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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

US Launches Retaliatory Strikes On Iranian-Linked Targets In Iraq And Syria; Senior Administration Official: US Will Not Strike Inside Iran; U.S. Confirms Strikes Against 85 Targets In Iraq And Syria; Biden: Retaliatory Strikes "Will Continue At Times And Places Of Our Choosing"; Senior Admin. Official: U.S. Will Not Strikes Inside Iran; Prosecutor Fani Willis Admits To "Personal" Relationship With Man She Appointed To Oversee GA Election Interference Case. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired February 02, 2024 - 20:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Breaking News: Republicans taking another step tonight towards impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Our Manu Raju reporting the House leaders have officially scheduled the impeachment vote for next week. It will be either Tuesday or Wednesday, they say, something that has not been done in 148 years in the United States.

And it is still not clear if the Republicans have the votes. House Speaker Mike Johnson can only afford to lose three. Retiring Congressman Ken Buck has already head on "OUTFRONT" that he is leaning no.

Thanks so much for joining us. AC 360 begins right now.


JIM SCIUTTO CNN HOST: Good evening. Jim Sciutto here, sitting in for Anderson tonight.

And tonight, we are getting in the first images of US strikes on Syria and Iraq. This is from Al Qaim in Iraq's western Anbar Province.


SCIUTTO: That orange fireball in the distance appears to be a weapons depot, one of some 85 Iranian-linked targets attacked by a variety of US aircraft including long range B-1 bombers like this one, which flew nonstop with aerial refueling from here in the US.

President Biden says that today's strike is only the first part of a larger operation being carried out in response to Sunday's drone attack on American troops in eastern Jordan, which, you will remember killed three soldiers, wounded dozens more. Caskets bearing those three -- the remains of those three returned home today.

The president also signaled the United States will not strike targets inside Iranian territory and does not seek a wider conflict in the region in what has already one at war. Reporting for us tonight from all across the map, MJ Lee at the White House, Natasha Bertrand at the Pentagon, CNN's Jeremy Diamond in Israel, Ben Wedeman in Jordan.

Let's begin though at the Pentagon with Natasha Bertrand.

Natasha, tell us what the Pentagon is saying tonight about exactly which targets were struck, what kind, and over what period of time?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Jim, we are told by Defense officials that the strikes took place around 4:00 PM Eastern Time today. They targeted seven different facilities used by Iran- backed groups in Syria and Iraq. There were four facilities struck in Syria and three in Iraq, and these were 85 targets at these seven locations.

And according to US Central Command, they did include command and control operation centers, intelligence centers, rockets, missiles, drone storage facilities, logistics and supply chain facilities of these Iran-backed groups as well as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps themselves, the military wing, of course of Iran.

And so this is a very significant response, we have not seen before, at least not in recent months, the US strike Iraq and Syria at the same time, but this is clearly meant to show a very -- or send a very serious message to the Iranians and their proxy militias that these attacks on US and coalition forces will not be tolerated.

Now, we also got some information about what potential casualties may have resulted from this operation. A US military official, the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff here at the Pentagon, he said earlier today in a briefing that the military does expect there to be casualties because the facilities that they struck are known to have IRGC, Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as proxy militia groups operating inside of them.

And so they struck these targets knowing that there were likely personnel inside and likely going to be casualties, but it's going to take a little bit of time here to get a full battle damage assessment. So likely in the coming days, we will know a little bit better about just how well the US hit its targets and if they actually degraded these capabilities to a large degree.

SCIUTTO: And of course, open question as to whether some of these horses were able to leave there in advance on the presumption that they might be targets of US strikes.

We've been told for some time that these strikes would not be a one off, that they would take place over a period of time. Do we know what that rough timeframe might be? At least, it is clear, it doesn't end tonight.

BERTRAND: It does not and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, he made very clear in his statement saying: "This is the start of our response. The President has directed additional actions to hold the IRGC and affiliated militias accountable for their attacks." And we heard from the National Security Council spokesperson, John Kirby a little bit earlier, and he said that we do expect additional actions to come in the coming days. What that will look like, of course, it remains to be seen -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Natasha Bertrand at the Pentagon, thanks so much.

CNN's MJ Lee, she is at the White House tonight with the latest. And MJ, has the White House explained the timing of tonight's strikes. It's been a number of days since those US servicemembers were killed going back to last weekend. Why did they strike tonight?


MJ LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are told by US officials that they've known for some time that the first strikes would begin tonight and we're told that weather was actually a big -- a significant factor into why the strikes began tonight. They wanted to make sure that they could avoid any unnecessary casualties.

Though, as Natasha mentioned, there are expected to be some, and they wanted to avoid if possible cloud cover. In other words, they wanted to choose night, a time when there was better weather to have a

better chance of successfully targeting these places, these seven facilities spread out in Iraq and Syria.

Clearly, Jim, there was also just a lot of different sort of laying of the groundwork leading into tonight. The choice of the seven facilities in particular, the decision to use these B-1 bombers, which flew we were told directly nonstop from the US to Iraq and Syria for these strikes, and then even just informing the Iraqi government in advance that the strikes were coming.

Now, just one note that's important about the timing question, we are told that there was no sort of orchestration by the US to make sure that these strikes took place just hours after that dignified transfer of the three Americans we saw earlier this afternoon, that those two things were completely separate in terms of timing.

They were, of course, completely linked in terms of the US' response and why they decided to respond, that had everything to do with the fact that three Americans have been killed last weekend.

SCIUTTO: Though the administration was speaking quite publicly about some US military response. The president himself said that a number of days ago, of course, they didn't say exactly when or exactly where, but has there been any indication from the White House about what comes next?

LEE: I mean, the short answer is no. They are not indicating when the next strikes might be, where exactly they will be and in what form, but we do know that there are more strikes coming.

One senior administration official, though, making clear where there won't be strikes and that is inside Iran, that all of the targeting is going to be at least for now, outside of Iran. And, Jim, you know, this very well, that is not really surprising, given to what extent the US has gone in recent days in saying striking inside Iran is starting a war with Iran and that is something that the US doesn't want.

But it is notable, of course, the president in his statement, saying very clearly that this is just the beginning. He said: "Our response began tonight, but there will be more coming at a time of our choosing, in the manner of our choosing."

So again, just very much an emphasis here on the fact that there are going to be more strikes coming but again, not giving any sort of detailed information of what exactly that will look like.

I think so much of that will obviously depend on this full assessment that the US military is going to do now on how successful they were tonight in the first set of strike and degrading some of these capabilities.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and we should note, successive administrations of both parties have decided or certainly not taking military action inside Iran, so that would not be outside the normal.

MJ Lee at the White House, thanks so much.

So let's go to the region now. CNN's Jeremy Diamond, he is in Tel Aviv; in Amman, Jordan, CNN's Ben Wedeman; and in London, CNN chief international anchor, Christiane Amanpour.

Christiane, as you look at these and there was a fair amount of telegraphing of these strikes in advance. What do you expect the impact to be?

You could argue that these groups had some forewarning here and perhaps had the opportunity to minimize the potential damage. Is this an effective deterrent against Iran and its proxies?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Well, look, the messaging was very clear and the impact appears to be pretty big. I mean, that's 85 strikes, 85 targets, and certainly the Iranians and the Americans don't want to go to full war. They are going to see -- there is going to be rolling, you know, well, strikes and other action we understand over a period of time. And it -- we'll see what happens.

I mean, it's unlikely that Iran will retaliate for retaliation. So let's see what happens, and of course, whether it will deter the Houthis inside, you know, in Yemen and what they're doing in the Red Sea. But also this takes part in the bigger context of current apparent negotiations, which are not yet conclusive for the release of hostages, prisoners swap between Hamas and Israel, and some kind of bigger political solution to this.

And of course, that is what's going to affect the end result on whether Iran can and will decide eventually to call off its proxies all around Israel.

SCIUTTO: No question. So many fronts and potential fronts in this conflict already.

Ben Wedeman, has there been regional reaction tonight? I think we can safely say it's already a region on edge concerned itself about the possibility of expansion of conflicts we are already seeing underway even low grade ones for instance on the border, the northern border of Israel and Lebanon.

What's the reaction tonight?


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, so far, the Iraqis have come out and said that the attacks are unacceptable. They're a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. We've heard that kind of statement before from the Iraqis who nonetheless are hosting US forces on their soil.

But generally, I think we can fairly assume that the US-supported autocracies in the Middle East, there is no love lost between them and Iran, and perhaps, quietly, they may be applauding the US strikes, even though they may not come out and condemn them.

On the other hand, on the popular level, I think we need to keep in mind what's going on. This war in Gaza has been going on for almost four months, the death toll is tens of thousands. The destruction -- everybody watches it here every day, and many people who, in the past perhaps had a negative opinion of the Houthis, of Iran, of the Iranian-affiliated militias, of Hezbollah, have in a sense, had a change of heart, because they see these groups are trying to hit the Americans trying to hit the Israelis, trying in some way to affect the ongoing war in Gaza.

And therefore, on the street, I don't think you're going to have much in the way of praise for this and it really just does raise the level of tension to an extent that, I mean, most people had already assumed that there is actually a low intensity regional war going on across the Middle East between the United States and Israel on one hand and Iran and its allies on another.

Now, we've gone to another level, it is well beyond low intensity. The worry is, of course, that one side or the other is going to misstep and then you could really find the situation far worse than it is at the moment and it is already pretty bad -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes. No question. Multiple places where there is potential escalation and that, a major concern.

Jeremy, speaking of which, you have in effect, multiple fronts for Israel, the ongoing high intensity war in Gaza, and arguably a low to medium intensity war in the north and front between Israeli forces and Hezbollah. So I wonder how these strikes are being met there, because of course, I imagine there is Israeli support for striking back at Iranian proxies in the region.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Israel has many times before struck Iranian and Iranian proxy forces inside of Syria. In fact, just earlier today, there was a report in Iranian state media that an IRGC adviser was killed in Syria by an Israeli strike.

So the Israelis will no doubt be happy to see their American allies striking Iranian forces and their proxies inside of Iraq and Syria. But it certainly doesn't lower the temperature in a region that has really felt at times like it could really explode beyond what we are already seeing right now, which Ben so succinctly described.

I mean, Israel is surrounded by Iranian proxies, not only Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah to the north in Lebanon, but there are, of course, those proxies in Iraq and Syria. And in fact, that proxy group is the Islamic resistance in Iraq has actually claimed responsibility for several smaller scale attacks on Israel itself.

And so while these strikes are certainly intended to try and reestablish US deterrence to try and deter those proxy forces from attacking US forces further, a big question mark as to whether or not that was achieved. It certainly doesn't necessarily do anything to deter those forces from attacking Israel further.

And so does Israel become more of a target? That could also be a question here? But also, of course, what will the actual impact of these strikes be? Will it actually have reduced the capabilities of some of these groups, which not only want to attack the United States, but also at times want to attack Israel?

SCIUTTO: And it always strikes me when I go to northern Israel, you could see the firing positions across the border into southern Lebanon, and it is here. You can see them, and the fire off often comes.

Christiane, I wonder more broadly, does Iran believe to some degree it is winning here? Its proxies continue to severely impact Red Sea shipping. They continue to put US forces in the region at risk and they are certainly occupying a large number of Israeli forces in northern Israel on the Israel-Lebanon border. That seems altogether to be achieving some of Iran's aims.

AMANPOUR: You know, perhaps put it another way, I think maybe it thinks that Israel is losing. It sees that, you know in the four months of this war, there is still rocket fire from Hamas, from Gaza.


There is this catastrophic death toll, which is inflaming not only the Iran streets, but other parts of, of the Arab and Muslim world, and it sees that actually the big targets that Israel named to go off to are still at large, and I think reporting shows that Israel has started again to move its counteroffensive towards Rafah.

So it keeps going, and we're not sure what's going to happen in the next phase or where these negotiations are going to land.

But I think that the Houthis are really showing up and really winning or flooding the information space. They are doing an amazing job in that region, as Ben said, of showing that they are not afraid to take on the United States, take on, you know, the shipping in that whole region and that is a big problem.

And of course, remember the Houthis were unable to be stopped by years of Saudi and UAE war backed by the United States.

These are not easy things to quell. It will take a political solution. And it's very unlikely that any military escalation is going to make any of this any better in any part of where we see the Middle East, and most importantly, as has been mentioned briefly by some observers with the United States gridlocked in terms of defending the major existential battle for democracy, which is in Ukraine, which they're not sending any more arms to, guess who's watching? Iran is watching. Obviously, Russia is watching.

But any of the bad actors who, you know, are watching where the Americans are and where they are putting their efforts are also watching what happens in the Russia-Ukraine war.

SCIUTTO: China, as regards Taiwan as well. But Ben, you mentioned that conflict, which -- that conflict between the streets and the palaces, if you want to say it that way, and perhaps some of the palaces are cheering this military action, but they know that their public do not.

How does that manifest itself going forward here, because to continue such strikes, I imagine that the US does not want to yet again, alienate its Arab partners as it has, to a large degree with its sort of unconditional -- well, almost unconditional support for Israel, as regards Gaza?

WEDEMAN: Well, I think it's the US' allies, partners in the Middle East are in a very difficult position, because everybody knows, the US has troops in Jordan, has troops in Syria, has troops in Iraq, has troops in the Persian Gulf and therefore, that's a tacit acceptance of US policy when it comes to its unwavering support for Israel.

At the same time, you know, on the street, the United States has really lost a lot of credibility, if it had much, even before this war, when it comes to its policy toward Israel, providing weapons, providing diplomatic support. And therefore, as I said before, there's a certain amount of -- I mean, as Christiane mentioned, the Houthis, for instance, they are seen as preventing even something worse happening in Gaza by directly impacting the Israelis.

The militias in Syria and Iraq are a little bit different, because they are identified very closely with Iran, which isn't necessarily popular in the Middle East, but when it comes to sort of stopping or preventing US policies from succeeding in the Middle East, certainly, the Iranians have been more successful than all of the Arab regimes in the region, which speak out of both sides of their mouth. They condemn on the one hand, and then they silently accept it on the other.

SCIUTTO: And all under the banner of resistance, right? I mean, Iranian leaders have even labeled it that at this point, axis of resistance.

Ben Wedeman, Jeremy Diamond, Christiane Amanpour, thanks so much for all you. Joining us now, CNN military analyst, retired Army four-star General and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Wesley Clark; also retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor, former aide to General David Petraeus, currently professor of Military History at Ohio State University, and at the magic wall, CNN military analyst and retired Army Major General "Spider" Marks.

General if we could begin with you, just to give us some sense of the scope here. When you look at this range of targets inside Iraq and Syria, of course, the decision like successive US presidents not strike inside Iranian territory. What do they prioritize here?


MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Jim, are you talking to me or General Clark?

SCIUTTO: Talking to you, sorry. Sorry to you, General Marks.

MARKS: You've got it. I'm on it.

Yes, the prioritization clearly is what's known as the Shia crescent, which essentially runs like this and so the attacks that have just taken place are along that what you just described as the axis of resistance, which is like right in here. We do not know specifically what the target sets look like now. We will over the course of time, be told what that looks like.

But this is where we're attacking and that is important to understand is that the United States clearly does not want to expand the war into Iran. There is no desire on the part of this administration to do that, and bear in mind, Iran has robust infrastructure. The IRGC, the Quds Force, are incredibly robust.

And the thing that the Iranians like to do is to export their terror and to get their proxies to do all the heavy lifting, and to do all the dirty laundry.

Iran, and specifically the leadership in Tehran do not want to do that. Therefore, the United States is going after very robustly, and I think it's about time along this axis of resistance.

SCIUTTO: So General Marks, they flew B-1 bombers used in this attack all the way from the continental US, refueling along the way, why that particular weapons platform? And I wonder if you think there is a message here, a broader one to Iran, about US capabilities in the event of something larger to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, something of a messaging game here?

MARKS: Well, clearly, there is always a message in terms of how you apply force. There is going to be a continual linkage between what's happening on the ground and what your desired outcomes are -- what your intended outcomes you want them to be.

In the case of the B-1, what you have is a capability that has, you can refuel it and the United States flew this capacity, this capability from the United States, which gave the United States a tremendous sense of security and surprise when they initiated the attack.

It also is heavily armed, 24 cruise missiles to include some gravity munitions, some gravity bombs that exist as well. So this is -- and this aircraft, this capability has got about 40 years' worth of experience on it, and it has legs out to another 10 or 15 years.

So this provides a great capability and it demonstrates that they can penetrate into this part of the world.

The problem with going into Iran specifically is Iran has tremendous air defense capabilities. This would not be a platform that they would want to use against that, but this was a great platform to be used in this particular instance.

SCIUTTO: Yes, cold war weapons put into use today.

General Marks, everyone, please do stay with us. I want to bring in the rest of the panel dig in deeper on all of this when our breaking news coverage continues.

We'll be right back.



SCIUTTO: Some new reporting tonight from CNN's Mana Raju on who knew in advance of tonight's strikes on Iran-linked targets in both Iraq and Syria. His sources tell him, the administration did notify Senate Majority Leader Schumer and other top lawmakers ahead of the operation. That is normal. It follows protocol.

Let's continue the conversation now with Wesley Clark, Peter Mansoor, and Spider Marks.

Good to have you all here.

General Clark, you and I've been speaking for some time about US policy deterrence in the region, and also in the days since this attack that killed three US servicemembers. I wonder, when you look at the beginning of these strikes tonight, they say there will be more to come. Sufficient?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, we'll just have to see, Jim. It's about what I would have expected from the administration. They've got multiple targets. They are in two countries. They've brought long range aviation assets to bear.

They have 85 aim points of the bombs. Sounds good. There was warning. Some of the individuals who might have been hit have probably evacuated. Clearly, they've hit at least one ammunition storage site that you can see on the screen.

A lot of it depends on the follow up. What we hear they are saying, what we see happening on the ground and whether there is any response from these groups.

SCIUTTO: Colonel Mansoor, to General Clark's point, Iran and its proxies would have known these strikes were coming. The president was very public about it, presumably moved personnel and equipment over the last several days. Do you believe they would have been able to do so to effect? I mean, when you look at this picture on our screen here now, clearly, ammunition was hit based on those explosions -- secondary explosions, but would they have been able to minimize damage by taking moves in advance to go to ground?

COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET), US ARMY: Well, a lot easier to move your personnel than to move a lot of ammunition. I'm sure that that more high value items were hidden and taken away from storage sites.

But some of it had to remain simply because there wasn't enough time to cart it away. But the people were obviously in hiding, and so the administration has telegraphed its punch in that regard. And so I'm not sure that this has deterred anything.

It may have degraded the capability of these groups to attack, but it certainly has not deterred them.

SCIUTTO: General Marks, just as we're watching this video again, and you see those explosions coming, would that have been in effect ammunition going off, right? Or is that possibly air defense missiles going up? What's your best read of that?

MARKS: It appears that this is ammunition secondary explosions as indicated.

SCIUTTO: Okay. Understood. All right, so as you're looking at -- if you were commander of forces in that region, you have commanded forces in that region, and you had an adversary publicly discussing operations in advance saying we're going to strike and we're going to strike hard and you know, how they've struck in the past. The US has struck Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq prior. What would you have done in advance?

MARKS: First of all, I'd say thank you for the heads up, and secondarily as described, I'd get key personnel into safety, move them as far away as I could into locations where they haven't been before. In other words, it would have to be a new target and if I had the capacity and I had the time, I'd remove kit that I thought was necessary so that I could continue to maintain a capability.


SCIUTTO: Understood. General Clark, when you look at the broader effect of U.S. deterrence in the region, in terms of not just attacks on U.S. forces, in Iraq and Syria, but also Houthi, attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, also Hezbollah, attacks on northern Israel, what is the state of U.S. deterrence in terms of keeping this conflict from expanding further or, in fact, putting a lid on some of these things we've been seeing?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it's not clear that we're doing enough to put a lid on it, Jim. You've got to go after assets that Iran values. I think Iran will fight to the last militiamen, recruit some more fools to go out there and do stupid things and get killed. They've got a pretty robust military industry. They can put more equipment, more ammunition there.

This is more of the same from the administration, a little bit heavier. It's not exactly tit for tat, but it's certainly not a sort of, this is it, no more, enough is enough. It's just not that.

SCIUTTO: Not a strategic putting the foot down as it were. Colonel Mansoor, Defense Secretary Lord Austin did say in a statement that these strikes today are, quote, "the start of our response," end quote. Can the U.S. over time deliver what it may not have delivered in one strike tonight, in other words, through repeated sustained attacks, not just take out capabilities and degrade capabilities, but also deter further attacks going forward?

COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), PROFESSOR OF MILITARY HISTORY, OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY: Well, it will have to be done over time. That's the only way you can track personnel, key personnel and especially tracking IRGC, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force operatives. The two times that I recall that we have deterred Iran, in both times, we captured or killed Iranian operatives.

The first one was in during the surge in 2007, 2008, when we captured several of their operatives. And the second time is when we killed Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force. And in both cases, the Iranians-backed off for a time. And so this will have to be done as they come out of their hiding places, or if Iran moves these people back into the field after having pulled them back to Iran to escape U.S. retaliation.

SCIUTTO: Well, we'll continue to watch, of course, and possible events over the course of the weekend even. General Clark, Major General Spider Marks, Colonel Mansoor, thanks so much to all three of you.

And still to come this hour, the dignified return of the three U.S. service members whose killing prompted tonight's ongoing retaliatory strikes, and a conversation with former Defense Secretary Mark Esper.



SCIUTTO: Tonight's airstrikes began, but officials say we're not timed to follow the solemn ceremony this afternoon at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. You see it there. Three fallen U.S. soldiers killed in Jordan just a few days ago. Their remains returning home.

The President, First Lady, Defense Secretary, and others, of course, including their families, attended the dignified transfer.

Joining us now is Mark Esper, who served as Defense Secretary in the Trump administration. He now serves, we should mention, on the board or as a strategic adviser for a handful of aerospace and defense- related companies. Secretary Esper, thanks so much for joining us tonight.

MARK ESPER, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Thank you, Jim. Good to be with you.

SCIUTTO: First, if I could ask you, I was covering the dignified transfer as it was happening. And in those moments, I always think of the families and what a moment it is for them. Of course, the president himself had some emotional conversations with them. Tell us what a moment is like, like this is for officials like yourself.

You served as defense secretary and we see Lloyd Austin there. What is a moment like this to witness those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country?

ESPER: Yes, you know, I attended too many of those as secretary of the army with soldiers, brave heroes coming back from Afghanistan at the time. And it's really difficult, really difficult. It's a very solemn ceremony. The heroes coming home were treated with such solemnity and care.

But the challenging thing is that you meet the families beforehand. And, you know, they're in shock. They don't know how to react. They're all processing it different ways. And in many cases, what brings it really hard to home is you've got young kids, their children left behind who are completely not aware of what's going on. They're playing in one part of the room while their mom, the service members, wife or spouse is mourning the lost hero.

So, it's really tough. It's tough, not just on the family of the fallen, but it's tough on their teammates, on the fellow soldiers, on the command too. It really comes home. So --


ESPER: -- you'd hate to see these. I think the fewer of these dignified transfers we have, the better. But it is great that we honor our heroes when they come home to rest.

SCIUTTO: No question. And of course, it's a reminder to the public that American service members are still deployed and risking their lives. This of course took place on the same day as these strikes, we're told by the White House, that of course was not deliberate.

When you look at these strikes, we know the Pentagon would likely have offered the president a range of military options. Where do you think tonight's strikes would have fallen in that spectrum? From the more conservative end of the spectrum to the more aggressive, where do you think it would have landed?

ESPER: Yes, well, first of all, Jim, they would offer a range of options, which I typically did. You know, each option would address what we think the casualty count would be, the -- how much it would degrade their capabilities, the risk to U.S. troops, for example. But also there's the art to it as well as is determining with the input of all involved what might be the reaction of the Iranians and how -- what they might respond with. So you present a range of options, one from a very light touch to the very heavy part, which often involved attacks inside Iran. I think they came down about in the middle, which is where I would recommend they start which is striking Iranian forces and assets outside of Iran.


And then depending on the battle damage assessment and how Iran and its proxies responded to coming days. You would move to the right and you would keep ratcheting it up to include attacks, for example, on Iranian naval vessels or oil platforms or attacking inside the country until Iran stopped its bad behavior, until it stopped attacks on U.S. forces and bases.

SCIUTTO: Now, you know better than me that when you present the president with those options, you make your best assessment as to what a likely Iranian response would be. And to your point, successive presidents have made the calculation. You can strike Iranian forces outside of Iran, inside Iran, even President Trump, a bridge too far.

But in terms of what we saw tonight, we don't know if or how many Iranian personnel could force fighters were killed in these strikes. What would be the menu of potential retaliatory strikes from Iran that the U.S. would at least be preparing for?

ESPER: Well, first of all, you're spot on. We don't know exactly what the battle damage assessment is. We won't know until the morning. We will be able to see the damage on the ground. Your photos show, you know, some results of the attacks tonight, secondary explosions.

But what we don't know is, did we kill the people we wanted to kill? The IRGC Quds Force commanders that were maybe there. Of course, Iran had a few days to not just move its people, but maybe to move sets of equipment as well. So, I would hope that we would pursue those things and continue the campaign beyond just a day or two.

And, of course, the Pentagon and the White House have said as much. With regard to Iranian responses, look, it could be it, of course, localized attacks, again, against United States bases through their proxies. It could be missile attacks, as we saw during my tenure in early 2020.

I think that's less likely, but you don't know yet to be prepared for all that. I think that might also explain why there was some of some delay. You want to give your forces in the region, particularly in partner states like the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, the chance to prepare and defend themselves, maybe relocate our own assets as well.

SCIUTTO: That's a great point. It's not just preparation for the other side, giving them time, but give your own people time to prioritize force protection. Before we go, decisions to use military force are, of course, some of the most difficult for sitting presidents. And this is, of course, taking place in an election year. A major test for this president? ESPER: Absolutely, a major test. Look, I think you'll look at some milestones in the president's foreign policy. One would be the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was poorly handled, of course, resulted in a dozen or so brave Americans.

You had the Russian invasion of Ukraine would be another. October 17th, the invasion -- I'm sorry, the brutal attack by Hamas on Israel. And now another step, another milestone in U.S.-Iranian relations.

And look, depending on what happens tonight and in the coming days, how Iran responds, how the president responds again, this is also going to have a political impact here back home with an election 10 months away. People are going to look at this and make another judgment, another assessment about President Biden at a time when he's getting heat from all Americans with regard to the economy.

There's dissatisfaction with regard to how he's handling the border. And now the question will be foreign policy once again. Is how do Americans size him up? And how do they compare him against his likely competitor, Donald Trump?

SCIUTTO: Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, thanks so much for joining.

ESPER: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: A closer look at the short and longer term implications of these strikes. A former top intelligence official will join us to help answer those questions. That's coming up.



SCIUTTO: As we've been discussing tonight, one consistent theme stands out, namely the balance that President Biden appears to be trying to strike as he delivers a message to Iran without dropping bombs directly on Iranian territory or targets.

For more on how the Iranians and others might respond to all this, we're joined now by Beth Sanner. She's the former deputy director of National Intelligence for Mission Integration. Good to have you on, Beth. Thanks so much for joining tonight.


SCIUTTO: So to that question, I mean, this -- and by the way, these are, you know, you know better than me in intelligence. You can't answer these questions with absolute certainty, but the Biden administration has to make a calculation. Deter without escalating. And I wonder how intelligence, his intelligence advisers might have been advising him tonight and in recent days as he came to the decision to launch these attacks.

SANNER: Yes. Well, you know, deterrence isn't about one act or one day, it's about flipping the calculus of your adversary in the cost benefit ratio of what they've been getting out of what they've been doing as a benefit and making the cost of that seem higher, right? So they won't continue that.


SANNER: And so it takes steps. And so, you know, what an intelligence officer is briefing on is, you know, kind of what is the near term likely response, what -- how are they going to measure this act in terms of their cost benefit ratio? And then what's their ability to actually, if they do feel that the deterrence, you know, value is raised, that cost has been raised, then do they have the ability to impose that on their proxy forces?

So --


SANNER: -- you're trying to look at that whole scene.

SCIUTTO: Now, I imagine Iranian intelligence officials are making their own calculations tonight, probably were in recent days as to what forces to move from where and how quickly and what to leave behind, that kind of thing. What calculation are they making right now? I imagine they have to be making their own assessments of how long and how extensive this campaign, if you want to call it that, or series of strikes will be.

SANNER: Right. I think that there are actually some signs that Iran was concerned in the days following the attack on Tower 22. You know, the head of the Quds Force, Soleimani's successor, Qaani, went to Baghdad. And he met with the KH commander, Kataib Hezbollah commander. And you almost can feel that he was like standing over the head of KH as he was writing his letter saying that we're going to cease our attacks on Americans now.

I think that they were worried. And my concern now is that, you know, did this get calibrated enough that they're not thinking, whew, actually, this wasn't as bad as we thought it was. And I am a little bit concerned about the amount that we telegraphed in advance about how, you know, how we're not going to strike Iran.

I don't think you should start at the top of an escalation ladder in order to restore deterrence like some are talking. You start at the bottom and work your way up until you hit the sweet spot or something close, but you don't want to take things off the table either because you're trying to change that mentality.


SCIUTTO: Should we prepare ourselves for two ongoing campaigns? And this is beyond what's going on in Gaza, but you have an ongoing campaign against the Houthis, trying to stop strikes on shipping in the Red Sea and now it appears on Iranian-backed militias trying to stop attacks on U.S. service members in the region.

SANNER: Yes. Well, you know, I think for a little while, this is going to probably go on for, you know, days, maybe weeks. And I think our expectation, too, is it's -- you know, when you talk about reestablishing deterrence, it might be hard to turn it off 100 percent because there are a lot of these groups, small groups.

You know, there is the ability of Iran to put the lid on this, but it may not be perfect, especially in the beginning. The Houthis, I think are much, much harder to establish deterrence for so -- because they are gaining from these attacks.

SCIUTTO: Yes, certainly prominence and some support on the Arab street we were talking about earlier in the program.

Beth Sanner, thanks so much for joining.

SANNER: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Just ahead, another major headline at home this evening. New developments in three of the four trials facing the former president.


SCIUTTO: Important developments in three of the four trials facing former President Trump, if you're keeping track. First, the special counsel's classified documents case in a new court filing Jack Smith's team fights back against what they say are false claims by the Trump team about exactly how the case began. For instance, saying he did not have a security clearance after leaving the White House, contrary to what Trump has claimed.

Also today, in the election subversion case, Trump advisers tell CNN he will continue to push for delays after a federal judge postponed the March 4th trial date because of ongoing appeals regarding Trump's claim of wide presidential immunity.

And the third one, in the Georgia election interference case, Prosecutor Fani Willis admitted in a filing to having a personal relationship with the man she appointed to oversee the trial against the former president and 18 others.

Three of the defendants, including Trump, are demanding the case now be dismissed because of that relationship, quoting Willis, "While the allegations raised in the various motions are salacious and garnered the media attention they were designed to obtain, none provide this court with any basis upon which to order the relief they seek."


Here to talk about this, Senior Legal Analyst, Elie Honig, former federal prosecutor. Elie, good to have you. It's a lot to go to go through.

Let's begin if we can on the documents case. His team says, Smith's team, "There's no evidence Trump even had a security clearance after he left office despite the attorney's claim." What does that mean for this case? ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: So, Jim, Trump's team had been making noises about raising a defense that he somehow maintained a high level security clearance after he left the presidency. And Jack Smith's team today put in a very straightforward and forceful response. They said, a, he did not have a security clearance. We looked everywhere.

And b, even if he did, that doesn't let him take possession of those documents and take them home. So I think Jack Smith's team has really put that defense to bed.

SCIUTTO: OK. Other development, Judge Chutkan, she did what we expected her to do. This March date was just not going to happen with the continued delay on this decision about immunity. So I wonder, what do you believe is behind this, the delay at the appeals court level of answering this key question about whether the president had virtually unlimited immunity. What does it signal to you, that it hasn't come as quickly as anybody expected?

HONIG: Yes, Judge Chutkan had to acknowledge what she did today. This trial is simply not going to start on March 4th. Because as you say, this appeal issue about immunity has now been pending for nearly two months. It's taking longer for the D.C. Circuit to rule that I think anyone expected.

And what that tells me, this is a three judge panel, is that there's some disagreement within the panel. It may be that we see a 2 to 1 split decision. We may still see a 3 to 0 decision. But the fact that it's taking this long tells me that they're having to work through some level of disagreement. I think Trump's still going to lose this case, but it may not be as quickly and as cleanly as we expected.

SCIUTTO: Very quickly on Fani Willis, should she recuse herself and step down after all this?

HONIG: Absolutely. I think if she doesn't do it voluntarily, there's a good chance the judge forces her to do it. I read her response today. It doesn't, in my mind, answer the key questions. Not about the relationship. It doesn't matter to me if they're having a romantic relationship or just some other relationship, but about the flow of money, the potential conflict of interest and her, I believe, wildly improper statements that she's made publicly that are going to prejudice the jury pool here. I think she should step aside and if she doesn't, I think there's a good chance the judge forces it.

SCIUTTO: We'll be watching all three of those. Elie Honig, thanks so much.

HONIG: All right, Jim. Thanks.

SCIUTTO: And we'll be right back.


SCIUTTO: CNN's coverage continues. I'm Jim Sciutto. "THE SOURCE WITH KAITLAN COLLINS" starts now.