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U.S. Forces in Middle East on High Alert for a Possible Iranian Drone Attacks; Pressure Grows on McConnell After Bolton Says He'd Testify; A 6.4 Magnitude Earthquake Hits Puerto Rico; U.S. Forces in Middle East on High Alert for Possible Iranian Drone Attacks; Mike Pompeo to Speak Amid Growing Iran Tensions; Deadly Stampede in Iran Postpones General Burial of Qasem Soleimani. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 7, 2020 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:00]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

We are following the breaking news this morning. One hour from now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to speak as tensions with Iran are growing. U.S. forces across the Middle East are on high alert overnight for the possibility -- possible necessity to shoot down Iranian drones, according to two U.S. officials, mounting U.S. intelligence shows what could be the threat of an imminent attack from Iranian drones against U.S. targets in the region.

U.S. intelligence is also observing Iran moving military equipment around over the last several days. That could mean it is either securing those weapons for the potential U.S. airstrike or putting them in positions to launch their own attacks.

HARLOW: Also this morning, President Trump's National Security adviser Robert O'Brien says what led to the U.S. killing of Iran's top general, a man responsible for hundreds of American deaths. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: He did say it was about diplomats.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you going to declassify the intelligence?

ROBERT O'BRIEN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I don't know if we're going to be able to do that or not because we don't want to put our sources and methods at risk but we're taking a look at that. I can tell you that the evidence was strong.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You did say that he was planning on killing American diplomats?

O'BRIEN: He was plotting to kill -- to attack American facilities and diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who were located at those facilities.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Again, though, we're waiting to see if we will see the intelligence on that. It's not --

SCIUTTO: Yes. How much they can declassify.

HARLOW: Not clear at this point. A deadly -- in Iran, a deadly stampede delaying the burial for General Soleimani in his hometown. Iranian state television reports at least 40 people were killed.

SCIUTTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tells CNN that the U.S. denied him a visa blocking him from speaking at a U.N. Security Council meeting this Thursday here in New York. CNN has an exclusive interview with him.

We're covering this from every angle as only CNN can do. First, let's go to CNN's Barbara Starr. She's at the Pentagon.

So, Barbara, tell us what we know about these threats. What kind of drone attacks and what U.S. forces are doing now to defend themselves?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning. It was -- it's a tense night for the U.S. Military we've learned overseas in the Middle East because across the region, they had intelligence that led them to be very concerned about a possible attack by Iranian drones carrying missiles. That is the threat that they were looking at.

They felt that it was directed at U.S. forces, U.S. installations in locations like Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates. All very well-known countries to host American military forces. There's no secret about that. No secret that the Iranians have drones with those precision missiles.

So troops and units were told to be on that highest state of vigilance. They're already high alert, if you will, because of the threat but really to ramp it up because of the concern.

So imminent. There's that word again. This is a question of analysis of the intelligence. It's not black and white. You never know an attack has happened until it happens, right? So it is intelligence that they analyzed that led them to believe that things were in position to be possibly imminent.

They have noticed that Iranian missiles and drones have been moving around inside of Iran. Again, a question of intelligence analysis. Are those units moving around because they're getting ready to attack or are those units moving around for possibly preservation because the Iranians are worried that the U.S. is going to attack them?

HARLOW: Yes. I mean, that's a very good point, Barbara. And on top of all of this there is turmoil within the State Department, between what Defense Secretary Mark Esper is saying about the president's threat and repeated threat. Not just something he said off the cuff once. Something he doubled down on, which is the potential for attacking and violating the U.N. resolution and attacking Iranian cultural sites.

Is there clarity on it this morning after that mistakenly circulated letter also about withdrawal of American troops from Iraq?

STARR: Well, just on the question of cultural sites.

HARLOW: Yes.

STARR: Defense Secretary Mark Esper yesterday told reporters that the U.S. Military, as you would expect, will continue to follow the law. Both U.S. national security law and international law, U.N. resolutions. And that means no striking of cultural targets. Any targets struck by the United States Military has to be under law, obviously, a target of military use and military value.

SCIUTTO: Well, twice in 24 hours now, you have conflicting messages coming from this administration on attacking cultural site and on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. We'll hope for clarity.

Barbara Starr, at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Let's go to CNN national security reporter Kylie Atwood. She's at the State Department.

So, now we have this announcement in just over an hour, rather a press conference from Secretary of State Pompeo. Do we know what points he wants to make here? I mean, there are certainly some issues and questions that need to be cleared up.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Secretary Pompeo is expected to cover a range of issues worldwide. But you can be assured that reporters here at the State Department are going to focus in on Iran.

[09:05:05]

Now Secretary Pompeo has been lockstep with President Trump, out there on Sunday, on six Sunday shows, defending the strike that killed Qasem Soleimani and really been the face of the Trump administration as they moved to take this option and as they have defended themselves. He has said that the world is safer because of this strike. But we have heard from folks in the region and we have heard from diplomats questioning that reality because Iran, as you know, has come out and said that they will retaliate militarily against this action that was taken.

So, really, why did the U.S. feel that they had to take this action? And why now? We did hear from National Security adviser Robert O'Brien just this morning who reiterated that Qasem Soleimani was in the midst, he said. He was traveling into Iraq because he was planning attacks that would kill American diplomats and would kill American soldiers. But he also reiterated what we have heard from Trump administration over the last -- officials over the last few days, that this was an imminent threat and that there was strong evidence.

But the question is, what does an imminent threat exactly mean? We still really don't know the when and the where of this attack. But they are casting this as something that was really going to impact Americans in the region.

Now later on today, after Pompeo answers questions here at the State Department, he is going to be heading up to the Hill and briefing the Gang of Eight along with President Trump's national security team. And so they will be having to answer questions to members on the Hill. A lot of them who were really, really taken aback by this action.

HARLOW: A lot of questions and hopefully a lot of answers from the secretary of State in less than an hour's time.

Kylie, thank you very much.

Iran's Foreign minister says he was not issued a visa to the United States for that previously scheduled U.N. Security Council meeting that is happening in just a few days here in New York. The State Department blocking that request.

Fred Pleitgen is live in Tehran.

Fred, you spoke with Iran's Foreign minister. What did he say?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he was extremely angry about that targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani who of course, as you guys mentioned, was supposed to be buried today in his hometown of Kerman in the south of Iran. However, that apparently turned into a complete tragedy and a disaster when there was a stampede there. That at this point in time the authorities are saying has killed at least 40 people.

They do believe that that death toll could actually continue to rise. And they do say at this point in time it's unclear when Qasem Soleimani is going to be buried. But they do say they are planning to announce that fairly soon.

But Javad Zarif was telling me that he is still absolutely angry at the killing of Qasem Soleimani. He claims that Qasem Soleimani was in Baghdad on a diplomatic mission to meet with the prime minister of Iraq to try and de-escalate tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And in general, the Foreign minister of Iran telling me that he believes that this was an illegal act on the part of the Trump administration. He called it a state terrorism and really ripped into the U.S. and President Trump specifically. Let's listen in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTER: He is showing to the international community that he has no respect for international law. That he's prepared to commit war crimes because attacking cultural sites is a war crime. Disproportionate response is a war crime. But he doesn't care, it seems, about international law. But has he made U.S. more secure? Do Americans feel more secure? That's the price for arrogance, for ignorance, for lack of respect.

Their days in our region are numbered. Not because anybody will take any action against them but because they are not welcomed. 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.

The United States has to wake up to the reality that the people of this region are enraged. That the people of this region want the United States out. The United States has been in this region for many years and has not brought itself or the region any security. We leave it at that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PLEITGEN: So there you have Javad Zarif with some extremely strong words as you heard there for the Trump administration, for the U.S. and generals, saying America's days, as he put it, in the region are numbered. And of course, also very key, vowing that there is going to be retaliation from the Iranians.

I also did ask him, by the way, about his visa not being issued for that U.N. conference that he was supposed to attend in New York. He was sort of trying to laugh all that off. I asked him how he felt about that. He said, look, what do these people have to fear? And then I asked him whether he's concerned and he simply said, no, that he wasn't -- guys.

[09:10:02]

SCIUTTO: Fred Pleitgen in Iran, interesting interview at a crucial time. Thanks very much.

We should note that Zarif said respond proportionally.

HARLOW: Yes. That was frightening.

SCIUTTO: Now how do they define proportionally?

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: We'll see. But, you know, what kind of signaling is that from them at this stage?

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Joining us now to discuss, Kirk Lippold, former commanding officer of the USS Cole, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, an adjunct senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Thanks to both of you.

Commander Lippold, I don't have to tell you about the danger of retaliation and violence in the Middle East. You of course commanded the USS Cole who suffered its own deadly attack, that from al Qaeda. You have said you don't believe that any uniformed military action will come from Iran but as you well know they have a whole host of proxy capabilities there. We saw that with the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf a number of weeks ago. With the attack on Saudi oil facilities, right, drones and cruise missiles.

I wonder, given the range of hybrid warfare, tactics and capabilities they have, what would you say are the most likely categories where they will strike back? Is it cyber? Is it proxy forces in Iran? Tell us what's possible.

COMMANDER KIRK LIPPOLD (RET.), FORMER COMMANDING OFFICER OF THE USS COLE: Well, what's possible is the full range of proxy capabilities that can be brought to bear. I think first and foremost that we've been concerned with is going to be a cyberattack. Secondly, it's going to be using their proxy forces to conduct the attacks.

The number one thing we have to remember, especially in this type of environment, there is no such thing as a nonstate sponsor of terrorism. All of these groups work hand in glove with the Iranian government. Therefore, they're responsible for their actions and I think we've been very clear in drawing that line to them.

HARLOW: Gayle, you spend a lot of time as well in this region. You just got back from northeastern Syria a few weeks ago. And Soleimani, it should be noted, you know, was such a force, not just in Iran and Iraq, but in Syria. Essentially directing the Assad regime and directing that ongoing war in Syria.

What is the response that you've heard, and what can people expect this to mean in whatever the retaliation is in terms of what plays out on the ground in Syria and in terms of ISIS and ISIS' presence in the region?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, ADJUNCT SENIOR FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Yes, and I was just there and actually before the strike was talking with folks who had been fighting ISIS alongside the United States. And, you know, what their desire was when we spoke was for the United States to stay, to keep the presence that it has in northeastern Syria, to help get to a political deal.

And what surprised me about being in northeastern Syria, you know, two weeks ago was there was this level of everyone working to find a status quo. Everyone working to find, again, a fragile stability that had been in place before the Turkish incursion. And I think, you know, to -- there are so many people in Syria who see Iran as really having the blood of their people on their hands.

And you will talk to so many people, even I talk to Syrians just in the last two or three days who say, you know, listen, it is really important for people to understand just how responsible the Iranian regime was for so much of the starvation and besiegement of Syrian cities that left children dead. And I think in terms of the ISIS fight, the "and then what" question has hung over every decision going on in Iraq and Syria.

And I think we're going to see now how able the United States is to keep a troop presence in there and then how able the anti-ISIS coalition, the counter-ISIS coalition is to keep fighting ISIS. SCIUTTO: Yes. Of course, the other state responsible for civilian

deaths in Syria was Russia. This is an administration willing to exact pain and penalty from Russia for that kind of behavior.

Kirk Lippold, on the issue of the status of U.S. forces in Iraq, you have said that the vote by the Iraqi parliament, in your words, is largely symbolic. And, listen, there's a lot of truth to that. It was caretaker prime minister. A lot of the Iraqi politicians who are not pro-Iran boycotted that session of parliament so it was not reflective of the whole political situation there.

But I wonder, based on what you know about Iraq, there are many Iraqis who feel like this was an attack on their sovereignty, to have this attack on their soil without Iraqi participation. Has this changed the politics on the ground at all?

LIPPOLD: I don't think it has. When you look at it, for a number of years, the Iraqis have felt that any strikes that the U.S. has made against proxy forces that have operated against us essentially from the invasion of Iraq, you know, several years ago, that it has been against their citizens. They're always going to make that claim. But we have to look at what they are doing, and I think the Iraqi people understand.

We're there at their invitation to serve as a stabilizing force first and foremost invited back in so that we can push back against ISIS. So that we can eliminate that threat. So that we could kill al- Baghdadi and secure the oil fields for them so that they can begin to have an economy that is going to work in the world and contribute to it.

The other thing the United States is doing is ensuring that there is a stable government available so that they can independently make decisions for the long-term welfare of the Iraqi people. We want to make it without that Iranian influence overriding everything.

[09:15:00]

What you're seeing right now is the Iranian influence permeating throughout the government and affecting the way the Iraqi people are interpreting this.

But I think that they're smart enough to understand. We're there for their benefit and to help them. We will leave if it was required by their government and they were to ask us to go. There may be some conditions and requirements that would go with that. But nonetheless, what we want to do is continue to provide that opportunity, that space necessary for the government to once become effective and democratic for the Iraqi people without the Iranian influence there.

JIM SCIUTTO, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Yes --

POPPY HARLOW, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Gayle, before we go, the Saudis have remained relatively quiet in this. I think watching, waiting -- look, they just had their oil fields struck by, you know, Iranian forces not long ago. What should we expect from Saudi, from the Europeans, from Russians, in terms of efforts towards de-escalation?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, ADJUNCT SENIOR FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Yes, I think two things to watch. One is the Saudi deputy Defense Minister in Washington this week really working to what they say de-escalate the situation, right? Iranian attacks have been really created for maximum impact and minimum attribution. And that is what the proxy force has done for the Iranians folk.

And so I think you see the Saudis looking to de-escalate in their words, and the Europeans trying to figure out how do they cool tensions? Right now, you see German Chancellor about to meet with Putin, Putin is in Damascus today, to Jim's point, and I think you will see Russia all over this really trying to figure out how it plays a central role in taking up this space, whatever space the United States leaves it.

HARLOW: Gayle, thank you so much, Commander Lippold, we really appreciate it this morning. Ahead for us, a lot still to come. The White House set to brief the so-called gang of eight on Iran today the intelligence. What will they see? What will it tell them? This as the house prepares to try to stop the president from taking war action. We're on top of all the headlines on the Hill.

And former National Security adviser John Bolton says he is willing to testify in the Senate if subpoenaed. What does this mean as Democrats push for witnesses?

SCIUTTO: Yes, will it push Republicans? And another earthquake has struck Puerto Rico in less than just 24 hours, bringing destruction to the islands still recovering from Hurricane Maria. We're going to be live there.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:20:00]

HARLOW: Minutes from now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to speak as U.S. forces in the Middle East right now are on high alert for the potential of a possible drone strike from Iran. Joining me now is Democratic Senator Gary Peters; he is a ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He also served -- I should note, as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves. So, senator, thank you for your service to this country and for being with us on such an important morning. I'd like to just get your reaction to what we heard just minutes ago from National Security adviser Robert O'Brien. Here he was.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT O'BRIEN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER, UNITED STATES: That he was plotting to kill, to attack American facilities and diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, where we relocated those facilities, correct.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that what Mr. Pompeo; the Secretary of State is going to be talking about later today?

O'BRIEN: You know, I'm not going to get into what Mike is going to brief Congress on today, but he'll be giving Congress a briefing today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: So, senator, we're going to hear from the Secretary of State in less than an hour's time. You are going to be briefed tomorrow. What is your key question for Pompeo at this juncture?

SEN. GARY PETERS (D-MI): Well, I think it's a question that all Americans are asking right now is, what was the imminent threat that this country faced or the men and women in the region faced? Why was this attack carried out? And certainly, the question that I want to have answered, that I would like to hear tomorrow when we're getting our classified briefing is that --

HARLOW: Right --

PETERS: If there was an imminent attack, what were the options provided by the Department of Defense --

HARLOW: Yes --

PETERS: And why was this particular option selected versus others. And how does that option fit in with the broader strategic plan to bring stability to the Middle East?

HARLOW: Right, so now what becomes the question with the president threatening sanctions on our U.S. ally, on Iraq, sanctions that would -- many argue, you know, embolden Iran and increase Iran's presence in Iraq and further destabilize it. Do you think that there is a scenario in which sanctioning Iraq is prudent?

PETERS: It doesn't appear to be. And that's why we have to figure out, what is the strategy this administration is trying to carry out? It looks like they are just doing this on an ad hoc basis, reacting to events. It's not the way to deal with what is already a very dangerous place in the world. But we're not seeing a strategy. They are simply reacting.

And did they react when terms of this attack as opposed to thinking through what are the second and third order of facts that arise. You know, you have to be thinking two or three moves ahead, particularly when you're dealing in the Middle East. This administration seems either incapable or are simply unwilling to do that. And it puts the United States and our interests in serious jeopardy.

HARLOW: Your fellow senator Democrat Tim Kaine is introducing -- has introduced a war powers resolution. And it looks like because it's privileged, there's going to be debate about this. That at least is going to happen. I don't --

PETERS: Right -- HARLOW: Know when? I don't think any of us know when, but at least,

there will be debate on it. Will you support it and have you heard from any of your Republican colleagues in the Senate that they, too, would support limiting the president's power in that way?

PETERS: I haven't heard my Republican colleagues talking that way. They still seem to be in cheerleader mode, and though, they're focused on being cheerleaders as opposed to stepping back and thinking about what is the proper role for Congress in these decisions. So, it's very clear, I mean, our framers were very clear in the constitution that going to war is a power reserved for Congress.

[09:25:00]

They were concerned about executive overreach for a good reason, that's particularly after their history and the revolutionary war. We had -- Congress has to start re-asserting those powers. We have granted way too much authority over the years, it's time to step up and do the right thing, and it's central to this Republic to have those checks and balances.

HARLOW: Well --

PETERS: But right now, I have colleagues who -- Republican colleagues who want to be a cheerleader and not a statesperson.

HARLOW: In addition to the important role that you and your fellow senators are playing on that, on the war powers resolution. You are set to be a juror in the upcoming impeachment trial of the --

PETERS: Right --

HARLOW: President. Again, we don't know when that will begin. You have not said publicly, how you will vote on impeachment. Have you made up your mind yet, sir, and do you believe that the testimony provided in the house hearings is enough to remove the president from office?

PETERS: No, I have not made up my mind, and none of us should. You know, I'll be raising my hand and taking an oath at the beginning of the impeachment proceeding, saying that I'll be an impartial witness or -- excuse me, a juror. Basically an impartial juror in this case. In order to do that, I need to hear the facts, but we also need to hear from witnesses that have direct knowledge of what has happened.

To me, I don't know how you can have a fair trial and not bring out the facts and hear directly from the people who have the knowledge that we need to hear. And then --

HARLOW: Do you --

PETERS: Based on those facts, I'll make a decision.

HARLOW: Do you think -- quickly, that Marco Rubio -- Senator Rubio has a point when asked about Bolton yesterday if he should be subpoenaed that Rubio would vote against that subpoena because he essentially says, the house should have done it. They should have been more patient, they should have waited, they should have done that, it's not our job as the Senate. Is he right?

PETERS: Well, I think our job is to get to the facts and make a decision based on the facts. And I can't understand anybody saying that we shouldn't hear the facts to make an impartial judgment which is required by the oath that we will take that we will make impartial judgment. And the only way to make impartial judgment is to hear the facts, particularly from those who have firsthand knowledge.

HARLOW: That he has, as his attorney made clear in November. Senator Gary Peters, appreciate you being here. Thank you.

PETERS: Great, thank you.

SCIUTTO: More on the pressure mounting on both parties in this impeachment standoff after former National Security adviser John Bolton as we were saying now says he is willing to testify. How does this play out going forward? And we're just minutes away from the opening bell on Wall Street. Stocks are set to start the day mostly flat, we'll be watching to see how oil prices react after U.S. forces are put on high alert for a possible Iranian drone attacks.

The State Department says Iranian drones were used in attacks just a few months ago on Saudi oil facilities. That attack took out nearly half of the kingdom's oil production with enormous consequences for the oil markets. We're going to stay on top of it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

END