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THE SITUATION ROOM

Leaked Memo Showing U.S. Forces Leaving Iraq; House And Senate To Be Briefed Wednesday On Iran Crisis; Former National Security Adviser John Bolton Will Testify In The Senate If Subpoenaed; Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) Is Interviewed About The Iran Crisis And Senate Impeachment; Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) Is Interviewed About The Iran Crisis; Iran Vows Revenge For Killing Of Top General; Experts Worry Iran Could Attack Soft Targets. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 6, 2020 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're following major developments tonight. Amid a deepening standoff with Iran, the Pentagon now says the U.S. military is not, repeat, not withdrawing its forces after a letter was supposedly mistakenly released notifying Iraq of new troop movements on the part of the United States.

The Pentagon meanwhile is also drawing up new plans to deploy B-52 bombers as officials preparing for the potential Iranian action. The defense secretary says the United States will not target Iranian cultural sites despite threats from President Trump.

Also tonight, former National Security adviser John Bolton is now throwing a wrench into the president's impeachment trial. Bolton now says he will testify if subpoenaed by the U.S. Senate. Our reporters and experts are standing by with all of the new information.

We are tracking the news as only CNN can with our correspondents on the ground in Iraq and Iran, as well as over at the White House and the Pentagon.

CNN's Barbara Starr is gathering new information for us over at the Pentagon. Our Senior International Correspondent, Arwa Damon is joining us live right now from Baghdad.

Arwa, first to you, there is increased I understand flight activity around Baghdad as we speak tonight. What is going on?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there is, Wolf. In fact, we could hear the helicopters overhead and it was an incredibly confusing time because all of a sudden, this letter appeared that was it would seem leaked to the media that seemed to indicate at least from the language of it that the U.S. military was withdrawing.

Well, it turns out, Wolf, that that was a mistake. The language of the letter was not meant to be implying that at all and the U.S. is not at this stage withdrawing its troops according to a U.S. official based here.

At this moment, the U.S. is simply repositioning some troops from one place to another, and this official was very intent on highlighting that the U.S. is still very much partnered with the Iraqi security forces and that most of those contingent, again, small contingent of troops being moved are in an administrative role.

But this letter that ended up implying somehow that the U.S. military was withdrawing comes at an extraordinary tense time for this country. You'll remember that parliament did in fact vote to have all foreign forces leave Iraq.

The argument for that, Wolf, was actually made by the country's caretaker, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi who basically told parliament that given heightened tensions, given that Iraq could not necessarily guarantee the security of foreign forces, it was in America and in Iraq's best interests for troops to leave.

But of course, there are a lot of questions about if and when that happens, what kind of a security vacuum is left behind. But Iraq is finding itself in an increasingly impossible position. If U.S. forces stay, there will be bloodshed. If U.S. forces leave, there still will be potential bloodshed.

BLITZER: Arwa, I want you to stand by. I want to go to Barbara Starr over at the Pentagon. Barbara, you just received a briefing with the defense secretary. Tell our viewers what you are learning because there is a lot of confusion about the status of U.S. forces in Iraq right now.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was an extraordinary afternoon here. First, we had the press briefing from the Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, President Trump's chief military adviser.

The letter that Arwa was talking about comes up in conversation with reporters. We asked what is this all about, does this mean U.S. troops are leaving. And Secretary Esper says no, this is inconsistent with our policy right now. They go away.

General Milley, four-star, chief military adviser to the president comes back to the press corps, back in the press room less than 30 minutes later and says he wants to explain more about this.

He has now been in touch he says with key officials involved in this region and that the letter is a mistake. What it reflects is that U.S. troops are moving around repositioning, some troops actually coming in from Kuwait all about force protection, security for U.S. in Iraq given the heightened tensions.

At this time, no intention of leaving. And the reason they were so adamant to try and publicly say it's a mistake that this language got out is because it has huge strategic implications throughout the region if the U.S. is seen to be packing up and going, essentially leaving Iraq when that is not U.S. policy right now. It just would have massive implication. [17:05:01]

And in fact, this comes on the very afternoon that we have learned the Pentagon is now sending six B-52 long-range bombers to Diego Garcia down in the Indian Ocean. They will be on standby if they are needed for any contingency operations against Iran, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thousands of soldiers, B-52 bombers, ships, they are all on the move right now. This letter though, Barbara, and I have read it. A letter from the brigadier general U.S. Marine Corps to the Iraqi defense ministry, it's very, very specific.

It says the U.S. will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement. It says coalition forces are required to take certain measures to ensure that the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner.

And then it says this, we will conduct these operations during hours of darkness to help alleviate any perception that we may be bringing more coalition forces into the I.Z. We respect your sovereign decision, the letter concludes, to the Iraqis, to order our departure.

Departure is a very, very specific word. Now, does a one-star brigadier general simply write a letter like this on his own or is he instructed to do so?

STARR: Hard to tell, Wolf. He is a one-star -- that makes him a very junior general. Four-star General Milley today said this letter was a mistake.

BLITZER: Was it a mistake to release the letter or was it a mistake to write the letter?

STARR: Well, Milley talked about the very poor wording of the letter. Look, some day U.S. troops are going leave Iraq, but the indications are not just yet. It was aimed at informing the Iraqis. The letter is a draft. It is not signed.

That draft was sent to the Iraqis and apparently leaked from them by all indications that we are told so, perhaps a mistake at best to put any of this detail down in writing.

There is simply no indication as we stand here today that U.S. forces are ready to leave. It may be true some day, but apparently not today, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Barbara Starr and Arwa Damon in Baghdad. We'll get back to both of you for more now on today's developments in the crisis with Iran. Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown. Pamela is here in the "Situation Room." What are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the White House is bracing for a counter attack from Iran as fallout from the strike on Soleimani continues today. White House officials maintain the intent of that strike was to deter

future attacks even as the administration takes steps to prepare for possible severe retaliation raising questions about what the ultimate strategy is.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): Tonight as tensions with Iran escalate, Congressional Democrats are demanding the White House de-classify the formal notification sent to Congress justifying the deadly drone strike against Iranian military commander, Qasem Soleimani.

For the minority leader, Chuck Schumer and Senator Bob Menendez sending a joint letter to President Trump saying, "It is critical that national security matters of such import be shared with the American people in a timely manner.An entirely classified notification is simply not appropriate in a Democratic society.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling the White House's decision to classify the entire notification highly unusual, saying in a statement, "The move suggests that Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security."

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: This is a bad guy. We took him from the battlefield.

BROWN (voice-over): Secretary of State Mike Pompeo avoiding directly answering questions about the imminent threat the administration says Soleimani posed in the region.

POMPEO: We saw that he was plotting further plans to take down Americans and in some cases many Americans, we took the right action to defend and protect America. President Trump will never shy away from that.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: When you say the attacks were imminent, how imminent were they? Are we talking about days, are we talking about weeks?

POMPEO: If you are an American in the region, days and weeks, this is not something that's relevant. We have to prepare. We have to be ready. And we took a bad guy off of the battlefield. We made the right decision. There is a less risk today to American forces in the region as a result of that attack.

BROWN (voice-over): Ahead of an intelligence briefing for the House and Senate from key administration officials set for Wednesday, Pelosi introducing a war powers resolution in the House aimed at limiting the president's powers with regard to Iran going forward.

On his way back to Washington from his two-week Mar-a-Lago holiday, the president told reporters aboard Air Force One that he may discuss releasing the intelligence, but didn't commit to anything.

As Iran mourns the loss of Soleimani, Trump also renewing his threats to target and attack Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliates against the U.S. saying, "They are allowed to kill our people. They are allowed to torture and maim our people. They're allowed the use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we are not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn't work that way."

[17:09:58]

But Defense Secretary Mark Esper contradicting the president today saying the U.S. military will follow the laws of armed conflict, which would not allow for such attacks.

In preparation for a potential response, American troops over the weekend prepared for deployment to the Middle East to bolster security at U.S. facilities there, leaving families and spouses behind and on edge.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is stressful for sure especially with everything that has escalated recently. He was supposed to be only doing like trainings and now it has obviously transpired into something else. So, we are making it through though.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (on camera): Now as questions loom about what the intelligence was specifically that led to the strike, there are a number of briefings on Iran scheduled for this week with lawmakers and administration officials.

In fact, Secretary Pompeo was on Capitol Hill today for a classified briefing on Iran, unclear exactly who he met with. The Gang of Eight is expected to be briefed tomorrow. House members as well as Senators will also receive a briefing on Wednesday, Wolf.

BLITZER: Lots of briefings. We'll see what happens. Pamela Brown, thank you very much. Also tonight, we're learning surprising new information on impeachment. President Trump's former National Security adviser, John Bolton, now says he is prepared to testify during a Senate trial if he is subpoenaed by the Senate.

Our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta is joining us right now. Give us the latest on this Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Trump steered clear of the cameras today, but he did sound off on conservative talk radio defending his decision to take out the Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani and slamming the impeachment process here in Washington.

Aides to the president now have to keep their eyes on two big wild cards, the Iranian regime and former National Security adviser, John Bolton, who now says he will testify at an impeachment trial.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Keeping the U.S. on a potential path to war, President Trump is vowing swift action should Iran seek vengeance for the killing of General Qasem Soleimani. The president told conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh he is waiting to see what Iran does next.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They should have been taken out a long time ago and we had a shot at it and we took him out. And we're a lot safer now because of it. We'll see what happens. We'll see what the response is, if any.

ACOSTA (voice-over): As the protesters took to the streets after Iran announced it has abandoned its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, the president ramped up the rhetoric on twitter. Mr. Trump tweeted, "Iran will never have a nuclear weapon."

But the president still hasn't publicly provided any evidence backing up his claim that Soleimani was on the verge of carrying out an attack on Americans.

TRUMP: Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.

ACOSTA (voice-over): In the impeachment inquiry, one of the GOP's biggest talks (inaudible), former National Security adviser John Bolton has re-emerged, offering to appear at Mr. Trump's upcoming Senate trial saying in a statement, "I have concluded that if the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to testify."

Bolton's testimony could be explosive especially when it comes to the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and his role in the administration's alleged scheme to find dirt on Joe Biden in Ukraine.

FIONA HILL, FORMER RUSSIA ADVISER: And the cause of that discussion said that Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up.

ACOSTA (voice-over): About Bolton, Giuliani told CNN, "He never said anything to me. Maybe he's a bit passive aggressive." Democrats are once again insisting it's time to open up the Senate trial to witnesses.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: One of the key witnesses I have asked for, Mr. John Bolton, former National Security adviser to President Trump, correctly acknowledged that he needs to comply with a Senate subpoena for his testimony if issued.

ACOSTA (voice-over): That is not what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Even with a process, this constitutionally is serious. Even with the tensions rising in the Middle East, House Democrats are treating impeachment like a political toy.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president is also on a collision course with Congress over Iran, trying to make the case that is posed on social media or some kind of legal notice that he may take military action tweeting, "This media posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly and fully strike back and perhaps in a disproportionate manner." The White House is defending that by saying Democrats can't be trusted.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: But again, a lot of people just like to head straight to the cameras. Could you imagine telling the chairman of the intel committee one Adam Schiff that this was going to happen? Could you imagine? The man goes to bed with his earpiece and microphone on.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (on camera): Now, as for impeachment, a source close to the White House says the president faces "maximum danger" heading into a Senate trial because of the potential for surprises that could be damaging to Mr. Trump.

The prospect of John Bolton testifying is exactly that kind of unpredictability that the White House fears. Now, GOP Senator Mitt Romney told CNN earlier this afternoon that he would like to hear from John Bolton.

[17:14:59]

But whether or not Republicans actually vote to subpoena the former National Security adviser, that is another question, Wolf, and it's not clear at this point whether there will be the votes for that kind of action, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jim, thank you. Jim Acosta over at the White House. Let's get some more now on all the late breaking developments with Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono. She's a member of the Senate Arms Services Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us. Let's talk about this unusual letter now that the Pentagon says was a mistake. A top general was saying it was a mistake. The U.S. notified Iraq of new troop movements in the region.

General Mark Milley says the implied withdrawal of troops is not happening. How do you interpret these mixed, very confusing messages, what's in this letter as opposed to what the top U.S. general now says?

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI), ARMED SERVICE COMMITTEE: I conclude that there is ongoing chaos with this administration. And clearly the Iraqi parliament wants us to leave, and so this letter actually seemed to comport with that and only to be told moments later that that was a mistake.

So, you know, you asked earlier what is the end game, I don't think there is an end game that this administration thought about because this is the way the president makes his decision.

And so here we are with chaos in the Middle East. We are sending close to 10,000 more troops into the Middle East. Where they are going to be stationed, we don't know. We're sending B-52s. And rather than de- escalating the tensions that are already there, I think we've done the opposite with the president's precipitous action.

BLITZER: Secretary of State Pompeo briefed senators on a run this afternoon. You serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Have you been briefed?

HIRONO: No.

BLITZER: Why?

HIRONO: So, we're going to be briefed on Wednesday so I don't know who Pompeo briefed. Perhaps he briefed the Republicans. I do not know.

However, it is really difficult at this stage for us to give that much credence to the after the fact explanations by this administration, because first they do this killing and then they provide us with all the explanations and rationales.

How are we supposed to rely on what this administration comes up with, but the fact is that there is uncertainty, there is chaos. There is a lot of room for miscalculations going on.

And with the president just letting everybody know by tweet and says, oh, let's wait and see what happens, and then you have the Secretary of State saying, well, you know, Iran will make some noise.

This is not a game. And, you know, when you have Mitch McConnell going on the floor of the Senate saying that we treat this whole situation including impeachment, well, he was mainly talking about impeachment as a game, I would call that major projection on the part of the Republicans and their leadership.

BLITZER: After President Trump twice threatened Iranian cultural sites on twitter as possible sites for retaliation, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper now says the U.S. will not target cultural sites. Are you confident in the secretary of defense's assurance?

HIRONO: The president says a lot of things off the top of his head and then you find the adults, the few possibly remaining adults who have to make an explanation. So, you know, the president just said this -- I kind of doubt that the military will actually defy international law to go after cultural sites.

But again, these are all distractions. I think that the president is so concerned about the impeachment -- impending impeachment trial that this is a heck of a way to distract us and using basically the lives of our troops and not to mention the civilians in this area.

BLITZER: Speaking of impeachment, the former National Security adviser at the White House, John Bolton, now says he would be willing to testify before the Senate if he is subpoenaed. And Republican Senator Marco Rubio has already come out against that move. Tell us why you think Bolton would be a critical witness. HIRONO: IT's very clear that Bolton has firsthand knowledge of what

the president was doing with regard to Ukraine, and in fact, he called the whole endeavor with Giuliani a drug deal. So yes, he has information.

And if he were to tell the truth, I think it probably would corroborate what the people have already testified to and that is the president shook down the president of Ukraine to get what he wants politically.

And it is basically -- I'd say a drug deal is a pretty good way to describe what was going on there, but it's a big if that the Senate will subpoena Bolton because if Mitch McConnell has his way, nobody is going to be called on the testify.

At that point, we'll have the evidence that was already adduced in the House inquiry, and that's pretty damning evidence with regard to what the president did.

BLITZER: All right. Senator thanks so much for joining us. Mazie Hirono joining us from Capitol Hill.

HIRONO: Thank you. Aloha.

BLITZER: Aloha to you as well.

Still ahead, as tensions between the U.S. and Iran are ratcheting up, what will the Iranian regime do next?

[17:19:57]

And all the while, thousands of U.S. troops are right now, they're deploying to the Middle East. We have details.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight, amid a deepening stand off with Iran, there is confusion about what's happening with U.S. forces in Iraq. Joining us now, Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia. She is a key member of the Foreign Affairs Committee as well as a former CIA case officer.

Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us. I quickly want to start with this very confusing letter saying U.S. troops are repositioning in Iraq to prepare for "onward movement." It also says, "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure."

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs now says the letter was poorly worded and released publicly by mistake and released to the Iraqi government by mistake.

[17:25:04]

What do you read between the lines? REP. ABIGAIL SPANBERGER (D-VA): Well, I think there is a lot to be

viewed here, a lot of confusion, frankly. There is confusion within the American government. There is confusion about what this means.

I think that we can be certain that there is confusion within the Iraqi government as to what their partners, the United States, means by this letter. I think it speaks to a bit of chaos and freneticism.

And forward looking, I think we must be very concerned about what strategy exists to move our country forward, protect our national security interests and ensure that our U.S. personnel overseas are operating on an order and on a strategic plan that will keep them safe, and meet the U.S. objectives.

BLITZER: Do you believe the strike on Soleimani has jeopardized the overall U.S. mission in Iraq?

SPANBERGER: Well, I think certainly when you see the Iraqi parliament assessing that U.S. soldiers should leave the country when our mission on the ground has been to fight ISIS, fight transnational terror organization meant to do harm to the west, to our country and to Iraq, itself, I think that it is hard to see that we are any better off.

And I think looking forward into what the next steps are going to be, we have to ensure that we are strengthening the relationship that we have with the Iraqis. We have to ensure that the mission that has been the primary focus of thousands of soldiers, U.S. personnel in Iraq, to fight ISIS, to keep our country safe is one that isn't being jeopardized.

BLITZER: You dealt with Iran when you were a CIA case officer. Based on what you've heard from the administration at least so far, how likely is it that this strike thwarted what the administration says, the president says was an imminent attack from Soleimani?

SPANBERGER: So, I was a CIA case officer. I worked Iranian issues. I worked counterterrorism issues. And, you know, I think it's clear when we look at the 20 years that General Soleimani had leading -- going up the ranks and leading the Quds force.

Redefining what asymmetric warfare looks like for the Iranians, planning and in many cases, executing attacks in the Middle East and Africa and South America and planning attacks here even in the United States, it is clear that he was at the helm of this organization.

The Quds force that meant to do harm constantly and consistently to America and its allies. I think that the challenge though is I don't think anyone is under any illusion that he was the one who was going to be leading a militia to attack an American base or that he would be the one driving a truck bomb.

Those individuals are still out there. The persons who might be committing an attack against U.S. forces or U.S. interests are still out there, and he spent many years upon years building this infrastructure. So I think as we are looking to what our next steps are, we need to know that while removing him from the battlefield, removing him as a threat is one potential step.

The hundreds if not thousands of people he trained remain there and that threat and that challenges is clear and it's one that requires a firm, concise strategy for how to deal with the threat that comes from the Iranian regime.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly does. Representative Spanberger, thank you so much for joining us.

SPANBERGER: Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Coming up, we'll have more on U.S. troop deployments including the expected movement of B-52 bombers closer and closer to Iran.

[17:30:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We have much more ahead on the growing tensions right now between the United States and Iran, but we're also following a blockbuster story here in Washington where the former national security adviser, John Bolton, today, announced publicly he is willing to testify at President Trump's upcoming impeachment trial if he is subpoenaed by the U.S. Senate.

Let's get some insight from our correspondents and our analysts.

And, Gloria Borger, potentially, this could be very, very significant.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think it is very significant. And I was talking with a Senate Democratic leadership aide today, who said to me they do not expect, however, Mitch McConnell to change his mind much.

And they haven't exactly seen a lot of Republicans raising their hands and saying, oh, now, I really think we should subpoena him. So the question is, can they get four Democrats to say yes --

BLITZER: Four Republicans.

BORGER: I mean, sorry, four -- to say we --

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Republican.

BORGER: -- four Republicans, right, to say we want to do this. And right now, they don't -- they don't have those, and so this is going to have to play out.

The question that I have, and maybe Dana knows the answer to this, is -- say the Senate refuses to do it. Adam Schiff, today, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has said, you know, let's let the Senate go first here. If the Senate doesn't do it, what does the House do?

[17:34:58]

He has made it pretty clear, Bolton, that he wants to testify in the Senate and not in the House. Can he choose? We don't -- we don't know. Does this wind up in court? Does this go on now ad infinitum? Those are unanswered questions.

BLITZER: What's the answer, Dana?

BASH: Well, we don't know. I mean, a lot of this --

BLITZER: Are there four Republicans potentially --

BASH: That's the first question.

BLITZER: -- who will side with the 47 Democrats --

BASH: Perhaps.

BLITZER: -- assuming all the Democrats stick together and get to a majority of 51?

BASH: Perhaps. So, I agree, Gloria, right now, we don't -- they're not raising their hands. But it's a different thing to say before the trial starts, yes, please, John Bolton, come and testify against the President who's on the same -- a lot of them are on the same ballot as me at the -- in November of this year.

It's a whole different question when and if there's a trial going on and if the rules go as McConnell is hoping right now -- and maybe Schumer is coming around to this now that we have this news from Bolton -- there will be an option to call witnesses.

Democrat, you know, raises their hand, however it works, and says, you know, we want to call John Bolton. It's a whole different story to have a vote, which is what will happen, on whether or not to call a witness and to have these Republicans have to go home, especially those who are in tough re-election, you know, bids, to go home and say, no, I don't want to hear from a guy who could give us answers.

You know, that's different from an ultimate vote of acquitting or not. I mean, this is fact-finding and to say, no, I don't want to fact- find, the Democrats are banking on at least four Republicans saying, OK, fine, we'll hear from him.

BORGER: After you've been complaining about hearsay --

BASH: Precisely.

BORGER: -- for months and saying, well, the Democrats are basing this all on hearsay. Well, here is somebody who is the witness to the action and --

BLITZER: Right.

BORGER: -- you wouldn't call him?

BLITZER: You would think they would want that. You know, let's turn to the tensions, Karim, with the United States and Iraq and tensions, certainly, with Iran right now. You're an expert on the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment. How close, do you believe, this whole situation is to ratcheting up big time?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, SENIOR ASSOCIATE, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT: I don't think we're close to a full-blown war. And I don't think Iran is going to respond by attacking Times Square, but there three particular targets I would be worried about.

Number one is that a few years ago, there were Israeli assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists. What -- how we saw Iran respond was to go after Israeli diplomats in places no one was thinking about, Thailand, India, Georgia. So the kind of soft diplomatic outposts globally.

Number two, I just came back from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leadership is very worried about attacks, not only on their oil infrastructure but also on desalination facilities. You know, that could affect the water supply of millions of Saudis.

Finally, I worry about an attack -- a proxy attack from Yemen, Iran's Yemeni ally, the Houthis, on a place like the Dubai airport, which is one of the busiest airports in the entire world, which could cause major havoc, not only to the global oil prices but just, you know, global trade.

BLITZER: In the United Arab Emirates.

SADJADPOUR: Yes.

BLITZER: And that would be a very serious development. Mark, what are you hearing?

MARK MAZZETTI, WASHINGTON INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, and the -- and to add on to that, what Karim is saying, you have instances of Iranian attacks over -- in recent months and the U.S. not responding.

The Saudi Aramco attacks in September, there were attacks on tankers in the -- in the -- earlier in the year. And, of course, that raised questions in the gulf region about what the disposition of the United States was. Would the Trump administration intervene?

In terms of right now, I think there has been this frantic post facto effort by the Trump administration to justify the killing of Soleimani, right? As we know, Soleimani had been engaged in these types of operations for years.

There have been questions going back to two previous presidents about whether to go after him; the decision was not to. This question still remains, what was the decision -- what led to the decision by President Trump to target him? And was there any real consideration given to the repercussions? BLITZER: You write, Karim, that the President's warning that the U.S.

might bomb Iranian cultural sites is, quote, in your words, one of the most asinine ideas in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Why?

SADJADPOUR: Well, the people of Iran are America's allies. The people of Iran want to be South Korea, not North Korea. And if you gratuitously bomb Iran's cultural sites, that's going to alienate every single Iranian on the planet. We need them as our allies.

BLITZER: That's an important point. Everybody, stand by, there's more news we're following as thousands -- hundreds of thousands, I should say, vent their anger at the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general. What will Tehran do next? We'll be back.

[17:39:35]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right. Let's go right to the center of the expanding crisis right now in the Middle East. Our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us live. He's got new developments. He's joining us from Tehran.

Fred, massive, massive crowds have been gathering in the Iranian capital. Tell us what they're demanding.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it certainly was massive crowds that were in Tehran, lining the streets today as the coffin of Qasem Soleimani and the others who were killed in that U.S. strike in Baghdad were taken through the streets in a funeral procession.

And I was right in the middle of those crowds, and I could see those people. A lot of them, obviously, were grieving because Qasem Soleimani, to a lot of Iranians, is a very popular figure as controversial as he is in the United States.

But a lot of people were also extremely angry at the U.S. and specifically at the Trump administration. There were a lot of people who were carrying placards that simply had two words on them, saying harsh revenge.

[17:45:01]

And a lot of those people are saying they want their government, they want their leadership, to take revenge on the United States. And a lot of people were saying that they want to do that as fast as possible.

Of course, we know from the Iranians that they do plan strikes against U.S. installations. They say it will be military installations as a senior advisor to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told me very recently.

And Khamenei himself was actually also at this event today. He prayed personally at the coffin of Qasem Soleimani just to show how important Soleimani was to the power structure here in Iran.

What was also very important, actually, Wolf, at that event as well is that Soleimani's successor was also at that event as well. And he was then questioned by Iranian state media, and he said it was also his policy to take revenge at the United States and, as he put it, drive America out of the Middle East, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, so there's a lot going on, we're going to get back to you as well. Fred Pleitgen in Tehran for us. Thank you.

Coming up, we'll have much more on the threat posed by Iran. Could they hit the U.S. homeland or so-called soft targets like hotels and resorts around the world?

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[17:51:05]

BLITZER: We're tracking major new developments in the crisis with Iran right now. Top Iranian officials are vowing revenge after the killing of a powerful general.

Our Brian Todd is joining us. Brian, are the Iranians honing in on specific targets for retaliation?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, analysts believe that the Iranians are honing in on some targets or are going to be doing that very soon.

While law enforcement officials say there's no indication of an active or imminent plot tonight, Iran's track record suggests the regime will wait for its moment, will definitely strike, and then will try to erase its footprints.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

TODD (voice-over): Threats that America will pay for the killing of top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. The threats come from Iran's supreme leader, from the man who replaced Soleimani as head of Iran's Quds Force, and from Soleimani's own daughter.

ZEINAB SOLEIMANI, GEN. QASEM SOLEIMANI'S DAUGHTER (through translator): Don't think that by assassinating my father, everything is finished.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, analysts warn the regime in Tehran will strike back.

MICHAEL RUBIN, FORMER PENTAGON ANALYST ON IRAN: I think it's absolutely certain that the Iranians are going to retaliate. The only question is when.

TODD (voice-over): Experts warn tonight of attacks on soft targets like hotels and resorts from Iranian operatives or Iran's proxies. RUBIN: A lot of people talk about retaliation against Israel or

retaliation against the United States in the Middle East. I'd be much more worried being an American tourist or American diplomat in Bangkok, Thailand or Tbilisi, Georgia or Jakarta, Indonesia.

TODD (voice-over): But Americans at home could be potential targets for Iran as well.

ANTHONY FERRANTE, FORMER FBI CYBER COUNTERINTELLIGENCE AGENT: I think it's fair to say that there's a real threat that Iran could bring this conflict into the home and businesses of every American family.

TODD (voice-over): Analysts say Iran has beefed up its hacking capabilities since it was attacked by the Stuxnet virus, which damaged its nuclear program several years ago.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials say Iran was behind a 2014 cyber-attack on American casinos in which credit card and driver's license information and Social Security numbers were stolen. They're accused of hacking into dozens of American banks. And in 2013, hackers believed to be working for Iran breached the controls of a dam outside New York City, former officials say.

FERRANTE: While they didn't have the ability to manipulate systems, they certainly did compromise the critical infrastructure, the control systems of the dam, and they were poking around within the systems.

TODD (voice-over): One law enforcement official and several national security experts tell CNN another major concern is American diplomats and military installations being targeted in the Middle East.

Iran and its proxy groups like the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terror group, have struck at the American military before, like in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia where 19 American servicemen were killed, nearly 400 others wounded.

Hezbollah is also a dangerous Iranian ally for an attack on U.S. soil. The terror group is believed to have weapons caches in the West, to launder money through drug-trafficking operations in Latin America, and a recent criminal case suggests it has sleeper cells inside the U.S.

And experts say a hit from Hezbollah allows Iran to keep its fingerprints off an attack.

RUBIN: What I think the chief Iranian concern is going to be is plausible deniability. So I suspect we're going to see some bombings, but we're not going to see the bombings with a return address obviously in Iran.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: A targeted assassination by the Iranians on U.S. soil, experts say, is also a distinct possibility. The Iranians are believed to have killed a prominent Iranian dissident in the suburbs of Washington by having an assassin posing as a mailman shoot him at his doorstep.

And the Iranians got pretty far along in plot that ultimately failed to kill Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the U.S. by blowing him up inside a restaurant in Washington. Wolf, that was just a few years ago. You and I remember that plot well.

[17:55:00]

BLITZER: We certainly do. All right, Brian, thank you very much. Very disturbing information.

Coming up, more on the crisis with Iran as the U.S. military prepares for potential retaliation and the Trump administration defends the intelligence that convinced the President to kill Iran's top general.

Plus, will John Bolton testify during an impeachment trial in the Senate? The former national security adviser now says he's willing to talk, but Republicans might not want to hear what he has to say.

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[17:59:59]

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