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Iran Fires Ballistic Missiles at U.S. Forces in Iraq; Iran's Supreme Leader: Missile Strikes 'Slap in the Face' to the U.S.; Ukraine Plane Crashes Near Tehran, Kills 176; Congress to Get Iran Briefing Today. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired January 8, 2020 - 06:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[05:59:27]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Wednesday, January 8. It's 6 a.m. here in New York, and we do have major breaking news this morning.

President Trump set to address the nation. We are waiting on the exact timing. This after Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. At this moment, U.S. and Iraqi officials are still assessing the damage. We've been working our sources all night long, and at this time, there are no known casualties. Let me repeat that. At this time, there are no known casualties.

Overnight, President Trump wrote, "All is well."

Now, just a short time ago, Iran's supreme leader addressed his nation and said they gave America a, quote, "slap in the face." Iran's foreign minister insists it's now up to the U.S. to, quote, "come to its senses." We're waiting to see how or if the United States responds this morning.

Leaders around the world are calling on both sides, both countries, to de-escalate.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Also breaking overnight, a Ukrainian passenger train crashes near Tehran minutes after takeoff, killing all 176 people on board. Investigators say there was no distress call from the Boeing 737 800 flight that was headed to Kyiv. Of course, analysts are looking at the timing and whether there's any possible connection between this plane going down and the military action in the region.

Ukraine's prime minister says, at this point, it is too early to comment on the cause of the crash.

So we have all of this breaking news covered for you. Let's begin with CNN's Arwa Damon. She is live from Baghdad with our top story -- Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Alisyn.

This is what we know. The Iraqi prime minister's office has released a statement. And this is the first that we're hearing from the Iraqi government, saying that they received a verbal warning, a verbal message shortly after midnight, that there would be an attack against the U.S. military installations without specifying which bases.

The Iraqis then immediately notified their forces. Worth bearing in mind, though, that there are numerous joint operation rooms in this country that the U.S. and the Iraqis both do share.

What we now know also from the Iraqi military is that at around 1:45 in the morning, the attack began, so about an hour and 40 minutes after they first received a warning from the Iranians.

They're saying specifically in their statement that they came under missile attack. Twenty-two missiles fired, 17 of them targeting the Al Assad Air base. Of those 17, we are hearing that two did not explode. The other five targeting Erbil area.

Now, no casualties being reported at this stage. Not from the U.S. military and not from the Iraqis.

So what we do also know, though, and this goes to illustrate just how volatile the situation still remains here, is that one of the main Shia paramilitary forces here, Asa'ib Ahlulhaq, responsible for, in the past, years ago, historically speaking, numerous devastating roadside bomb attacks against the U.S. military. Responsible for a very brazen kidnap and murder of U.S. forces back in Karbala (ph) in 2007. That group has put out a statement saying, Iran has now responded. It is our turn, and our response will be in kind to the Iranian one.

Because remember, alongside Qasem Soleimani, we also had a senior Shia Iraqi paramilitary leader killed in that same convoy.

The Iraqi proxies that Iran has here are still adamant that U.S. forces must leave. This is a country that is at this stage waking up to what happened overnight and one that is still bracing itself for even further fallout.

CAMEROTA: Arwa, that is really helpful context for all of us to keep in mind. Thank you so much for your reporting from Baghdad for us.

Meanwhile, Iran's supreme leader has just addressed his country after the missile attacks that were, they say, in retaliation for the U.S. killing of their top military commander. And CNN's Fred Pleitgen is live in Tehran with more on what he said and the breaking details about that deadly plane crash.

So Fred, what do we know?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Hi there, Alisyn.

Yes, the supreme leader coming out in a rare speech early this morning not just saying that the Iranians had delivered what he called a slap in the face to the U.S. He also then ripped into the United States, ripped into President Trump and said that he believes America needs to get out of the region as fast as possible.

Also, the Iranians really making an issue out of the fact that -- really, showcasing the fact that they did this from their own territory. When these missile attacks happened last night, immediately, there was a banner on the Iranian state TV, saying that it was the Revolutionary Guard Corps who fired these ballistic missiles and that they were fired from Iranian territory.

The Iranians say that they targeted this base, the Al-Assad Air Base, and the other base, because they say that is where the attack on Qasem Soleimani, that Iranian general who was killed in Baghdad by a U.S. strike, that's where it originated from, and that's why the Iranians fired back at that.

Now, the Iranian military is coming out and saying if the U.S. now decides to retaliate, that then there will be a crushing blow, even more crushing, they say, from the Iranian side.

[06:05:07]

Iran's foreign minister coming out today and saying that the Iranians don't want this to escalate any further. They are saying the ball is now very much in the court of the U.S. and, specifically, President Trump.

Let's listen in to what Iran's foreign minister had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: We did not start this process of escalation. The United States waged an economic war against Iran. The United States has to come to its senses. Europe can play a useful role by informing the United States of the serious error in their analysis, that they should stop listening to clowns. That they should base their policy based on realities and not some illusions of some clowns who have ambitions elsewhere.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PLEITGEN: So there you have the Iranian foreign minister, Alisyn, with some seriously harsh words for the U.S., for the Trump administration.

The Iranians, by the way, have been saying for the past couple of days that there would be a retaliation. It would be a military retaliation, and it would be against military sites. We can see the Iranians very much making good on their promise, now saying it's up to the U.S. It's up to President Trump where this goes next as the situation here in the Middle East, of course, still extremely dangerous -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Fred, what is the thinking in Tehran about this deadly passenger plane crash? PLEITGEN: Right now they're still trying to get to the bottom of what

happened. You know, this was something -- I was standing here yesterday, and we were reporting about the missile strike that happened. And -- and it seems almost bizarre that all of a sudden, you had a major aviation incident, major aviation disaster happen at the same time.

It happened only a couple of miles from where we're standing right now.

So far, the Ukrainians -- this was a Ukrainian airliner -- are saying it's too early to say what exactly brought this plane down. They had a statement up on their website for their embassy here in Tehran, saying that they ruled out that it was any sort of terrorist-related thing. That's been taken down. They say they don't know exactly what brought this plane down.

The details that we have so far, Alisyn, is that this Boeing 737 800, which is only three and a half years old, took off from Imam Khomeini airport. That's in the south of Tehran. That's where I always fly in and out of this country from. And crashed after two minutes. It wasn't flying very high.

All those on board, unfortunately, were killed. There were a lot of Canadians on board, a lot of Iranians and Afghans on board, as well.

Again, the authorities are still trying to get to the bottom of what happened there. Apparently, they're on that debris field right now looking into that. But certainly, a major aviation disaster that took place here just as the tensions here escalating, as well, John.

BERMAN: All right. Frederik Pleitgen in Tehran. Fred, thanks so much for being there for us.

We do know that a number of nations are now saying they will not fly in and out of Iran until they get some answers as to what happened there. We'll be following that throughout the morning.

Now, in response to the Iranian missile attack on these Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, obviously, the key question now is how will the United States respond? We're waiting to hear from the president himself.

CNN's Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon with the very latest. We know they've been up all night at the Pentagon assessing the situation and planning for contingencies, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Exactly right, John. At first light on the ground in Iraq, U.S. commanders and forces began assessing the situation. And that means looking to see exactly what happened. What was the damage on the ground? How many missiles? What kind of missiles Iran may have exactly used. What type of short- range missiles. Trying to get a firm understanding of exactly what did happen.

We now are waiting, of course, to see what President Trump tells the world the next U.S. step will be.

We had a tweet from the president several hours ago. Let me read that to you. He says, "All is well. Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties and damages taking place now. So far, so good. We have the most powerful and well-equipped military anywhere in the world by far. I will be making a statement tomorrow morning," of course, meaning this morning.

So as we await that, you know, what we do know is that the U.S. over the last several days had seen Iraq, Iran move its ballistic missile inventory around. They started watching very carefully by satellite to see if there was any evidence Iran was fueling up its missiles, getting them ready to go.

So when this happened last night, there was some advanced warning. There was some understanding that this was underway, and U.S. troops, thankfully, were able to get to secure locations. Apparently, no fatalities, thankfully, in this incident. Waiting to see what the president has to say -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Absolutely. We'll find out more this morning on all of these developing stories. Barbara, thank you very much.

How will President Trump respond to last night's missile strikes from Iran? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:14:03]

BERMAN: We are waiting to hear from President Trump. He will address the nation this morning after Iran fired ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops.

As of now, we have no word of any casualties, either American or Iraqi.

Overnight, Iran officials insisted they do not want war with the United States but warn that if the U.S. retaliates again, Tehran's response will be, quote, "stronger and more crushing."

Barbara Starr is back with us from the Pentagon. Also joining us, the CNN counterterrorism analyst, Phil Mudd; and CNN military analyst, retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton.

And Colonel, I want to start with you. As the president weighs what he will say and how he will respond this morning, I want to know what you think they see at the Pentagon here. What did Iran do? They fired ballistic missiles from an Iranian territory. That's not rockets. That's not pot shots from mortars or something from Iraqi territory. They've made it clear it was from the regime.

[06:15:07]

But there were no U.S. casualties. Is it reasonable to think that, if Iran had wanted to kill U.S. troops, they could have found a more clear or obvious way to do it?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Oh, absolutely, John. They've got several different options that they could have used. And one of them would have been to strike directly at the living quarters of U.S. military troops. They did that, at least through proxies, at Khobar Towers back in the '90s. In Saudi Arabia, they could have done something very similar to that. They chose not to do that.

That is a very big deal. Because what they've decided to do is make sure that they sent a message. Great for popular consumption at home, but it's a message that also allows us an offramp.

CAMEROTA: So Barbara, is that the thinking, as well, at the Pentagon? We know from the reporting that the Iranians also tipped off the Iraqis, to give them a verbal warning that this was coming. So is the impression at the Pentagon that this was a face-saving measure from Iran and may not require a response from the U.S.?

STARR: Well, I think that's one of the key questions on the table that everybody is still looking at.

When you say the Pentagon, you know, the military part of the Pentagon will be looking at that very calculation. How did Iran fire these missiles? How precisely were they guarded [SIC] -- guided to these targets? Was this clearly an effort not to cause U.S. casualties, as they look at Iranian military capabilities to use these short-range ballistic missiles.

The big message may be that Iran fired from inside its own borders and sent Donald Trump and the world a message that they can reach out and touch.

But the other side of the equation here at the Pentagon is there's always the political side of the house. President Trump's appointees. They will be meeting throughout the day. They are waiting to see what the president says. There may be a political calculation -- There will be, most certainly, on any U.S. response here.

But it does seem very much that they want to de-escalate this. Whether they can convince the president of that, I think, remains a very different question.

BERMAN: Phil Mudd, I have to believe there's a furious intelligence- gathering operation that's been going on all night and will continue to go on throughout the morning. What are the key questions that need to be answered at this point?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, I'm afraid we're going to say we're off the hook on this. As an intelligence professional, we've got a long ways to go. Not only days but years. Let me explain why.

First, you're looking, obviously, to ensure that the Iranians do what they say they're going to do, which is to step down. So you're looking at things like missile sites. You've also got to be looking at surrogates in places like Iraq and

Lebanon. Soleimani was killed in Iraq. You've got to believe the surrogates there are talking to the Iranians, saying, Can't you let us do something? Maybe not today. What about a week, what about a month?

Longer term, you've got to look at Iranian activities in the Gulf. Are they going to go be more aggressive against oil shipping?

Take a step further down the road, months or years. Does this mean, as they've said, they're going to be more aggressive on developing a nuclear capability?

So I'm afraid Americans are short-term; the Iranians are long-term. The Americans are going to look at this in terms of days and make a -- and make a mistake to say that the Iranians are going to forget this. Let me tell you something, John. They're not.

CAMEROTA: Colonel, what do you think, strategically, should happen next, or is going to?

LEIGHTON: Well, I think -- I think Phil has some very valid points here. Because Alisyn, what we're looking at is, you know, this is one part of the -- of the shell game that the Iranians are playing.

The next part could very well be something like a cyberattack against our infrastructure, against the infrastructure in the Gulf. It could also be attacks on shipping. They've done that historically many, many times from the '80s on. And that's the kind of thing that we should expect them to do.

CAMEROTA: But I mean, not if they want to de-escalate. I mean, they said -- Zarif said last night, "Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defense." That doesn't sound like they want to continue to escalate.

LEIGHTON: Well, there's the public side, and then there's the other side. And we have to be aware of what happens on that other side, that darker side where war happens in the shadows. This is the kind of thing that we have to look out for. And that is why we have to pay really close attention to what they're doing. It's kind of a trust- but-verify situation.

BERMAN: And look, and there's also the idea of unintended consequences.

First of all, we should not diminish the nature of this attack overnight. These missiles can cause serious damage. And if they weren't intended to kill U.S. troops, they certainly could have. They could have missed their target and killed a number of U.S. troops.

Then there's the idea, Barbara, of what about the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq who we understand had been threatening U.S. forces? Will they -- if Iran does want to de-escalate, and we're not sure that they do, but if they did, do we know for a fact that the Iraqi militias would follow suit? STARR: Well, the Iraqi militias, Lebanese Hezbollah, all of the

Iranian surrogates, literally, around the world, I think that's really the key question.

As -- as the Pentagon, perhaps, presents options to the president about next steps, you've got that -- as Phil was just saying, that whole issue of Iranian surrogates that may or may not be under firm control of the regime.

[06:20:09]

If the president wants to take another step down the road here, what are we looking at? Can you go to war, combat against all of those Iranian-backed elements around the world? Can you go to war against Iran?

Iran is a huge country. It has got geography, mountains that protect much of the country. It has very significant air defenses. It has ports. It has a massive missile inventory.

The president has talked in his tweets so much about, I think to paraphrase him, big, beautiful, new American weapons. This is a huge country you would be going against. There's 18 years of history, recent history about being able to conduct wars in the Middle East by the U.S. military. It is a very tough proposition.

CAMEROTA: Barbara, Phil, Colonel, thank you, all, for your expertise in this.

All right. The Trump administration says it killed Iran's top general to stop an imminent attack, but they've still presented no evidence to support that claim. So when will we see proof? Congress is being briefed today. What do they expect? Next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:25:30]

CAMEROTA: The full Congress will be briefed on the intelligence that led to the strike on Iran's top general later this afternoon. The Trump administration has defended the basis for the strike claiming, quote, "an imminent threat" existed to the U.S. service members. But they have yet to provide any concrete evidence, at least to the public.

Back with us, Phil Mudd, retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton, and Barbara Starr.

Phil, I just want to play what Mitch McConnell has said about this, because Mitch McConnell and some Republicans are acting as though, if the press, if the American people want some sort of explanation or want some sort of evidence that there was an imminent threat, that, you know, we're somehow ingrates. So listen to what Senator Mitch McConnell said about this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Where is the applause on the other side for the demise of one of the most heinous killers who ever stalked the earth? This guy was the worst of the worst. Where is the bipartisan applause for eliminating this threat?

(END IDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: See, Phil, the problem is that they didn't say, We killed this guy because he was one of the most heinous people on earth. They said because there was an imminent attack. Some have said days away. There's the rub.

MUDD: Sort of. I mean, I think Mitch McConnell is going to win this one. If you look at this through a short-term lens today, the American people, I think, are going to say, wow, we got off the hook. We killed somebody. I agree he's a heinous human being. He's not the worst of the worse. I'd call Kim Jong-un a lot worse than him, and we get love letters from Kim Jong-un.

But if you look at what Mitch McConnell has to deal with, including the resolution from Nancy Pelosi and the House on war powers, if I'm the Republicans, I'm saying, why do we have to offer an explanation that's really serious? We just did this for a really modest price.

I'll tell you one more thing. The intel guys aren't going to say imminent. That's a gloss put on this by Republicans and people who want to go after the Iranians. That's -- I bet that's an interpretation. It's not a fact. It's an interpretation by people who wanted to strike Iran. That is not intelligence language, and I don't think you'll see that in any intelligence document.

BERMAN: Barbara, if I can go back to where we are this morning, again, as we await the president's response to the Iranian missile attack on these bases housing U.S. troops, one of the things that we heard overnight, Richard Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, says that there needs to be space to allow for de- escalation.

How does one create that space for de-escalation? It's interesting. At one point last night, the president was going to address the nation last night, or the White House was considering sending the president out last night. They paused and decided to wait until this morning.

I'm wondering if that, in and of itself, was creating some space for de-escalation.

STARR: Well, it may be. You know, before all of this unfolded late yesterday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, we asked him that very thing at a Pentagon press conference.

They had talked about de-escalation, but they'd only talked about Iranian de-escalation. And I asked him if there was any obligation on the part of the U.S. to de-escalate or make de-escalatory moves. And he indicated there was not, that they were waiting for the Iranians.

And then he added that the U.S. is still willing to sit down and talk to Iran but without preconditions. Hard to see how the Iranians may want to do that. They've, you know, been talking -- again it's rhetoric. They want to see an apology from the president for the killing of Soleimani. All of that sort of business.

But so I think we are in this very critical point right now, and perhaps that is why we have seen the delay from, potentially, a last night statement to this morning.

The U.S. military likes to let things sit just a bit and see how it unfolds. So what they will be watching for overnight are any additional military moves by the Iranians. Are they moving anything else around? Are they putting anything into place that could signal additional action? They're going to want to see the Iranian chess board.

And how they will do that is with satellites overhead, aircraft overhead collecting electronic signals, radars. All of that. I think they're trying to assemble a full military intelligence picture, take it to the president, and see what lies in front of them.

CAMEROTA: I think that also, you know, it's always hard to parse the president's tweets. Because sometimes he says things and then does something different.

But in this tweet, the language that the president is using suggests some sort of strategic pause, I think, where he says, "All is well!" President Trump says. Exclamation point. This was yesterday.

END