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Senators Grill Top Military Leaders On Chaotic Afghanistan Exit. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired September 28, 2021 - 12:30   ET



GEN. KENNETH FRANK MCKENZIE, U.S. CENTCOM COMMANDER: I've told this Committee before, it is very hard to do this, it is not impossible to do this.

SEN. MARK KELLY (D-AZ): Well, I'm looking forward to seeing those details in the closed hearing. Are you confident, confident that we can deny organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS the ability to use Afghanistan as a launch pad for terrorist activity?

MCKENZIE: I think that's yet to be seen. I think, you know, we're still seeing how al-Qaeda and ISIS are configuring themselves against the Taliban. We're still seeing what the Taliban is going to do. So I think it's -- I would not say, I'm confident that that's going to be on the ground yet. We could get to that point, but I do not yet have that level of confidence.

KELLY: And you might have to share this in the closed hearing. But do you have the resources necessary to accomplish this, even as our national security pivots towards great power, or near peer threats, like China and Russia, that are seeking to expand their influence and compete with our military?

MCKENZIE: Senator, I'll just say, I'm in a constant dialogue with the Secretary about requirements in CENTCOM. And I'll give you some more details in the closed session.

KELLY: OK, well, thank you. And I know you can't go into much detail about the analysis that led to the August 28th drone strike in Kabul in this open setting. But I would like to note my serious concerns and give you the opportunity to make any comment on how the American people can know that the military will be able to adequately assess targets before conducting future strikes and operations, even as we have even fewer local intelligence and surveillance resources to leverage.

MCKENZIE: Senator, again, the matters under investigation, but what I can tell you broadly, and to restate some things I've said earlier, I am responsible for that. It happened in my area of responsibility. So I'm the responsible officer for that strike.

Moreover, I was under no pressure, and no one in my chain of command below me was under any pressure to take that strike. We acted based on the intelligence read that we saw on the ground, we acted several times on intelligence that we saw, and we were successful in other occasions in preventing attacks.

This time, tragically, we were wrong. And you're right to note that as we go forward, and our ability to create what we call the ecosystem that allows you to see what's going on, on the ground and put all that together, it's going to get a lot harder to do that, particularly in places like Afghanistan, but I can share a little more with you later.

KELLY: Well, thank you, General.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, Senator Kelly. Senator Tuberville, please.

SEN. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-AL): Thank you Mr. Chairman. Gentlemen, thanks for being here today. You're part of the most powerful military in the world. I'll ask all three this question, I know you're going to answer this is there any enemy that could defeat the strongest force in the world, the United States military?

And I know all of you are going to say, no. So Secretary Austin since your confirmation in January, have you been denied any resources with regards to Afghanistan? I think I heard you say earlier, you got everything you needed.


TUBERVILLE: Yes. Thank you. On August 18th, you were asked why the U.S. wouldn't rescue Americans who couldn't reach the airport, you responded quote, I don't have the capability to go out and extend operations currently in Kabul, end quote. We saw the Germans, the French, the British rescue citizens in Kabul.

But from this administration, which commands the world's most lethal fighting force, we saw nothing but blame, weakness, and our American citizens were left to fend for themselves. Our fighting men and women have the courage, train, and discipline to defeat the enemy anytime, anywhere. And there's people all over this country wonder why in the heck would we let our allies get their people and we didn't get ours?

I want to thank all the 100,000 veterans and their families who sacrificed over the past 20 years. And I truly believe our soldiers didn't fail us. A lot of our leadership did. Secretary Austin, before President Biden even took office, you thought we needed to leave Afghanistan.

On January the 19th, you told my colleague Senators Shenna (ph) quote, I think this conflict needs to come to an end. And we need to see an agreement reached and in accordance with what the President-elect wants to see, end quote.

You testify that General Milley and General Miller had adequate resources to secure Afghanistan at a troop level 2,500. But you told Senator Hawley you wanted to quote, assess the situation and make recommendations to the President, end quote. I know where you're going to answer this. Did you give advice to the President on the withdrawal from Afghanistan without conditions? Or is that the direction you got from him?

AUSTIN: Again, my recommendations were a part of a very deliberate process where we presented a range of options for the President. And if I could Senator, I'd like to go back to the first comment that you made about the question that I answered for a reporter who asked why don't you go out and establish cordons and create safe passageways for our people just to move into the airport at that point early on in the -- in our deployment, we only had -- we had less than 4,000 or about 4,000 troops to secure and defend the airport.


And our troop presence continued to grow as we flowed people in, we use a number of innovative approaches to go out and pick up and facilitate the entry of American citizens into the airport as the situation continued to develop. But I just wanted to give you a little context for that answer.

TUBERVILLE: Well, thank you. And, you know, we're all talking about, did President Biden know all this and, you know, my question about withdrawal. You know, basically there's two options. I can answer that for you. It's either the President was given bad military advice, or he gave his military the terrible decision and direction to surrender Afghanistan without condition. I'll have some more here for you in few minutes.

I just want to make a couple of statements. You know, the American people, especially the people I represent, they're disgusted by how this U.S. surrender happened in Afghanistan. And I know you've heard that yourself, all three of you. American veterans are pissed off that their service was squandered.

Americans allies are in disbelief. But Americans enemies are delighted. The Taliban are euphoric at the job that happened with our military given the orders to retreat, President Biden abandoned our allies who fought alongside us for 20 years.

This administration left American citizens behind enemy lines. We left $85 billion worth of equipment that the American taxpayers paid for. And this administration created sanctuary for terrorists to plot against United States for years and years to come. It's just absolutely amazing that we did this. So I'll end it there. I know we've -- these guys need probably take a break, but we'll see you after the break. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I yield my time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much Senator Tuberville. We've completed the first round, and as I indicated, we will break at 1 o'clock for lunch. So we'll begin the second round.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello everybody. Welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. You've been listening to a dramatic hearing up on Capitol Hill substance and shock as part of that hearing. Top generals contradicting the President while discussing the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

They tell senators this morning, they recommended keeping 2,500 or more American service members on the ground in Afghanistan. Republicans saying this is evidence President Biden did not tell the American people the truth about his decisions and the aftermath. And also this during that hearing, the Joint Chiefs Chairman defending his actions in the chaotic days after the January 6th insurrection.

Yes, General Mark Milley says he talked to the House Speaker after the Capitol attack, but General Milley made a clear distinction. He said he did not agree with Nancy Pelosi's assessment that Donald Trump was crazy. And General Milley said at no time, did he try to do an end around the chain of command.

With me in studio to share the reporting and their insights on this remarkable hearing CNN's Dana Bash, CNN's Kaitlan Collins, Olivier Knox of The Washington Post and Francesca Chambers of McClatchy. A lot to unravel there, a lot of policy, a lot of substance, a lot of disagreement, remarkable public candor about the inner decisions making at the Pentagon, and a lot of politics.

To the point, the generals repeatedly testified that they recommended 2,500 troops stay in Afghanistan, they thought that was the best way for the situation. Some said maybe as many as 3,500. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas made reference to an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, where the President said no, no one said that to me that I can recall about keeping troops. No, no one said that to me that I can recall. The Republicans are saying the President lied to the American people.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, and two of them both testified that, yes, they had recommended keeping 2,500 troops there. Now what I imagined the White House would point to is that caveat that I can recall.

However, I don't really think that's going to be a solid defense because the question is why would you not be able to recall something that is so critical advice over how you're conducting this exit from Afghanistan, and what the top advice that you're getting from your top military aides is.

And so what General Milley said there is a follow up to that is that we are here to give advice. We are not the decision makers, that decision maker makes the decision on this. But they did confirm that, yes, this is the advice that they gave to him and President Biden have been pressed on this twice by George Stephanopoulos in that interview because it had been widely reported by CNN and other major outlets, that that was the advice that he had received that they thought that this could happen and they thought of those 2,500 troops were there, it would help facilitate a more stable situation.

And so those are going to be big questions facing the White House over this. And I also think Milley saying that he believes this is damaged U.S. credibility on the world stage is another notable point in that --

KING: And Republicans were also trying to make the point that during the withdrawal, that the President should have kept troops there past the August 31st deadline. And on that the Generals unanimously said, no, no, they believed it was best to get out because they believe once you had gotten to that point that if you stayed past that deadline, you have war with the Taliban and then the remaining Americans in their view would be even more at risk because you have open warfare.


OLIVIER KNOX, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes. That they basically wrote to the President Biden's rescue, right, because that's been one of the core talking points in the White House to justify the pace and the extent of the withdrawal, saying, you know, look, if we'd stayed we'd be targets again.

I thought it was interesting at one point when General Milley was answering Senator Hawley that he explained the difference between the 2,500 troops who had been in the country and that those were advisors and trainers, not peep -- not the kinds of people that you deploy, to say take an airport, for example.

That also injected an interesting perspective into how the President went about doing this. But I expect that the White House Press Secretary is going to be peppered with an awful lot of questions about whether the President's been fully candid.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I don't remember just kind of taking a step back here. The last time we have seen a hearing like this with sitting members of the administration, in this case, the defense secretary sitting military leaders being so candid and open about decisions that have been made in recent times, and very consequential decisions, really candid all the things that you talked about, and maybe one of the most blunt assessments came from General Milley, which is that they -- what they saw was a logistical success, meaning getting everybody out last minute, but a strategic failure. That's a very, very big thing.

KING: And on the way he put that. I want to bring in our next guest. General Milley said it was strategic failure, quote, the enemy is in charge in Kabul. Let's bring in on that point, Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary and the CIA Chief, Leon Panetta, grateful for your time on this important day.

To the point, you served as the CIA chief protecting American secrets. You served as defense secretary. You're a White House Chief of Staff. You know what is and is not discussed publicly. I want to come to some of the specifics in a moment and get your take on.

But to hear these generals talk in such candid detail about the inside debates at the Pentagon, they tried to cover a little bit by saying I don't discuss my conversations directly with the President. But then being quite candid about actually what they thought and making pretty clear that is what they told the President. Have you ever heard anything like this in public?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, you know, I have a great deal of respect for all three, Secretary Austin, General Milley General McKenzie, because they really presented very frank and honest testimony that I think is important for the country to hear.

And I believe that as we try to struggle with the lessons from what's happened in Afghanistan, that it is absolutely essential to get the truth as to what they recommended and what happened. And I think that's pretty much what they provided today.

KING: I think one of the -- I agree with you completely about the truth, both of what happened in the last couple of months, and also what has happened over the last 20 years. And it's pretty clear that kind of two big issues today. One is 19 plus years of failure and the American government lying to itself, frankly, about what happened to Afghanistan, and then what happened on Joe Biden's watch in getting out.

But to the point of a President's credibility against someone who has served in the sensitive positions you have, I want you to listen to this exchange here. This is Senator Tom Cotton, making a point that the after the generals had said they recommended leaving 2,500 troops and after they made clear that that was their advice to the President of the United States, this exchange. Listen.


SEN. TOM COTTON (R-AR): Secretary Austin, President Biden last month in an interview with George Stephanopoulos said that no military leader advised him to leave a small troop presence in Afghanistan. Is that true?

AUSTIN: Senator Cotton, I believe that. First of all, I know the President to be an honest and forthright man. And secondly --

COTTO: It's a simple question, Secretary Austin.

AUSTIN: Their input was received by the President and considered by the President, for sure.


KING: Their input was received and considered by the President for sure. Whether you were still the defense secretary, maybe the White House Chief of Staff, you had to have a conversation with the President today in his Press Secretary before she spoke today. Do they need to clean this up? Do they need to answer the question about the President's credibility?

PANETTA: I think it would be well if they cleared up the confusion that was raised by the President's comments. Look, we've got the generals presenting some pretty clear testimony here as to what their advice was. I think that there's no question that they presented that advice to the President. It's also clear that the President went ahead with his decision, as he has the right to do as President of the United States. But I do think it needs to be clear that the advice was given and the advice was rejected.

[12:45:03] KING: There was another remarkable moment. We're living in remarkable times. You were here a couple of weeks ago and I was grateful for your time then. You know, General Milley is caught up in these conversations about, what were his actions after the insurrection? Was he worried that Donald Trump then President of the United States was going to start a war?

In this context about the decision to get out of Afghanistan, I believe it was Senator Cotton again, who after it was made clear, again, that the President of the United States which is his right, he's the civilian commander in chief, essentially did not agree with the advice from his top military commanders who wanted to leave those troops behind. Joe Biden said, no, we're getting out. General Milley was asked, why didn't you resign, listen.


GEN. MARK MILLEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: It would be an incredible act of political defiant for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken. This country doesn't want generals, figuring out what orders we're going to accept and do or not. That's not our job. My dad didn't get a choice to resign at Iwo Jima. And those kids there navigate. They don't get a choice to resign, and I'm not going to turn my back on them. I'm not going to resign. They can't resign, so I'm not going to resign.


KING: I thought it was a remarkable answer. And I thought it was also remarkable that the question even comes up, but these are the times we live in when our -- bit we have truth challenged every day, basic math challenge every day, and questions about our democracy, sadly, almost every day, what did you make of that?

PANETTA: I think General Milley really presented again a very honest answer as to the role of the military in these situations. The military provides advice to the President of the United States. But we elect a president of the United States to make the final decision, which the President did.

And General Milley salutes and follows the decision of the President of the United States, which is the responsibility of our military commanders. So I think he clearly defined the role of the military and the role of our civilian leadership. And I think that was important for the American people to hear.

KING: Leon Panetta, grateful for your time on this important day again, Sir. Really appreciate it. Thank you.


KING: Let's come back into the room for that conversation. I mean, just the fact that the question is asked, number one. But let's actually let me just add to it. It's asked, Republicans are asking General Milley why didn't you resign when you disagreed with Joe Biden. Republicans are also mad at General Milley because he is quoted or at least his views are represented in several of these books about the final days of the Trump administration.

And it's clear, General Milley was worried about the stability and what potential decisions might be made. Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee just decided to put it right out there. He had been asked a couple of the questions earlier about some of the episodes. She just decided straight out sent you to find out how much did you cooperate?


SEN. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-TN): General Milley, yes or no to this? Did you talk to Bob Woodward or Robert Costa for their book "Peril?"

MILLEY: Woodward, yes, Costa, no.

BLACKBURN: Did you talk to Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker for their book, "I Alone Can Fix It."


BLACKBURN: Did you talk to Michael Bender for his book is "Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost." Yes or no?


BLACKBURN: And were you accurately represented in these books?

MILLEY: I haven't read any of the books.


KING: A little bit of comedy at the end there. But we should all be texting our sources right now making sure they don't get invited to hearings where they're under oath I guess if we're going to ask these questions up there.

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY: And potentially we know who to call if we decide to write a book as well, John. But he did suggest that he talked to almost all of the authors. And while he hasn't read those books, he said he's certainly acknowledged.

He's seen the media coverage isn't exactly disputing all of what was said. Although as you raise some things that you said he -- he did say the Nancy Pelosi or didn't. But the point being that there was a primary source, he's just admitted it was him.

KNOX: He did dispute, though, that he was accurately described. I'm sorry. In the very top in his proprietor, he devoted a very sizable chunk of his prepared remarks in his opening statement to saying, no, at no point was I trying to hymn in the President of the United States. At no point was I making secret calls, I mean that he -- and that's all obviously we can say that.

BASH: And it didn't help. I didn't mean to say to Pelosi that I believe but. KING: Right, yes, he said he didn't read the books. He clearly closely read the media accounts and media conversations about the books. To your point, what he said was, I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States.

KNOX: But it goes back to the threat of civilian control of the military too because what was so amazing about some of these books, was it they were clearly suggesting that he was stepping outside the bounds of that constitutional divide, and he took pains. And the others took pains throughout this entire hearing to say no, no, we are believe in civilian control and military.

COLLINS: So I think it was obvious that he had spoken to some of these authors. If you read the books, it's a two-way conversation that he had had with someone. So it was pretty clear that he had participated.

So I don't -- I mean, I do think it's notable that he said that, but I think the larger point is that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff felt the need to sit down with these highly respected authors, talk to them about his experiences in this role being handpicked by Trump, someone who of course has now turned on him and views him quite differently.


But I do think it speaks to the level of gravity that in this situation, regardless of what you think of Milley of what that they felt like they were facing when Trump was President.

BASH: You're exactly right. But if there was a kind of a camera on us, while we were watching that, it was a moment to watch the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs be asked whether you talked to all of these authors, boom, boom, boom, yes, one word answer, you know, affirming it. It was definitely a moment. It was affirming what was pretty obvious, but to hear him say it, I guess he didn't have a choice. He was asked under oath.

KING: And it's also just so rare. Look, you don't have help. You don't have 20-year wars, where this comes up. But just to see America's top general as essentially the star witness even though the defense secretary was here, even though some of the other combatant commanders were there, for Milley to be there.

And then to the point, you know, a moment ago we talked about it, so let's just listen. This is what in the book, in the "Peril" book, Nancy Pelosi says she was having this conversation is the President going to launch a military attack? You know, he's crazy. That's what Nancy Pelosi said to General Milley. Nancy Pelosi says he agreed with her, he says.


MILLEY: She was concerned and made very or made various personal references characterizing the President. I explained to her that the President is the sole nuclear launch authority, and he doesn't launch them alone. And that I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the President of the United States.


KING: You were on the program and making this point when the book first came out that some of that sounds like whoa, what was Milley doing? But the way he describes it anyway is that, no, actually we have procedures. And he was as a veteran of the system using the system to his advantage.

KNOX: Right. He's part of the chain of communication, the chain of command, which I think is exactly how he phrased in that -- in his statements today. And the point that he describes making Nancy Pelosi is that there was not going to be an illegal or accidental lunch, which is pretty, pretty important. One of the things Milley said that I thought was interesting and Senator Joe Manchin pointed to it as well. And I think it's really important. This war wasn't lost in the last month. It wasn't lost in the last year.

KING: Right.

KNOX: Joe Manchin coming out and saying, like, how is it possible that you guys were caught by surprise, every time we've had, you know, an analysis of this conflict, people have come back and said they're not -- they can't stand on their own. They can't fight without American support. The government has a crisis of legitimacy.

There's rampant corruption, which by the way, it was fueled. That was a good moment too. And I think Milley, I think it was really who said, you know, yes, well, right. This was lost over the course of last two decades.

KING: Right.

COLLINS: Also him saying that they don't necessarily agree with what the State Department has said about how many Americans are left there saying that they don't really have a good accounting of that. Manchin was raising the question, how much equipment is there? I think those are big questions that are not going away as these hearings --

KING: And it's a great point, because you heard frustration even from Democrats.


KING: Because the Pentagon keep saying, yes, the State Department, the State Department keep saying, yes, the Pentagon. And Senator Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton's running mate, a very prominent Democrat, was saying, get your act together guys, get your act together, where they're -- you know, we deserve these answers.

BASH: And not for nothing. They didn't know the answer to where the democratically elected President of Afghanistan was. They don't know where he is right now. Nor do they know how much U.S. American dollars he has with him. That's incredible.

CHAMBERS: And going back to Tim Kaine, your point that it wasn't just Republicans today it was Democrats in one point that Tim Kaine had raised was, if you can't get people to take the vaccine in America, if you can't get people to believe that the election was not stolen, why did you think that you were going to be able to get the Afghans to be able to fight for themselves? And so, you know, I thought that was --

KING: And to accept Democratic norms to accept that women should be educated, that except public healthcare system, it's a great point. Well, how do you change a nation when you say you have a hard time persuading your own sometimes, so the White House watches moments like this, because even the Democrats were mad about how it happened, even Democrats who support, it's time to end the war in Afghanistan, it was time to leave, have questions about the messy withdrawal, which is why if at the White House today, you're sending a thank you note to Elizabeth Warren, who went out of her way to come to the President's defense.


SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): Did President Biden follow your advice on executing on the evacuation plan?

AUSTIN: He did.

WARREN: Did President Biden give you all the resources that you needed?

AUSTIN: From my view, he did.

WARREN: Did President Biden ignore your advice on the evacuation at any point?

AUSTIN: No, Senator, he did not.

WARREN: Did he refuse any request for anything that you needed or ask for?



KING: It's incredibly complicated issue. And there'll be a lot of questions of the administration watches out there, though, is a fellow Democrat who understands this is part of the toll on the President's poll numbers, the rise in COVID cases, the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, that's a Democrat trying to come to the President's assist.

BASH: Nevermind that it was for context after the barn door closed. I mean, this if -- when the President and everybody saw what was going on there, of course he's going to say yes to everything in anything the military wants to try to calm the chaos and evacuate people. The questions, the larger questions and answers we got today were, what about before the decision to withdraw? And why not pay -- heed the military recommendation to leave some troops there?

[12:55:20] COLLINS: And I think it raises one other big question, which is the President has said repeatedly, he felt bound by this agreement that Trump struck with the Taliban. And that's why he had to follow through on this timeline. And that is something that he has said repeatedly. They were saying today, the Taliban only honored one part of that. So essentially, it was defunct and they weren't actually following what we thought it should look like. But that's been something --

KING: General Milley was very emphatic on that one. When you make these deals based on conditions not on firm deadlines. That was a very important lesson as well. That's all the time we have today. Thanks for joining us in Inside Politics. Don't go anywhere, very busy news day Ana Cabrera picks up our coverage after a very quick break.