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WH: "We Believe There Are 20 Or More" Americans Unaccounted For; U.N.: Siege Of Gaza "Prohibited" Under International Law. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired October 10, 2023 - 15:00   ET



JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: And they have had engagement and contact with Hamas over years and years. And all of that has played a role in contributing to what we have seen.

Now, as to the question of whether Iran knew about this attack in advance or helped plan or direct this attack, we do not - as of the moment I'm standing here at the podium - have confirmation of that.

We are talking to our Israeli counterparts on a daily basis about this question. We're looking back through our intelligence holdings to see if we have any further information on that. We're looking to acquire further intelligence. And if there's an update to that, I'll share it with you.

But as I stand here today, while Iran plays this broad role - sustained, deep and dark role - in providing all of this support and capabilities to Hamas, in terms of this particular gruesome attack on October 7th, we don't currently have that information. We will continue to look for it. And if we find it, we will share that with you.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Jake. Looking back at the last few days, how did Israel miss this attack coming?

SULLIVAN: That's a question for you to ask the Israeli government. Obviously, the Israeli government has placed a high premium on its intelligence capacity as it relates to Hamas, as it relates to the West Bank, as it relates to Hezbollah. And why it is that they did not have warning from this is not a question that I can answer from this podium.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about U.S. intelligence? Was there anything in what crosses your desk that would suggest that this was coming?

SULLIVAN: We did not see anything that suggested an attack of this type was going to unfold any more than the Israelis did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And in your meeting with - in the Situation Room today - we saw an image earlier. At some point, undoubtedly, in last few days, the President has seen the images of the dead Israelis. What has been his reaction when shown those images?

SULLIVAN: I mean, you've seen him now twice. You've heard his voice. And this has been a deeply emotional time for all of us, as I'm sure it is for many people in this room who know people or know people who know people who were killed or who are missing.

And all of us have developed close relationships with our Israeli counterparts. President Biden has a decades-long relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And he can hear the pain in Prime Minister Netanyahu's voice when he talks to him. I hear the pain of my counterparts when I talk to them.

So, this is not just about policy or strategy. This is personal for us. And it's personal for the American people with their bonds with the Israeli people.

And so, President Biden has seen and felt the deep emotional resonance of this. But he has also held the conviction that his job as president is to make sure that he has the clarity of mind and purpose to take the actions necessary so that we are standing with Israel in its hour of need, so that we are working to deter a widening of this conflict, and so we are getting Israel the tools that it requires to defend itself.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, Jake. You just laid out all of the ways that Iran is complicit in this and facilitated it over years of support for Hamas. Is that reason enough to freeze - refreeze the $6 billion that the U.S. helped unlock for them to get in exchange for the prisoners?

SULLIVAN: We have not yet - had a dollar of that $6 billion spent. And I will leave it at that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But will you refreeze it based on this activity that - you've just laid out all of the ways that they are complicit in this? You - the administration said that if we see them going in the wrong direction, that we would stop that down.

I understand the position that you guys have that not a dollar of this has been spent. But will you prevent it from getting into their hands to allow them to do - do what they do that you just laid out?

SULLIVAN: Let me just reiterate what I said, because it's unequivocal: Not a dollar of that money has been spent. And I will leave it at that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is it being considered?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jake, if I can ask you, will the U.S. support Israel's military attacks in Gaza for as long as it takes, until the hostages are freed or until Hamas is destroyed? I guess, in simple terms: How much retaliation in Gaza is the U.S. willing to accept?

SULLIVAN: I don't think of this in terms of retaliation. This is about providing support to Israel as it seeks to defend its territory and deal with an ongoing, imminent threat from Hamas terrorists - who, as I said before, are acting a heck of a lot like ISIS terrorists in their barbarity and cruelty. That requires going after Hamas terrorist targets in Gaza because, even as we speak is - even as I stand here, there could be rockets flying out of Gaza.

Going after those sites - that's not retaliation. That's your - Israel stepping up to defend itself and ensure the safety and security of the Israeli people.

And we're going to support them for as long as they need to ensure that Israel is safe and secure. And I can't put a timetable on that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, to be clear: Is the goal the destruction of Hamas, the guarantee that Hamas cannot launch attacks from there, the confirmation that all Americans and Israelis have been secured safely from there? What is - where do you draw the line? Is there a red line of where do you draw that line of what you need to accomplish, what ...

SULLIVAN: I'm not ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... they may accomplish ...

SULLIVAN: I'm not standing up here to draw red lines. What I'm standing up here to say is that in its hour of need, as Israel embarks on an operation to try to protect its country, protect the Jewish state of Israel, and to go after the threats that it faces - and also working closely with them hand in hand to try to secure the release and recovery of American and other hostages, we will do all of that.

And I'm not here to draw red lines or issue warnings or give lectures to anybody. I'm here to say that the President has given us direction to take a series of actions. We are undertaking those actions. And we will continue to do so in the weeks ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Last one very quickly ...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... that we heard from the families of Americans who are unaccounted for right now. They spoke publicly in Israel today. You said the President hasn't spoken to them directly. What is the President's message to those families right now who said it is the responsibility of the president of the United States to make sure their loved ones come home safely?

SULLIVAN: The President said in his remarks today that as president of the United States, he has no higher priority than the safety and wellbeing of Americans held hostage overseas. And he has proven in country after country his willingness to go further than any other president has gone before to secure the release and bring those people home. He is going to try to do that in this case as well.

But that is a high priority for him. And that is the message that he is sending, along with a deep sense of understanding of the grief and hurt and pain and anguish they're feeling right now as they wait to hear news of their loved ones.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jake, the President, in his remarks today, referred to seeking for assistance for "partners," plural. Does that suggest that you've decided strategically to ask Congress for a package that includes both Ukraine aid as well as aid for Israel? And, you know, Chairman McCaul suggested even including border and Taiwan money in that.

I'm just kind of hoping you could give a state of play of how you guys are thinking about this in your interactions with the Hill.

SULLIVAN: So, I'm not going to get ahead of the President's request and not going to take the place of the OMB director, who will present the request that we send up.

But the President was very clear today that we will be making a request to the Congress, and it will include a request for funding for support to Israel. And he has also been equally clear that we are going to renew our request to the Congress for aid to Ukraine.

What exact form that all takes, that will be worked out and presented by others, not by me. But the notion that we're going to go up and ask for Israel aid and ask for Ukraine aid, that's unequivocal. We are going to do that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Beyond Iron Dome and ammunition, were there any other requests made by Prime Minister Netanyahu today that we can expect to be part of that package?

SULLIVAN: He - as I mentioned in my opening comments, he did make specific requests with respect to other capabilities. I'm not going to get into the details of that from this podium. But he and the President discussed that.

I spoke with Lloyd Austin, who was on his way to the NATO defense ministerial, about those requests. Secretary Austin is following up on that.

And as I said in my opening comments, you can expect to see American planes flying into Israel to deliver military capabilities to support Israel.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just a follow-up on Iron Dome. How effective has it been in deterring the attacks? And I know you mentioned this a bit in terms of the interceptors. But has Israel asked for interceptors on an ongoing basis in light of the situation? SULLIVAN: I - you ask how effective it has been in deterring - I can't say that it has deterred, obviously, because a huge number of rockets have fired. But it has been effective, as it typically is, in taking a lot of those rockets out of the sky and saving countless lives by doing this.

Now, of course, some rockets have gotten through, to tragic cost. And that has been the pattern we have seen in previous conflicts as well.

Now, Israel will have an ongoing need for interceptors, because an air defense system is only as good as your ability to continue to put interceptors in that can take out the rockets that are coming to kill civilians and rain down terror on cities.

And we are committed to making sure that we are working with Israel to produce and supply the requisite number of Iron Dome interceptors so that they can keep those systems going on an indefinite basis going forward, because we cannot say how long this will be going on.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. Jake, while you support an Israel military and rightly denounced this horrific and heinous act against Israeli civilians, how can you make sure that Israel goes after Hamas and its infrastructure in Gaza, not 2 million Palestinians who are trapped with no water, with no electricity, with no medical supplies? The U.N. schools are overflowing now. They are - the number of beds is reaching 850 so far, including six member of one family of the former ambassador to Washington.


How can you make sure that this is not revenge but actually going after Hamas, who committed this horrible crime?

SULLIVAN: Well, as the President said today, the difference between countries like the United States and Israel is that we do not deliberately target civilians. We are strongest when we are committed to the rule of law. And we work to make sure that all military operations are conducted consistent with the rule of law and the law of war. That is something that President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu have discussed, not just in this context but in previous contexts as well. That is something the United States has always stood for and always will continue to stand for.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you make sure - sorry. Can you confirm that the Egyptian intelligence had passed information to the Israelis that the attack is imminent or some attack is going to happen?

SULLIVAN: I cannot confirm that.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted on Saturday telling residents of Gaza to "leave now because we will operate forcefully everywhere." Where is the idea of where people in Gaza will go?

SULLIVAN: This is something also that we have been discussing with our counterparts in Israel and with our counterparts in Egypt.

And without getting into the specifics of safe passage for civilians and so forth, I will say it's something that the U.S. government is seized with in supporting how we do that operationally.

But the details of that are something that are being discussed among the - the operational agencies, and I don't want to share too much of that publicly at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would that happen imminently or what is the timing (inaudible)?

SULLIVAN: I'll leave it at the fact that we are focused on this question, there are consultations ongoing, and I'll share more when I have an update for you.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Following up on that question about what the President said about talking with the Israeli Prime Minister about democracies and the laws of war, was that a warning to the Prime Minister? And why did the President feel that was necessary to bring it up in the call today?

SULLIVAN: It was not a warning. The call today was not President Biden warning Prime Minister Netanyahu about anything. It was two leaders talking to one another: one who is leading a nation that has suffered an unfathomable attack, and another nation who is standing behind them four-square in the defense of their country.

And the conversation carried on in those terms. And the two leaders spoke in a collaborative fashion, as they always do.

So, no, I cannot accept the characterization of your question.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks, Jake. I have two questions. First, some reports are saying that IRGC commander was in Lebanon - Esmail Qaani was in Lebanon few days ago, and he left to Syria. Also, you are saying that Iran is complicit in this attack. Are you trying to downplay the Iranian role here? What are you waiting for to take an action?

And my second question: What assessment do you have on where other militias, other Iranian militias stand now, whether in Iraq. We also heard the Houthis threat now. Can you give us an update?

And is there a risk on the U.S. troops in the region?

Thank you. SULLIVAN: So, I - on your first question, I laid out our view, which is the broad complicity based on the longstanding support that Hamas is giving to Iran. We don't have specific information that ties Iran to this attack. At this time, we don't have that information. We may gain that information in the hours and days ahead, but we don't presently have it. So, that's in answer to your first question with respect to the intelligence.

With respect to the question of the various militia groups across the region, we do believe that they pose an urgent threat and that it is certainly distinctly possible that they choose to try to exploit or take advantage of this situation. And we have been sending clear warnings that doing so will resort - will result in - in a firm response and consequences from the United States.

And that goes across the board. And we have been clear also in sending a message of deterrence through the movement of the carrier strike group into the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as through the assurance that we will sustain F-16s, F-35s, A-10s in theater to be able to deal with any contingency that the United States might have to deal with in the days ahead.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, Jake. The European Union says it opposes a total siege of Gaza. I mean, what's the U.S. position on that?

SULLIVAN: I have seen those reports. But my understanding is that is not the - the concept of siege is not something that in fact is going to be pursued by the Israeli government.

But we are consulting with the Israeli government about their actions in this regard.

And like I said before to a previous question, President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu had the opportunity to talk through the difference between going full-bore against Hamas terrorists and how we distinguish between terrorists and innocent civilians.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you so much, Jake. Just zooming out to China. Is the U.S. worried that this attention now to Israel is going to detract resources from the Indo-Pacific? Have you communicated with Beijing about this attack in Israel? And just going to Sen. Schumer's comments, he said he was "disappointed" by President Xi's soft response. Has that been part of the discussions here?

SULLIVAN: We were not entirely surprised by the PRC's response based on their history of commentary on these kinds of issues.

We believe that the United States is capable of supporting Ukraine in Europe, of supporting our allies in the Indo-Pacific, and of supporting our close ally, Israel, in its hour of need. And we believe we have the resources, tools, and capacities to be able to effectively do that.

And part of our job is to ensure that we are working across all of these theaters at once. And that's precisely what we're doing each day.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There have been some Republican lawmakers who have argued the U.S. can't support two wars. Could you address some of that and - and talk a little bit about how you'll make these requests to Congress and make the case that the U.S. needs to invest - maybe not with troops on the ground - but with military and economic aid in both Israel and Ukraine?

SULLIVAN: Standing for Ukraine so that Russian aggression does not prevail in Europe - the amount of resources that we need to put into that compared to the amount of resources we would have to put in if Russia were, in fact, to conquer Ukraine and then potentially have its aggression continue across Europe, it is so much more cost-effective to take the action now, as opposed to pay the huge price later - a price that might ultimately, as it has in the past, require the actual deployment of American troops to combat.

So, better to support the Ukrainians as they stand firm against Russian aggression and do so on a sustained basis. And we have the budget wherewithal to be able to do that. We also have the budget wherewithal to be able to provide Israel what it needs.

And we firmly reject the notion that the United States of America cannot at once support the freedom-loving people of Ukraine and support the State of Israel.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Great. Thanks, Jake. Is the administration working with Israel and Egypt to open the Rafah crossing to try to ensure evacuations are possible?

And then also, I know that you said that in conversations with Israeli leaders, you don't think that a complete siege is something that they may be attempting to do in Gaza. But is there any counsel of restraint from the administration to Israel?

SULLIVAN: So, on the first question, I - in reference to a previous question, I spoke about our consultations with the Israelis and the Egyptians about how to deal with the challenge of civilians who want to leave Gaza. I'm not going to get into the details of that about a specific crossing or so forth, only to say that that is something we are focused on and we are working on. And I want to leave those conversations in diplomatic channels, at least for the moment. When we have more to offer on that, I'll be sure that we do so.

And then we are having conversations with the Israelis, as I have described. And again, at this podium, I'm not going to go into details on them in terms of what precise messages we're passing. It's important that we be able to talk to the Israelis in the way that we always do - as good friends, as honest friends - and we will continue to do that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, Jake. So, on the home front, over 150 people who are on a terrorist watchlist have been seized along the southern border this fiscal year. And we've reported that there's been a hundred - over 1.5 million known got-aways since the Biden administration took office. Is this something the American people should be worried about right now?

SULLIVAN: We continue to remain vigilant about terrorist threats to the homeland from anywhere. It is something that we are very much working on, that we are consulting with the Congress on, that we are seeking to secure the necessary resources to continue to work through.

And anytime we see any threat stream involving a terrorist threat to the homeland, we mobilize every asset and resource of the U.S. government to go after that. And that includes information and analysis that we have shared with the Congress about plots emanating from the Middle East, plots emanating from other places. We'll continue to do that.

We also will continue to take steps to pursue a humane, orderly border policy. And we will work with the Congress in the weeks ahead to continue to get the resource that we - resources we need to be able to do that.

I would point out that in the last supplemental, we actually sought additional funding for the border, which was not forthcoming in the ultimate package that went through. So, the Biden administration has said to Congress already, "We're looking for more resources to be able to deal with the continuing challenges that we have at the border."


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jake, the President doesn't have a confirmed ambassador to Israel at this point. What are you doing to get Jack Lew confirmed, given he was nominated about a month ago, the nomination was sent to the Senate back in late September. What's the plan to get him on the ground?


SULLIVAN: Well, first, the Senate is coming back into session next week. Second, when they do, we are going to work with both Democrats and Republicans - and particularly the leaders on both sides and the chair and ranking in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - to make that happen as soon as humanly possible and then get him out to the region immediately thereafter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is that your top priority when Congress returns, apart from the aid request that you're talking about?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's hard to answer top priority in the sense that our top priority when Congress comes back is going to be the full spectrum of needs that Israel has. Some of that is related to the support that we're seeking from Congress. And then, of course, having high-level diplomatic representation is going to be critical as well. So, we will move urgently on that the minute that they come back.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jake, one of the things ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you just clarify your answer from earlier - I'm sorry. Can you just clarify your answer ...

SULLIVAN: Sorry, it's the ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just one question. Can you just give us where things stand with the normalization deal? Is that on hold now? Is there any progress? Or do you see any progress for that?

SULLIVAN: So, we are right now focused on dealing with the immediate challenge that we are confronting and that Israel is confronting. And so, I'm not going to give a characterization on the state of play on normalization. It's not on hold. But, obviously, over the last four days, all of our attention with respect to our support for Israel has been focused squarely on this conflict, on this heinous, brutal attack and on helping Israel be able to defend itself. We're going to continue to try to do that.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jake, can you just clarify your answer - your "yes"?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You and the President both compared Hamas to ISIS. What does that say about the U.S. approach to Hamas going forward?

SULLIVAN: Well, we have labeled Hamas a terrorist group for years, if not decades. And we have consistently supported Israel in its efforts to fight back against and undermine Hamas, and we will continue to do so.

In the immediate term, what it means is working with Israel to ensure that they are able to go after that Hamas threat in Gaza effectively, relentlessly, and to the point where they feel that their security and their deterrence has been fully restored.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And with that, does the ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Sullivan, can you - can I just ask you real quick - I'm sorry - Mr. Sullivan, are you concerned at all that those who are here in the U.S. - terrorists who are here in the U.S. may be emboldened by what's happening now?

And just to piggyback on what was asked earlier, because we do know that there are people sort of lurking here: Is there a concern that there may be a flare-up? SULLIVAN: The President put out a written statement yesterday with multiple elements to it. One of those elements was about the focus that we have right now on protecting Americans here at home against anyone who would seek to exploit or piggyback on what has unfolded - these gruesome events that have unfolded in Israel.

Part of that is about protecting places of worship, synagogues, and ensuring that we don't see a kind of virulent form of anti-Semitism sparked by what has just happened.

And then part of that is about ensuring that any terrorist threat here in the United States or to the United States or to Americans anywhere in the world, that we are at a heightened state of vigilance to deal with that.

That's something the President directed his team. It's something he spoke to yesterday in that statement. And it's something that he will be convening his national security team on this week, because it remains a very high priority.

And I'll take the last question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does the administration regret making the prisoner swap with Iran in light of these attacks?

SULLIVAN: The United States does not regret bringing home American citizens who had been unjustly detained abroad. As I said before, the President has no higher priority than to get Americans home.

Right now, we have Americans who are being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. That is a high priority. Bringing those Americans home from Iran was a high priority - from Afghanistan, from Venezuela, from other places as well.

And we stand by bringing those people home because that is the duty of the Commander-in-Chief, is to get innocent Americans out of captivity in places that they are being unjustly detained.

Thanks, you guys.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jake, if Israel strikes Iran, what level of support can they count on from the U.S.?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: just been hearing from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the White House, a wide-ranging, detailed press conference. He is now confirming at least 14 Americans have been killed after the terror attacks began by Hamas on Israel Saturday morning.

Sullivan said it's believed that there are 20 or more Americans unaccounted for. Unaccounted for does not necessarily mean kidnapped, it just means not sure if they are dead, wounded somewhere. They are simply unaccounted for and missing.


There's a number of things he spoke to, and I just want to quickly tick through them. He also talked about the highest priority of trying to get Americans who are in captivity to get them out of it, to get them home. He also talked about the importance of communicating with Americans here in Israel. That's been one of the complaints you've heard from some American citizens who feel that they have not had enough communication with U.S. officials.

He's talked about augmenting the U.S. efforts and the Biden administration's efforts to augment Israel's defense capabilities, in particular the Iron Dome system, providing and funding more interceptors for that Iron Dome system.

As you know, there's been a large number of incoming rockets, an unprecedented number of incoming rockets into Israel. So as this continues, getting more of those interceptors for the Iron Dome is going to be important. About the role of Iran, he said that Iran is broadly complicit in this attack, given their long support for Hamas as well as Islamic Jihad.

He did say they did - they have not seen proof that Iran had advanced warning of this. He was pushed on whether there's been any consideration by the Biden administration to reverse its decision to unfreeze some $6 billion in Iranian assets to the Iranian regime. He would not answer that question.

The U.S., he said, did not see this coming. When asked about the failure of Israeli intelligence, he pointed out U.S. intelligence agencies did not see this attack coming. He also reiterated the importance of the rule operating under the rules of war.

When asked - this is a particularly interesting question. We're going to talk to our Ben Wedeman about this as well as Clarissa Ward. When asked about statements by the IDF that citizens in Gaza, the Palestinians in Gaza, should leave areas, the question was, where can they go? He would not get specific, but he said that details are being discussed, focused on this question. He said he's not going to get ahead of the diplomatic discussions that are going on, not getting into details of specific potential, specific border crossings or crossings.

And he talked about the importance of a heightened state of vigilance by U.S. law enforcement domestically within the United States and also U.S. citizens and U.S. government officials abroad.

I do want to bring in Clarissa Ward, who is in Ashkelon.

Also, Ben Wedeman is in Jerusalem for us tonight.

Ben Wedeman, in particular, you've spent - you've lived in Egypt. There is a border crossing to Egypt. When you hear Jake Sullivan talk about diplomatic discussions about where civilians in Gaza can go, and as you pointed out earlier, Ben, there are many civilians who do not like Hamas, do not like being ruled by Hamas, dominated by Hamas.

What do you - when you hear about that idea of border crossings, is there a precedent for that? How - where can they go?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are only two borders, Israel and Egypt. The Egyptian border, the main crossing point is Rafah. Now, in previous flare-ups between Israel and Gaza, the Egyptians were not very open to any sort of flood of Palestinian refugees coming out and, in fact, this time is similar. There doesn't appear to be any willingness by the Egyptian authorities to allow this to happen. They don't want hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flooding into the Sinai Peninsula.

Now, in January of 2008, I was in Gaza when Hamas actually blew up a long stretch of the wall that had been constructed between Egypt and Gaza, and what I saw was hundreds of thousands. In fact, more than half of the population of Gaza left Gaza simply because they're cooped up in that place.

The Egyptians panicked. They didn't know how to deal with it. Eventually, they had to bring in extra forces, bring the area under control, and force the Palestinians back. So they don't want the Gazans to come out. So, really, there's nowhere else to go. The Israelis obviously aren't going to allow the people of Gaza in.

So I'm not quite sure what sort of diplomatic solution there is to allow the people of Gaza to leave. The Egyptians simply don't want them to come in. Anderson?

COOPER: And, Ben, in terms of Gazans leaving Gaza City and trying - is there some sort of solution of having residents leave Gaza City to somewhere else?


I mean, obviously, look, the Gaza Strip is small. Is there some other place to go outside?