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Pompeo Defends Soleimani Killing but Administration Not Offering Evidence of "Imminent Attack"; U.S. Forces on High Alert for Possible Iran Drone Attacks; U.S. Blocks Visa to Iran's Foreign Minister, Who Issues Threat While Speaking to CNN; Pentagon Letter Suggesting Iraq Troop Withdrawal a "Mistake". Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining me.

New concerns this morning about the safety and security of U.S. troops abroad as the crisis between the United States and Iran escalates.

Just a moment ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to reporters about the threat. But he also did not offer any more clarity on the intelligence that led to the strike to kill the top Iranian commander, only offering this, listen.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: So if you're looking for imminence, you need look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani. And then you in addition to that have what we can clearly see were continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead potentially to the death of many more Americans.


BOLDUAN: Is that imminent or is Mike Pompeo backtracking or softening on the existence of the specific and imminent threat here? His answers are leading to more questions at this moment.

Joining me now, CNN pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, CNN national security reporter, Kylie Atwood, at the State Department.

Kylie, let me start with you.

You were at the press briefing with Mike Pompeo. What was your big takeaway?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: No more details, Kate, from the secretary of state on what they specifically mean, when Trump administration officials keep referencing this imminent threat. But what we did hear from Pompeo today was a reference to the strike

on Qasem Soleimani, sitting perfectly within the U.S. strategy to counter Iran. That tells us the Trump administration is moving to a place where military strikes are part of the Iran strategy.

He was asked specifically, does this maximum pressure campaign on Iran include military strikes. He said that the maximum pressure campaign has diplomatic, economic and military components.

And he reiterated what we have heard from President Trump in the last few days, that if Iran does strike, does retaliate, like they have said they're planning to do, the U.S. is not going to sit back. He said that they will face another decisive action like the U.S. took with this strike on Qasem Soleimani.

So they're being very threatening in the fact that the U.S. is ready to act if Iran retaliates.

The other thing, Kate, that he spoke about is the cultural sites. President Trump has said that the U.S. is targeting Iranian cultural sites. Over the weekend, Secretary Pompeo said that President Trump wasn't saying that, when in fact he was.

So he was asked about that again today. Let's listen to what he said in response to that question.


POMPEO: Every target that is being reviewed, every effort that is being made will always be conducted inside the international laws of war. Seen it, I've worked on this project and I'm very confident of that.


ATWOOD: Now what the secretary did not say is if President Trump orders strikes on Iranian cultural sites, if he would support such a decision. Because we have now heard from him that the U.S. will act within the international laws of war. We've already heard that from Secretary of Defense Esper.

But he's really not willing to separate himself from what President Trump has repeatedly said on this topic -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes. Seems almost like more like a deflection, if you will, to not -- to have to be forced to contradict him directly.

Thank you so much, Kylie.

Barbara, what are you learning then about the new concern now over possible drone strikes coming from Iran?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate what we know is that it was a night of anxiety, if you will, for U.S. forces and commanders across the Middle East. There was intelligence that Iran might launch a drone attack, their

drones being equipped with missiles, against U.S. installations in several locations of concern, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, all locations across that region where it is very well known, including by the Iranians, obviously, that there are large and significant numbers of U.S. forces.

The intelligence showed, we are told, that the Iranians might be preparing for an imminent attack.

So let's focus on that again, that word "imminent." What we're talking about is intelligence that led the U.S. to the analysis that this might happen.

They put U.S. forces, patriot missile batteries, defenses on the highest state of vigilance to watch for any incoming threats. Thankfully, there was no attack.

But it is a question of intelligence analysis. And it is the same thing we have seen throughout this crisis. The Intelligence Community gets information, they look at the indicators, they look at what's going on, and they come to what they believe are some reasonable conclusions, scenarios about what might happen, notify the military, and the military takes the appropriate steps.


Not likely to probably be the last time this higher state of vigilance happened.

The U.S. now very obviously watchful for any signs of Iranian retaliation -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Barbara, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Kylie, thank you as well.

Back to the key question surrounding the drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani. What was the imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, in the president's words, that the president said Soleimani was plotting that demanded the attack to take him out? We just heard from secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

Also this morning, the president's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, he told CNN this.


ROBERT O'BRIEN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: He was plotting to kill, to attack American facilities and diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines located at those facilities, correct.


BOLDUAN: If that is the case, the administration relied on intelligence to determine a plot was in the works. Intelligence coming from the Intelligence Community. And that is one of the things that doesn't add up here that continues to nag a lot of people, this one included, as this is all played out.

The president has spent three years undermining, questioning and flat out disparaging the Intelligence Community over and over again. Here is a reminder.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've dealt with some people that aren't very intelligent, having to do with intel.

As I think you all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They have run amok.


BOLDUAN: And now he was saying to the American public, trust me, because I trust the intelligence. Take my word for it.

Set aside the messy past here with the justification for the Iraq war, this president, in this moment, really cannot have it both ways. Either declare you trust the Intelligence Community or you don't. And until then how can you expect the American public to trust you on this when lives are at stake?

Joining me now, CNN chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, and retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, a former state and Defense Department official under George Bush and former deputy director of coalition forces in Iraq.

Thank you both so much for being here.

General, the president has said an attack was imminent. That word has become key and there are legal ramifications to it. I have heard -- I have heard you say that you hear that Soleimani was in Baghdad to oversee an attack.

What do you make then of Mike Pompeo? He's not offering further evidence of an imminent attack. He's focusing on things today that already happened and already are publicly known to make the case that something was imminent.

GEN. MARK KIMMITT, FORMER STATE & DEFENSE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL & FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF COALITION FORCES IN IRAQ: Well, I think there may be a concern about sources and methods that are being used, which is why they aren't being completely open with the intelligence. It is important to protect our sources and methods. We do that all the time, throughout war, throughout operations.

It may be that as the Gang of Eight are briefed, more information will come out to them, more intelligence will come out to them. It is my great concern and my great hope that that information is not then taken outside to a microphone and heavily politicized.

I'm pretty comfortable --


BOLDUAN: Do you think though, General -- I want to hear what you're comfortable with, do you think the president, State Department, whomever, needs to make a more public case for why this was required, or from what you heard are you comfortable with it?

KIMMITT: I think with the great level of suspicion and politization that is going on with all aspects of not only domestic, but foreign policy, I do think it would be good for the president to make the case.

BOLDUAN: Clarissa, what do you make of what we heard from the secretary of state here? He did not -- he had an opportunity, and as the general says, could be about -- still classified and protecting sources and methods.

When he came to the cameras, he had an opportunity to explain the reasoning, the justification, behind the need to take -- to take this dramatic action, to take out Soleimani. He did not take that opportunity.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, he didn't. And I think, more broadly speaking, this was an opportunity, Kate, to your point, to speak with real clarity and conviction about this is why we did this, this is why it was important, this is what the strategy is, and this is what comes next.

The word we kept hearing Mike Pompeo use was, you know, unambiguous. There was no ambiguity. But I would say it is rather the reverse. What we're seeing from this administration is a startling amount of ambiguity, about a topic that is really so vitally important to Americans national security.

And when you're talking about the killing of Qasem Soleimani, you're not going to find that many people in the U.S. or here in Europe who are shedding tears for the death of this general. He was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, and probably hundreds of thousands of people in the region of Iran and the Middle East.


But people do still want to have some sense that there's a strategy here, that this maximum pressure policy is leading to a clear objective.

And so far, what we're seeing are mixed messages. Is it, I want to pack up and leave the Middle East and be done with all these wars once and for all, or is it we're going to double down and we're going to fight until we get rid of the ayatollah and his regime?

And there's a startling difference between those two policies. And I don't feel we're that much clearer after listening to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on really having a sense of what the directive is -- Kate? BOLDUAN: I'm interested on your take on that, General, in terms of if

military strikes are now part of the maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

But also to my point earlier, I wanted to get your take. It seems a tall order to call on the American public to blindly trust the president here when he's citing the Intelligence Community when he's spent his entire presidency saying, don't trust them.

Why does that -- where does that leave us?

KIMMITT: First, I want to go to Clarissa's point. There has always been this contradiction since President Trump was on the campaign trail. He has said he wants to end endless wars in the Middle East. But at the same time, he said he wants to have an issue -- he wants to double down on his policy and views with regards to Iran.

That policy has always been in place, and it only becomes more pronounced at times like this.

I'm not going to speak for the president, how he wants to communicate that information to the American people. But I think all of us would recognize that we would be more convinced.

But candidly, I also believe we're overblowing this whole situation about the killing of Qasem Soleimani.

BOLDUAN: Tell me why.

KIMMITT: Well, simply he was a battlefield commander. Everybody would say he was somehow a member of the Iranian government.

He was a battlefield commander, as Clarissa said, responsible for the killing of many, many Americans, over 600, and more importantly the maiming of thousands.

And he was a combatant recently. We have seen his actions through his proxies, attacking drones, attacking oil factory facilities but, most importantly, killing Americans on the battlefield. He made himself a legitimate battlefield target.

And I think in fact that's exactly what happened. A battlefield target was taken out. It would be no difference than the commander on the ground in Iraq getting killed. It is combat. He made himself a legitimate target. He became a legitimate target.

BOLDUAN: Clarissa, there's also this disconnect in the response, in the aftermath. The president saying he will target cultural sites if the United States is hit once again. And Mike Pompeo, he's not contradicting the president directly. He -- he's leaning on saying that all targets will be consistent with international law. I don't know if there's real wiggle room there. Tell me if you believe there is.

But how does the rest -- how do the folks outside of the United States, U.S. allies see the lack of clarity on this? WARD: I think everyone, Kate, is twisting themselves into pretzels to

try to make it very clear that they do not support the targeting of cultural sites that they support, you know, active law, international law and rules of engagement in wars.

But at the same time, no one wants to be seen publicly to rebuke President Trump because that's awkward. We saw that with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the U.K. yesterday, saying, you know, he won't directly say he disagrees with President Trump, but he makes it clear that Britain would never support the targeting of cultural sites.

That's essentially what we also heard from the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, and even from Mike Pompeo.

I think beyond that, there's a sense that perhaps President Trump is being provocative here and is almost creating a side show or a distraction from the issue, which I mentioned previously, which underscores all of this, which is, what is the strategy here with regards to Iran. What is the next step? How can this be de- escalated?

By getting everybody whipped up into a tizzy talking about cultural sites, that enables them to move the conversation from where it arguably should be, which is grounded in a matter of substance and policy -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Excellent point.

Thank you, Clarissa.

General Kimmitt, thank you for coming in. I really appreciate it.

KIMMITT: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, Iran's foreign minister is issuing a new threat against the United States in the aftermath of all this. CNN's Fred Pleitgen, he spoke to Javad Zarif and he'll bring us some of that interview from Tehran, next.



And later, now that former national security adviser, John Bolton, has said he is willing to testify if subpoenaed in the Senate impeachment trial, the next big question on Capitol Hill, do Republicans, enough Republicans want to hear from him.


BOLDUAN: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed this morning that the United States denied a visa for the Iranian foreign minister, blocking Javad Zarif from coming to the United States to speak before the U.N. Security Council this week.

He was responding to Zarif, tweeting this about the visa earlier, where Zarif asks: "What are they afraid of? Truth."

As the foreign minister levels a new threat at the United States during the interview with CNN today.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen joins me from Tehran with more on that remarkable interview.

Fred, what else did he tell you?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Brooke (sic). He was absolutely angry still at the United States for that targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani. He called it state terrorism and he vowed that Iran would respond.

Now, I asked him, of course, what exactly that kind of response meant and he didn't want to tell me. He said Iran would do it in their own way and on their own time.


One of the other things that he said is something that senior Iranian military commanders have also been saying since the killing of Qasem Soleimani, that they believe that the killing could mark the beginning of the end, as they put it, of America's presence in the Middle East.

Let's listen to Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran.


PLEITGEN: You have said that Iran will retaliate for the targeted killing of General Qasem Soleimani. President Trump said there would be a disproportionate response if you do that. What do you make of President Trump's threats?

JAVAD ZARIF, IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER: His threats will not frighten us.

What he's showing something. He's showing to the international community he has no respect for international law. That he's prepared to commit war crimes because attacking cultural sites is a war crime. In disproportionate response is a war crime. But he doesn't -- he doesn't care it seems about international law.

But has he made U.S. more secure? Do Americans feel more secure? Are Americans welcome today in this region? Do they feel welcome?

PLEITGEN: Your government and your leadership and the military here has vowed to take action against the United States.


ZARIF: The United States --


ZARIF: The United States violated three principles. Iraqi sovereignty, and the agreement that they had with Iraq. They got a response from the Iraqi parliament. They violated the emotions of the people. They will get a response from the people.

They killed one of our most revered commanders and most-senior commanders and they took responsibility for it. This is state terrorism. This is an act of aggression against Iraq. And it amounts to an armed attack against Iran.

And we will respond. But we will respond proportionately, not disproportionately, because we are committed to law. We are law- abiding people. We're not lawless like President Trump.

PLEITGEN: You think you can strike at any point?

ZARIF: Well, we feel --


PLEITGEN: Because you obviously --


PLEITGEN: It is no secret you control militias in this region, you have forces on your side in this region in many countries.

ZARIF: No. We have people on our side in this region. That's much more important.

The United States believes that this beautiful military equipment, according to President Trump, that you spent $2 trillion on this beautiful military equipment. Beautiful military equipment don't rule the world. People rule the world. People.

The United States has to wake up to the reality that the people of this region are engaged, that the people of this region want the United States out. And the United States cannot stay in this region with the people of the region not wanting it anymore.

PLEITGEN: Would it be worth speaking to him?

ZARIF: It doesn't need speaking. He has to realize he has been fed misinformation. And he needs to wake up. And apologize. He has to apologize. He has to change course.

He cannot add a mistake upon another mistake. He's just making it worse for America. He's destroying the U.S. Constitution. He's destroying the U.S. political process. He's destroying the rule of law in the United States. But that's not for me to say. That's a domestic affair of the United States.

He has enraged the people of our region. He has killed people of this region. He has spent a trillion dollars. He said that U.S. had -- spent $7 trillion in the region. He has added another trillion. Is the United States more secure because of that?

(END VIDEOTAPE) PLEITGEN: So there you have it, Kate. Some pretty strong words there coming from the Iranian foreign minister directed -- most of them directed directly at President Trump.

Very difficult to see, at this point in time, any sort of diplomatic way forward that could emerge. Even though we always have to point out that both sides are saying, Kate, that they don't want this to descend into a full-on war in the Middle East -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: That's exactly right. So what does de-escalation look like?

Fred, thank you very much. I really, really appreciate it. Great work there.

Stuck in the middle of this tug of war, if you will, between the United States and Iran, you have Iraq. Defense Secretary Mark Esper saying the United States is not withdrawing troops from the country.

Needing to offer that clarity because this comes after a draft memo from a one-star U.S. general to Iraqi leaders, Iraqi counterpart, released suggesting that the United States was preparing to withdraw troops.

Let's go to CNN senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, for much more on that. She's in Baghdad.

Arwa, how are Iraqis reacting to the confusion and what really is mixed signals?


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And with a lot of confusion, which doesn't really help the situation, given how tense it is. And how well aware they are of the fact that their country at the moment is, by all counts, the physical battlefield between this brewing war between Washington and Tehran.

After that letter inadvertently came out last night, we then have the U.S. military in a position where they're saying, no, we're not withdrawing our forces.

Well, that didn't necessarily play out very well here, given that the parliament has asked foreign forces to leave, although the request hasn't officially been made to the U.S.

But to have America come out and say, no, at this stage, we are not withdrawing, then created something of a backlash from the various different Iranian-backed paramilitary groups here where they said they're going to be coming together to create, as they put it, resistance front should the Americans decide they somehow want to stay.

On top of all of this, President Trump is also threatening sanctions. This is a country, Kate, that knows the effect of sanctions very, very well. They suffered through it back in the 1990s. We were talking about this earlier today, and they were saying, look,

the Iraq of today is not the Iraq of the '90s. Iraq is not an international pariah the way it was under Saddam Hussein. They said we have friends and we have alternatives.

So the effect of the sanctions, when talking to people on the street, they say, will not necessarily be the same.

But it most certainly is going to impact the country at a time when it is very economically fragile, at a time when unemployment is significantly high, and has been one of the causes behind the anti- government protests that we saw going on here for months.

So you really have a nation that is stuck between these two powers. And one that knows that either way this plays out, Kate, they are going to be the ones who pay the price.

BOLDUAN: Arwa, thank you for being there. Thanks so much.

Coming up for us, after John Bolton's surprise announcement that he's willing to testify in the Senate impeachment trial, is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now under new pressure to allow witnesses? The new state of play on Capitol Hill, next.