment, perhaps a plot, if you are to believe the administration, has been disrupted. They haven't provided any details, no briefings to Congress, no public statements of any substance.

BLITZER: They're briefing some staff members right now.

RICE: Apparently, but even that, as you heard from the members you have interviewed today, senators and members of Congress who are relevant on these key committees, they don't know the specifics behind the intelligence.

So we have to wait and see. But even if it were the case that, in fact, there was -- there were imminent plots under way, how to deal with that is not a black and white issue. Taking Soleimani out doesn't necessarily mean that the those plots can't proceed.

BLITZER: Well, how worried are you? What capability does Iran have right now to seriously threaten the United States?

RICE: Well, Wolf, that's absolutely the right question, because, if you look at how Iran's postured in the region, they have infinite opportunities through their militia proxies to attack us throughout Iraq, throughout the whole Levant region, Syria, Lebanon. Israel is now at risk. The whole Gulf region is at risk, where we have large military installations, as you know, all throughout the Gulf region. Afghanistan is another place where the United States could be targeted by Iran.

There's whole shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf region which are now potentially active war zones with real risks to the global economy.

And then there -- of course, Wolf, as you and I know, Iran has cells, proxy cells and direct cells that it can control, that it can light up in Europe, in Latin America, in Africa, and even perhaps in the United States.

So, the risk to American civilians, as well as diplomats and military personnel, now throughout many regions of the world is much heightened.

BLITZER: Is it fair to say that Qasem Soleimani was the conductor of this ability of Iran to spread its influence throughout that entire region, through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, down near Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, that he was the orchestrator of that?

RICE: He was an orchestrator, but he wasn't a one-man band. And that's the problem.

There is no way that I can envision that Iran takes this hit and decides, oh, never mind, we will just stand down.

[18:25:01]

I think the survival of the regime and its leadership prominence in the region, in its own mind, depends on a strong and forceful reaction. And so that's how you get this escalatory dynamic.

And somebody is going to have to back down, or this is going to go to a place that's going to be quite dangerous and concerning.

BLITZER: Do you trust what you're hearing from the Trump administration right now, the initial information about the intelligence assessments?

RICE: Wolf, I wish I could.

I -- this administration, sadly, tragically, has a record of almost daily misrepresenting the facts, telling falsehoods about issues big and very small. So it's hard to have confidence on the face at their representations.

I'd like to see the evidence. I'd like to see the details behind the information that apparently led to this attack.

I -- certainly, what Qasem Soleimani has done and Iran's record would support what the administration is saying, not least in the recent context, but one can't be certain without seeing the facts.

BLITZER: But, basically, we haven't seen any of this intelligence yet. And very limited intelligence has been shared, at least with some staffers in the House Armed Services Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, but very limited information.

Do you suspect that administration officials right now are lying?

RICE: I'm not prepared to say that. I hope certainly not. If they were lying about something of this magnitude, I hate to think of the consequences for the United States.

But, as I said, given their track record, one can't be certain, as one would hope to be in a context like this, that the commander in chief and his top lieutenants are giving us the whole story.

BLITZER: Do you agree with Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary, that the U.S. right now is closer to all-out war with Iran than it's been in 40 years?

RICE: I think that's correct.

BLITZER: Do you think that's realistic, though?

RICE: I do. I think it's -- I think it's, unfortunately, very much a risk now, because never in the last several decades have we or they taken an action that's quite so provocative and explosive.

And we have leadership on both sides that have made quite clear that they're not backing down, at least in the foreseeable future.

BLITZER: Susan Rice, thanks very much for coming in.

RICE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a very difficult moment in U.S. history right now.

Just ahead, we will have more on President Trump's motives in ordering the killing of Qasem Soleimani.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:30:00]

BLITZER: We're learning more this hour about the deadly U.S. attack on Iran's top military commander as officials in Tehran are vowing revenge. President Trump says General Qasem Soleimani was planning imminent and sinister attacks against Americans. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, is warning that those attacks might still happen even after his death.

Let's bring in our national security experts. Jim Sciutto, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said this on CNN earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: He was actively plotting in the region to take actions, a big action, as he described it. That would have put hundreds, if not, hundreds of American lives at risk. We know it was imminent. This was an intelligence assessment that drove our decision-making process.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What is that? I mean, you've done a lot of reporting on this. What's your reaction to that?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That was quite a moment there. As he described it, the secretary seems to be describing the words of Soleimani describing these attacks. He deliberately did not go into detail about the intelligence that sparked this U.S. action here.

But was he saying there that the U.S. heard conversations by Soleimani, that they intercepted those conversations, that would interesting, regardless, based on the fact that they knew where he was but also knew the substance, it seems, of the attacks he was planning.

This should send alarming signals really to Iran that the U.S. has good intelligence penetration of Iranian senior leadership, I mean, the most senior leadership here, in the case of Soleimani, which is remarkable today. Because you think a lot of these intel services know we're listening, they know how we're listening, they take measures so that we can't listen to them, using cell phones, et cetera, and yet still a remarkable intelligence coup on the part of the U.S.

BLITZER: And you used to work in the National Security Agency, Susan Hennessey. Do you believe the American public, based on what we know right now, should trust what we're hearing from the Trump administration?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: I think the problem is that we are in a credibility crisis that this administration's own making, because they have lied about so many things. The president has lied about so many things, large and small. So it's entirely plausible that they do, in fact, have this very, very strong intelligence that actually does establish that there was an imminent attack and this was an appropriate way to take it.

That said, I don't think any reasonable person should simply take the administration's word at this point. Whenever we're dealing with things like highly classified intelligence, we often ask Congress to stand in the shoes of the American people.

And so what we would expect now in order to reinforce that legitimacy is for the administration to give full and candid briefings to congressional committees. And we would want to see statements, bipartisan statements from Democrats and Republicans saying that they themselves have examined the underlying intelligence, they believe they had been fully briefed and they are, in fact, confident whether or not they are agree with the policy decision. They are confident that this administration is, in fact, being honest in their presentation and representations by what the intelligence says.

BLITZER: You're the former FBI general counsel, our CNN legal analyst, Jim Baker. [18:35:00]

An administration official says that lawyers from the White House, the Pentagon and the Justice Department all signed off on this strike that it was a legitimate decision, an of self-defense.

JIM BAKER, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. But what did they sign off on exactly? Because now we've heard multiple different theories about what the legal justification was. Was it imminence? Was it relying on the 2002 authorization for the U.S. military force in Iraq? Exactly what was that?

So for the lawyers on the outside, it's hard to assess this exactly and critically important, I think, to the legal analysis is understanding what the intelligence was. What was this threat? How imminent was it? What does it mean? Iran and Soleimani clearly have been persistent threats over a period of long time. But what was imminent about exactly this.

And I think they need to be more forward-leaning here.

BLITZER: It's interesting, Jim, because for a long time, the president has been critical of the U.S. Intelligence Committee, not only publicly but privately as well. But this time, he says he trusted what he was hearing from the U.S. Intelligence Community.

SCIUTTO: The president has denied specific intelligence on national security threats when it didn't fit his interests at the time, for instance, the Intelligence Community said, testified publicly repeatedly that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal. That was its intelligence. The president said otherwise. U.S. Intelligence has said North Korea is expanding, not shrinking its nuclear program in the midst of the president's diplomatic efforts, that's something that the president won't acknowledge publicly.

Now, here, the adversary he has chosen is Iran, so he accepts the Intelligence Community's assessment that they were planning these attacks. Now, that may very well be true. In past administrations, you would have more chances to question, if you'd have, for instance, a White House press briefing, right, where you could question a spokesperson for the president about the depth of their knowledge about it. But that's an issue.

Beyond the president's uncomfortable relationship the truth on a number of issues, on intelligence, specifically, he's denied it, in some cases, he's accepting it here. Why? Was it his confidence? Was it that it fit his interests at the time? There's a reasonable --

BLITZER: What do you think, Susan?

HENNESSEY: No. I think that's exactly the question of whether or not the president is actually acting based on genuine intelligence or, if once again, he is molding the world into the vision that is politically advantageous to him.

Really, the critical question at this point about where that intelligence leads is what happens from here. Are we now going to engage in a cycle of escalation then actually does lead us to engage in a hot war with Iran or can this be deescalated?

And I think one thing we have to acknowledge is that the president of the United States is not someone who tends to be a long-term strategic thinker and this really is an incredibly perilous choice (ph).

BLITZER: How worried should Americans be about Iranian proxy attacks here in the United States?

BAKER: Worried, cautious, prudent, we should be focused on it and all the elements of the government should be focused on it.

BLITZER: With law enforcement should go on a higher state of --

BAKER: Well, I don't know about that. But they need to move out and make sure that they understand what the situation is and that they're taking prudent steps to address likely threats.

SCIUTTO: And Soleimani in the past did threaten attacks on the U.S. homeland. Whether they could carry it out is a separate story but he has publicly made those threats.

BAKER: this is the kind of thing that could prompt that though.

BLITZER: It's very concerning. All right, guys, standby.

Just ahead, federal and state authorities right now, they are on alert, they're amping up securities. Iran vows revenge against the United States.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:40:00]

BLITZER: We're following urgent new efforts to protect Americans at home and overseas as Iran vows revenge for the killing of its top military commander in a drone strike ordered by President Trump.

Let's bring in our CNN Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez along with CNN Law Enforcement Analyst Anthony Ferrante. He's a former FBI special agent and a cyber security expert.

Evan, what are you hearing from U.S. authorities about concern that Iran might strike against U.S. targets either here or abroad?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, here, Wolf, the U.S. knows that the Iranians and some of their proxy groups, Hezbollah in particular, have a network of people who are here and in other countries, some of them were fundraising, some of them have been caught in the past doing surveillance of what the U.S. believes were essentially intelligence efforts to gather information on vulnerable places that could be attacked should this day come, should there be a hot war between the United States and Iran.

And so the concern is that there's somebody who might be at home watching some of the coverage who will decide to carry out an attack, perhaps not directly directed by the Iranians but certainly inspired to do that. And that's one of the things you see today in New York and in other cities. Police are on guard. The subways are always a concern. Anything that is vulnerable, the FBI and certainly the police departments are keeping an eye on.

BLITZER: Anthony, I take it, there is a lot of concern that the Iranians have a pretty sophisticated cyber warfare capability.

ANTHONY FERRANTE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: They do, Wolf. You're absolutely right. And while there is no actionable intelligence at this time, American people should be prepared should the Iranians want to launch a cyberattack, which would absolutely come into their homes and businesses here in the United States.

Iran has indicated this time and time again, an attack on a Saudi oil field, a cyberattack on a Las Vegas casino, a cyberattack on a dam in upstate New York, attacks on financial institutions in New York City. And they've already been implicated in meddling in the 2020 United States election. So we have to be prepared for some sort of cyber event that could affect -

[18:45:04]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: But don't they know if they were to do that against the United States, the U.S. has a pretty good cyber warfare capability as well?

FERRANTE: They absolutely do. But you have to understand, it's low cost, right, high impact and high visibility. And because it's done online, there's that element of deniability. We didn't do it. Someone else did it, and you could easily trace it back to a number of actors here.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: And they probably have looked at with the way the Russians have tried to deny and certainly with the help of this administration even and the president, denying these attacks, it can work for you sometimes.

BLITZER: Well, are they bracing -- do you think the U.S. authorities -- you're doing a lot of reporting, Evan, on this, for a quick immediate response from the Iranians or are they going to play the long game?

PEREZ: I think they think that there's a possibility of both, Wolf. I mean, the thing is, the Iranians are funding these groups, these proxy groups in the Middle East. The U.S., you know, is well- protected in Iraq but in other places, there might be more vulnerabilities.

And so, they will find opportunities to attack. They will do it now and do it long term. This is -- for them, it's a very long game.

BLITZER: Yes, this is a serious situation that's unfolding.

Guys, stick around. There's more news we're following. We'll have more on the breaking news, the top Iranian commander killed by the U.S. and his role in killing Americans. We're getting more information.

We'll be right back.

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BLITZER: Tonight, President Trump says the deadly U.S. attack on Iran's top military commander was justified because Qasem Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister new attacks against Americans.

We're joined now by the former U.S. attorney, CNN senior legal analyst, Preet Bharara.

Preet, you actually prosecuted one of Soleimani's deputies who was plotting an attack right here in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. What did that experience tell you about what authorities need to be on alert for right now?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it tells you a number of things. You know, people have been speculating about the kinds of things Iranians think might think about doing. Based on my experience, I know they have done these things even without the kind of extreme provocation they have gotten with the killing of Soleimani.

One of your guests just a few minutes ago talked about an incursion into financial services, a cyberattack on financial services institutions, and the hacking of a dam in Upstate New York, the infrastructure of a dam. Those cases were both prosecuted by my office when I was United States attorney. So, those are real things they have thought about doing.

With respect to the thing you just mentioned, the Quds Force and people associated with the Quds Force we charged a few years ago were responsible for a plot to assassinate, in Washington, D.C., the Saudi ambassador to the United States of America. And they sought to do it in a pretty dramatic way by blowing up -- you know, by using a bomb in a famous restaurant that you probably been to that I can't get a reservation to, by means of working with a DEA drug informant, someone who was a drug dealer for Mexico. That tells you a few things. Even though it seems like an outlandish plot, the person pled guilty to it.

And it tells you that the Iranians are capable of doing things to the United States or at least plotting to do things to the United States. They want to do things to the United States. They are prepared to do things with, you know, other sort of farfetched partners in those things and they come out of left field. And people were pretty surprised about that plot back in 2011 and 2012.

It shows they have the capability and willingness to do things like that in a dramatic way on American soil back at a time when you didn't have this level of tension between the United States and their government. And you didn't have, obviously, one of the most sensational actions by the United States with respect to Soleimani. So they can do it. They want to do it. And what I imagine is

happening right now around the country between among FBI agents, U.S. attorneys offices, and national security division, is if they have low grade or medium-grade investigations about potential plots or associations between people that they had been targeting and folks at the IRGC or the Quds Force, that they are ratcheting up their investigation of those things right now to prevent any harm from coming forth in the future.

BLITZER: And that plot, over at Cafe Milano here in Washington, D.C., they wanted to kill Adel al-Jubeir, the then-Saudi ambassador to the United States. But they wanted to blow up the whole place and in the process, wind up killing 100 to 200 to 300 Americans who might have been in that restaurant.

BHARARA: Yes. They appeared from what we knew from the plot, not to care about the collateral damage even though their main target was a Saudi ambassador. They also thought about doing things thereafter with respect to certain embassies in Washington.

They never got close to accomplishing it because turns out that the Mexican drug trafficker with whom one of the plotters was associating was -- was a confidential source of the DEA. That's why we were able to uncover the plot, disrupt the plot, and hopefully with respect to ongoing activities by the Iranians that may have been in motion, may be accelerated now because of the killing, that you have people who are again still surveilling them properly and trying to disrupt them as fast as possible.

BLITZER: So you would agree this is a very, very dangerous moment, right, Preet?

BHARARA: Yes, I think so. And it's because, in part, based on those other cases we talked act that the Iranians are willing to and capable of doing things you might not think of.

You know, there was a lot discussion about this case we have with respect to the Bowman Dam. You know, it's not the biggest dam in America. It's not the most important piece of infrastructure. They weren't ultimately capable of raising or lowering the dam.

[18:55:01]

But it looked like something that they're thinking about and experimenting with, and who knows how far they've come since then.

BLITZER: Preet Bharara, as usual, thanks very much.

More news right after this.

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BLITZER: Stay with CNN as we follow the rising tensions and the potential consequences of President Trump's order to kill Iran's top military commander. Join me for special weekend coverage this Sunday. I'll be anchoring special coverage starting at 5:00 p.m. Eastern on Sunday.

Also, on Sunday, I'll be hosting a CNN special report. "The Trial of William Jefferson Clinton", looking back at the last presidential impeachment. That airs Sunday night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNsitroom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.

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