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Skepticism Mounts Over Evidence Of Imminent Threat That Justified Soleimani Killing; Deadly Fires Rage Out Of Control In Australia; Iraq President Speaks Out Amid U.S-Iran Crisis. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired January 6, 2020 - 07:30   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Involved in protecting national security.

So, do you think that -- what do you think of the administration's claim that this was because of an imminent threat to the U.S.?


Look, I think we're, right now, in a situation that unfortunately seems to be spiraling and there's no real clear off-ramp. In terms of the explanations thus far, I think what we've seen is a series of kind of mixed messages. And it's very, very important that the administration brief, on a bipartisan basis, Congress about what did lead to this attack.

Let's be very, very clear. I'm not mourning and nobody should be mourning, quite frankly, Qasem Soleimani. The man was pure evil. He has the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocents on his hands, including members of our military, at the courtesy of a murderous IED campaign that he masterminded during the Iraq War. So he was absolutely pure evil.

But the fact of the matter is when you conduct a strike like this that is going to have incredible amounts of backlash, unintended consequences, and result in the chaos that we've seen, frankly, unfold over the last four days, you have to do it in a way that is considering whether or not the cure, frankly, is going to be worse than the disease.

Was there a process that resulted in evaluating this intelligence? Why did it have to be taken now? What was the intelligence that said that this was an imminent attack?

Look, Qasem Soleimani was the head of the Quds Force. He was not a soldier in that operation. He was a planner -- a mastermind. But the fact that he's taken off the battlefield does not mean that the threats from the Quds Force goes away. So we really need to hear a lot more. Our Congress should be getting

briefed on what led to this attack and what led to this strike. And frankly, our partners in the region need to know because they need to know what happens next.

CAMEROTA: Well, it's interesting to hear you say that Soleimani was pure evil and that nobody, at least in the U.S., is mourning his absence.

But, you know, the Trump administration says that it was all of you in the Obama administration that didn't get the job done and that they're having to do clean-up. And so, was there a point in the Obama administration where you considered a targeted attack against Soleimani?

MONACO: Look, I served for four years in the second term as the counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to the president. To my knowledge, we were never presented with an option or a proposal to kill Qasem Soleimani. In part, I think that's because of the very real concerns about the type of backlash that it would engender. So look, I'm not sure why the actions of three years ago and going back further are all that relevant at this stage.

What we need to be focused on is what is the threat right now to the U.S., our citizens, our military, our diplomats in the region and beyond? We know the Quds Force obviously, in Iran, has pledged retaliation. We know they operate with proxies internationally. We know, frankly, that they have demonstrated the capability and the intent to strike here at home.

In 2011, I was the head of the national security division at the Justice Department and oversaw an investigational prosecution of a Quds Force-directed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador.

So we know that they have the capability and the intent to mount attacks against our citizens and our military and diplomats overseas, as well as to try and to do something here.


MONACO: Most specifically, what I'm worried about, frankly, Alisyn, in the near-term for a homeland impact is on the cyberattacks.

CAMEROTA: And I do want to ask you about that because I know that you are concerned mostly about a cyberattack and that they could launch that. What would that look like?

MONACO: Well, what we know that they have done in the past -- and, frankly, the worldwide -- the most recent worldwide threat assessment from the Intelligence Community says that Iran has been posturing their cyber capabilities for future attacks against critical infrastructure.

We know already that they have a track record. They have done destructive cyberattacks against not only Saudi Aramco, the Saudi oil company, but also against a company and an entity right here in the United States -- against the Sands Casino. People need to remember that was a destructive attack.

We know that they have attacked our financial services sector in 2012 with denial of service attacks. And we know that they've mounted attacks against our energy sector.

So those are all the things that we need to be looking at. The private sector, quite frankly, is on the front lines in what is, frankly, a game of geopolitical one-upmanship when it comes to the cyber front.

And I will say the Department of Homeland Security moved out very quickly on Thursday evening after the strike. Assistant Sec. Chris Krebs, I think, did the right thing in taking to Twitter and warning the private sector about these types of threats. So that's what we need to be focused on right now.


CAMEROTA: Yes. We really appreciate your expertise on this. Lisa Monaco, thank you very much.

MONACO: Thank you.



So, Boeing has discovered yet another problem with its embattled 737 MAX jet. "The New York Times" reports the company found a wiring issue in the MAX fleet as part of a December audit.

Boeing is now looking into whether two bundles of wiring are too close together. That could lead to a short-circuit and potentially, result in a crash if pilots do not react properly.

The troubled 737 MAX has been grounded since last March after two crashes killed 346 people.

CAMEROTA: Well, home field did not turn out to be much of an advantage in the NFL Playoffs. I even heard about this in Peru. I heard this news all the way there, Coy Wire. You have more in the "Bleacher Report"?

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. Yes, three of the four home teams lost, including John's Patriots.

And, Alisyn, New Orleans is the loudest place I ever played in my NFL career but it did not phase Kirk Cousins. He silenced his critics who doubted he could win big games.

The Vikings went up against the Saints yesterday as the weekend's biggest underdogs, but in overtime, when it matters most, look at Cousins throw a perfect 43-yard pass to Adam Thielen and it puts the Vikings right there at the goal line. Three plays later, Cousins seals the win with a fade to Kyle Rudolph -- the game-winning touchdown. But it wouldn't be a playoff game in New Orleans without a little controversy, right? Saints fans pointing out that Rudolph pushes the defender. What do you guys think? Officials say it wasn't enough to draw a penalty.

Minnesota wins 26-20. They face the 49ers next.

The Saints eliminated from three straight playoffs in the final play of the game.

In Philadelphia, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz making his playoff debut -- he missed the last two post-seasons with injuries -- and he's hit in the head in the first quarter against Seattle. No penalty called. Wentz's season is over and now, so is Philly's.

The Seahawks had a huge game from a rookie. D.K. Metcalf's 160 yards receiving are the most by any rookie in playoff history.

The Eagles, though, they had a chance down eight with under two minutes to go. Backup Josh McCown is sacked, though. The Seahawks defense had a season-high seven sacks in this game. Seattle wins 17 to nine and advance to play the Packers.

There's a bit of a changing of the guard in the NFL this season, John and Alisyn. It's the first time in the divisional round in 17 years no Ben Roethlisberger, no Peyton Manning, and no -- unfortunately John -- Tom Brady.

BERMAN: Just taking a break. Taking a break.

CAMEROTA: Wow, that's a great way to look at it. You are eternally optimistic.

BERMAN: I'm optimistic. I feel good about it.

CAMEROTA: Coy, thank you.

BERMAN: All right.

Dozens killed by fires raging out of control in Australia. We'll take you there live, next, with the extreme danger still ahead.



BERMAN: Fires are burning out of control in Australia with a state of emergency declared now in New South Wales. At least 135 fires are burning in that state alone, half of them not contained. Twenty-four people have died and 23,000 square miles have burned, leading to the country's largest peacetime evacuation in history.

CNN's Andrew Stevens live on the ground with the very latest -- Andrew.

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, it has been an absolutely extraordinary and terrifying weekend for tens of thousands of Australians who got caught up in these fires -- a maelstrom, really, the fires.

At one stage, there was a fire burning roughly the size of Manhattan in New South Wales and in Victoria. Now, these are the two most populous states in Australia. Thousands -- tens of thousands of people were evacuated before the fires got into their towns, but many, many others had to wait. They lifted too late to leave so they had to wait and pray and hope that the fires did not engulf their homes.

So far, we've seen in the past 24 hours -- it's now late Monday night here -- the past 24 hours, we've had a respite finally. The temperatures have plunged, the wind has stopped, and there has actually been some rain. But it's just a respite, John. The temperature is expected to pick up again towards the end of the week, the hot winds are due to come back, and again, the emergency signal is expected to rise.

What we saw over the weekend, we saw temperatures hitting 120 degrees in some parts of Sydney. We saw these hot, hot winds really fanning the flames across the state and moving south, and that has been the real problem here.

Australia is tinder dry. It's been in drought for something like three years now. There's no moisture so anything that takes fire really does take hold.

There's been evacuations today -- attempted evacuations. A thick haze covering many, many of the worst-hit areas.

I'm in Canberra. This is that nation's capital. Behind me is the Parliament building of Australia. Yesterday, you couldn't see this Parliament building. It was covered with thick, black smoke -- so bad, in fact, that they stopped working today in the nation's capital.

So this is a respite -- expected to pick up in the next few days, John. And remember this. We are really at the beginning of Australia's bush fire season. We've perhaps got two more months to go and there's no predictions of any significant rain.


CAMEROTA: Oh my gosh, Andrew. These pictures that we've seen and your reporting, it's all so heartbreaking. I mean, even just watching the wildlife and how they're trying to respond to all of this.

Thank you for your reporting. We'll check back, of course.

So, the Trump administration claims that Soleimani had to be killed because an attack on Americans was imminent, though they've provided no public evidence of that. And what about those comparisons to Benghazi? Do those make sense?

Only one man knows and that's John Avlon. He's here with our reality check. Hi, John.


All right, let's start with what we should all be able to agree on. General Soleimani was a very bad guy. He facilitated terrorism in the Middle East and around the world and no one should shed a tear for his loss. But we should also all care when our government appears to mislead us onto a path to war with no strategic sense of what comes next, except further escalation.

Now, so far, we've heard three sketchy defenses that demand some reality checking.

First, that this is the anti-Benghazi. Now, when protesters back by Iranian militia stormed the American embassy in Baghdad they set fires and broke windows, but were repelled by U.S. troops firing tear gas.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had some great warriors come in and do a fantastic job. They were there instantaneously, as soon as we heard. This will not be a Benghazi. Benghazi should never have happened.


AVLON: But, Don Jr. echoed the anti-Obama Benghazi comparisons as well, and many others.

But there are lots of differences in the breach of our massive embassy in Baghdad and the destruction of the U.S. mission in Benghazi that killed four Americans, perhaps the most relevant being that we had military forces in place at the Baghdad embassy.

The Republican-led Benghazi Commission found there were no military units in the region could have made it in time to stop the killing in Benghazi. And despite conspiracy theories, by the way, President Obama and Sec. Panetta did not delay their response.

OK, number two, Mike Pence's attempt to connect Soleimani to 9/11. The veep tweeted that the general assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks. OK, first, there were 19 hijackers; 15 from Saudi Arabia, not Iran.

And as far as the 9/11 Commission report, it doesn't mention Soleimani at all. It does, however, state that eight to 10 of the hijackers traveled between Iran and Afghanistan but says we found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for the 9/11 attack.

So why would Pence bring 9/11 into this? Well, possibly to argue the administration could kill the general under the original Iraq War authorization from 2002.

OK, so as for evidence that Soleimani was about to strike U.S. targets, the administration still has not publicly revealed what that evidence is. And when Jake Tapper asked the Secretary of State about the urgency of the threat, Pompeo dismissed the idea that it could be measured in days or weeks.

And that brings me to number three.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: This war kicked off when the JCPOA was entered into.


AVLON: What's that, now?

Look, you could disagree with the Iran deal all you want and say the 10-year non-enrichment period was too short, but you can't credibly say that this war kicked off when the deal was made because since Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran restarted the nuclear weapons program it had halted under the agreement.

Now, the Iraqi Parliament just voted unanimously to oust U.S. troops and President Trump threatened to attack Iranian cultural landmarks. It would violate international treaties and unite an otherwise divided Iran while pulling back U.S. forces from the fight against ISIS months after abandoning our Kurdish allies in Syria.

This is the Trump administration's arsonist as a firefighter approach. Lots of tough talk but few honest answers, and more anti-Obama impulse than long-term strategy, all while leaving America more isolated.

And that's your reality check.

CAMEROTA: Really helpful, John. Thank you very much for explaining those comparisons.

All right. So this morning, we've been watching these live pictures of hundreds of thousands of Iranians mourning the death of their top general who was killed by the U.S. Is all of this -- well, it appears that it is, actually, affecting the relationship between the U.S. and Iraq. So we have a new interview with Iraq's president to bring you on what he plans to do next.



BERMAN: President Trump is threatening to impose harsh sanctions on Iraq if they expel U.S. troops. This comes as hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in Tehran, in Iran, to mourn the death -- the killing of their top general who was really so much more than just a military figure.

Joining us now is Robin Wright. She has known the Iraqi president, Barham Salih, for years and just published an interview with him in "The New Yorker."

And, Robin, I found this fascinating. I had a chance to meet President Salih many times over the last 20 years. He's been a figure well-known in the United States and in Europe and Iraq.

And he had one quote in your interview which jumped out to me, and I know it jumped out to you because you open and close with it. "The United States is our ally," President Salih says. "Iran is our neighbor."

What do you think he meant by that?

ROBIN WRIGHT, CONTRIBUTING WRITER, THE NEW YORKER, DISTINGUISHED FELLOW, THE WILSON CENTER: Well, the -- Iraq can't change the geography of it -- of where it is. It is -- shares a 1,400-kilometer border with Iran.

And trying to establish some kind of peace, given that they also waged their own war against each other for eight long years. It is still the Middle East's bloodiest long-term conflict. And the last thing Iraq wants is to become the battlefield for a conflict between the United States and Iran.

I think the Iranians -- the Iraqis have been at war with various players in the region for 40 years since 1980 -- 23 of them under Saddam Hussein and 17 years since the U.S. intervention. And there's a deep fear that it could be, whether overtly or covertly, the stage, the arena, the theater for yet another war that could dwarf the earlier ones.


BERMAN: And, President Salih told you that Iraq cannot survive another conflict in the Middle East.

What do you think -- if forced to choose between Iran and the United States, which seems to be a choice that is very real at this moment, what will the Iraqis decide?

WRIGHT: Well, we saw that play out in the Iraqi Parliament yesterday when it voted to ask the government to expel American forces. Now, that vote is far from final and it's noteworthy that only 170 of the 368 members of Parliament actually voted. And yet, it was 170 to zero.

There still is much to play out. This has to be signed by the prime minister and as you know, the prime minister is a caretaker at the moment. We may actually have to hold -- see new elections in Iraq before we get a new -- a new prime minister that signs off on this.

But it reflects the deep tension. Iraq has been dependent on the United States for 17 years --


WRIGHT: -- first, to fight al Qaeda, now to fight ISIS. And as Barham Salih pointed out, the last war is still not over. There are somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 ISIS fighters still along Iraq's border with Syria. There is still a lot of military challenges to be faced and to conquer before you can see some kind of tension play out or a settlement between Iran and the United States.

This is a very messy situation that plays out in Iraq, but I think also across the wider Middle East. You're seeing threats from Hezbollah in Lebanon, there's lockdown by American missions across the Middle East and South Asia, and Americans are fleeing the region. The consequences of this are just beginning to be felt.

BERMAN: You talk about the battle against ISIS. I think one thing that has been overlooked in the last 24 hours is the U.S. military put out an order saying that operations against ISIS are paused -- literally paused right now because of the threat of Iranian retaliation. So if you're looking at the short-term impact for the killing of Gen. Soleimani, this is one of the short-term consequences.

WRIGHT: It's one of the short-term consequences and the fact is, in some ways, the Iranians are winning as the United States says it's going to pull back from its operations, either to train the Iraqi military or to take on ISIS, and to even be faced with the possibility of leaving.

Soleimani's whole mission was to get the United States out of the Middle East and in death, he's being almost as effective as he was in life.

BERMAN: Now, you spoke to Barham Salih before President Trump made a fresh round of threats against the Iraqis -- against the U.S. ally of Iraq for what would happen if the Iraqis did expel the U.S. troops.

President Trump says, "If they do ask us to leave, if we don't do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they've never seen before. It'll make Iranian sanction look somewhat tame."

Now, many people have rightly pointed out that Iraq was actually under a sanction regime much harsher than even Iran is witnessing right now so, yes, the Iraqis have seen sanctions like that before. Leave that aside for a moment.

I wonder how President Salih would respond to this threat -- this overt threat from the President of the United States.

WRIGHT: I think it's terrifying. As he pointed out to me, that what Iraq really needs is to create jobs so that the young are not attracted to extremist movements like ISIS, like al Qaeda that undermine the state. That the big challenge for Iraq as a microcosm of the whole region is dealing with the problem of building stable states, stable economies.

And the idea that the United States would impose sanctions on a country that has been so pivotal, in which the United States has invested hundreds of billions of dollars, has spent more than 4,000 American lives -- to me, is crazy. This is not a strategy that is going to win any hearts and minds in the Middle East, anywhere.

BERMAN: Robin Wright, terrific speaking with you this morning. Your interview with Barham Salih is fascinating. It's in "The New Yorker" right now. Everyone should go check it out. Thanks so much for being with us.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

BERMAN: And thanks to our international viewers for watching. For you, "CNN NEWSROOM" with Max Foster is next.

For our U.S. viewers, the war of words right now escalating between the United States and Iran. NEW DAY continues now.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Iran continues to be in a state of mourning but, at the same time, is vowing retaliation after the killing of Qasem Soleimani.

POMPEO: And we took a bad guy off the battlefield. We made the right decision. There is less risk today to American forces in the region.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The president threatened to hit Iranian cultural sites if Iran struck any American or any American asset.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): Why I really worry that the actions the president took will get us into what he calls another endless war in the Middle East.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): Iran needs to understand that if we are attacked we will respond.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

BERMAN: Good morning and welcome to your NEW DAY. It is Monday, January sixth. It is 8:00 in the east.

And we do begin with breaking news.