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U.S. Airstrike Kills Iranian General Qasem Soleimani; Senator Lindsey Graham Informs He was Briefed on Pending Attack on Qasem Soleimani; Secretary of State: Airstrike Disrupted An "Imminent Attack". Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired January 03, 2020 - 08:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Christiane Amanpour, great to have you with us this morning. Thank you very much.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Such an important voice. Christiane, thank you.

Our breaking news coverage continues right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

BERMAN: Good morning and welcome to your NEW DAY. We do begin with breaking news. The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said moments ago that the U.S. drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iran's top security intelligence official, he said it was to prevent an imminent attack on U.S. interests in the Middle East, although he would not provide us with the intelligence behind that information.

HARLOW: We are also now just getting new information about when the president was presented with options to prevent that attack, and who in Congress was briefed about it much earlier this week. Let's get straight to our Kaitlan Collins for the breaking details. Kaitlan, what can you tell us?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're learning more about how this decision process was made. Senator Lindsey Graham was just on FOX News, and he says that when he was down here in Palm Beach with the president, he was briefed on the idea that this could happen, on this potential operation, which, of course, became an operation that was actually carried out by the United States, which the Pentagon confirmed last night.

Lindsey Graham, we saw him exclusively from CNN footage golfing with the president on Monday, riding in the same cart together, at points speaking pretty closely. And then he was here the next day as well seen through photos that other users had posted on social media being here. And he says it was during that time that he had been discussing this with the president and what the next steps would be after this. Listen to how he described his discussions with the president during this interview just a few moments ago.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R-SC) SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I was briefed about the potential operation when I was down in Florida. I appreciate being brought in the orbit. I really appreciate President Trump letting the world know you cannot kill an American without impunity. We will stand up for our people, and that is an absolute essential message.


COLLINS: So you see Senator Lindsey Graham there talking about this, clearly someone who came out in support of the measure last night, saying it was the right thing to do. The question, of course, is what's going to be next? Lindsey Graham has said he believed that oil refineries in Iran is something that should be on the table. He's talking about essentially crushing them economically was the phrase that he used, talking about the word "crushing." So that's really going to be the question here is how the United States responds, what they do next, how Iran responds, of course. And those are questions that we're still waiting to hear, and also still waiting to hear from the president himself on this.

BERMAN: All right, Kaitlan Collins for us in Florida. It's an interesting piece of information there. Why would Senator Lindsey Graham, who is the chair of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, why would he be briefed about this imminent threat?

HARLOW: Days before action was taken.

BERMAN: Days before action was taken, and before the Gang of Eight, which includes the joint leadership in Congress. So that is crucial information. It's information I did not know, by the way, when I spoke with the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I had a discussion with him much more about the decision that was made and what led to it to kill this Iranian leader Qasem Soleimani. Listen.


BERMAN: You put out a statement a short time ago that says the decision to eliminate General Soleimani was in response to imminent threats to American lives. What was the nature of those imminent threats?

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: John, I can't talk too much about the nature of the threats, but the American people should know that President Trump's decision to remove Qasem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives. There's no doubt about that. He was actively plotting in the region to take actions, a big action, as he described it, that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk.

We know it was imminent. This was an intelligence-based assessment that drove our decision-making process. The American people also know the history of Qasem Soleimani. Hundreds of American lives on his hands, too. He was involved in the Beirut bombings. He orchestrated an attack right here in Washington, D.C. It ultimately failed. This is a man who has put American lives at risk for an awfully long time, and last night was the time that we needed to strike to make sure that this imminent attack that he was working actively was disrupted.

BERMAN: A specific target overseas?

POMPEO: I'm not going to say anything more about the nature of the attack, but know that this was not just in Iraq. It was throughout the region. It was using the proxy forces that he has manipulated for so long to bring so much destruction to the Shias and Sunnis, Muslims throughout the region. This is a man who inflicted enormous harm not only on American lives but created terribly activities supporting Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, all of the bad actors in the Middle East, Qasem Soleimani was at the center of all of it.

BERMAN: Was there any imminent threat to the U.S. homeland?

POMPEO: These were threats that were located in the region.

BERMAN: And when I ask about the timing, the reason I am asking is because General Soleimani, as you well note, has been an enormous threat to the United States and U.S. interests for decades.


I was in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 when he was responsible for the death of probably 600 or more U.S. servicemen. So what is different, or what was different yesterday than over the last 15 years?

POMPEO: Well, John, you're right about the history of General Soleimani for sure. What's different today is that Iran has now been engaged for months in dozens and dozens of attacks throughout the region. President Trump has shown enormous restraint to date. While we've made clear to the Iranians that we weren't going to tolerate the killing of Americans, on December 27th, an American was killed in Iraq, and then we watched the intelligence flow in that talked about Soleimani's travels in the region and the work that he was doing to put Americans further at risk. And it was the time to take this action so that we could disrupt this plot, deter further aggression from Qasem Soleimani the Iranian regime, as well as to attempt to deescalate the situation. The risk of doing nothing was enormous. The intelligence community made that assessment, and President Trump acted decisively last night.

BERMAN: The president of the United States moments ago retweeted the State Department directive for all U.S. citizens in Iraq to get out. Why? What is the nature of the threat against U.S. citizens in Iraq this morning?

POMPEO: I don't want to elaborate on the statement that we put out just a handful of hours ago, but make no mistake about it. The Trump administration is focused on protecting Americans to the maximum extent feasible. We made the conclusion that a statement that we issued was appropriate, that the timing was right for that. We have, as you've seen over the past weeks, we've taken actions by building out coalitions in the region, by working to make sure we strengthen our partners in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, all things aimed at deterring Iran from aggression. We will continue that action, and we're continued to prepare to respond if that's what's required to keep Americans safe.

BERMAN: Will you call for the removal or evacuation of U.S. State Department personnel from Iraq?

POMPEO: We constantly evaluate our personnel, not only in Iraq but all across the region and across the world. Every day we're evaluating what the right security posture is. We will ensure that we get it right. We'll rely on the people on the ground to help give us guidance about what they're seeing and hearing, and we will make appropriate decisions about the posture of our diplomats and our military personnel throughout the region.

BERMAN: What do you anticipate the possible range of responses from Iran will be?

POMPEO: John, we've anticipated a wide range of possible responses, and we have done our level best under the direct guidance of the president to prepare for all of those possibilities. We hope the actual response, John, is that the Iraqi people will do what they've been doing for months. They'll demand that the Iraqi government give them freedom, prosperity, and sovereignty.

We've watched these protests over the last weeks. They weren't burning American flags. They were demanding that Iraqi political leadership stop their kleptocracy, stop their political shenanigans. And Qasem Soleimani was at the center of that. He was driving bad outcomes for the Iraqi people. He was causing many Muslims in the region to be killed. I saw last night there was dancing in the streets in parts of Iraq. We have every expectation that people not only in Iraq but in Iran will view the American action last night as giving them freedom, freedom to have the opportunity for success and prosperity for their nations. And while the political leadership may not want that, the people in these nations will demand it.

BERMAN: We'll see. So far this morning on the streets of Tehran, we've been seeing pictures and we have a reporter there, we've been seeing pictures of large-scale anti-American demonstrations following the death -- this is in Iran, following the death. We've heard from Iraqi leaders so far condemning the U.S. action. We heard from a French official this morning, putting out a statement saying that the world is less safe following the killing of General Soleimani. And the concern there, no one is saying that General Soleimani was a good actor. He was a bad actor. What they're suggesting is the destabilization will create a threatening environment. So when you hear from France, the world is a less safe place this morning, how do you respond to that?

POMPEO: Yes, well, the French are just wrong about that. The world is a much safer place today. And I can assure you Americans in the region are much safer today after the demise of Qasem Soleimani. And as for the protests that you described, there's no doubt the last vestiges of the theocracy, the kleptocracy in Iran, will continue to try and put down these uprising from the people. They've jailed thousands, they've killed hundreds. It won't surprise me if they try to continue to do this.

But know this -- the Iranian people understand that America is a force for the good in the region, and I'm convinced that the support that we have provided to the people in Iran and the support we will continue to provide for the people in Iraq will work to protect American interests and make lives better for those people as well.



HARLOW: All right, so following that interview that you just did with the secretary of state, we learned something else about Lindsey Graham, Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of the president, and when he and perhaps he alone in Congress was briefed about all of this much earlier this week. Listen to what he just said this morning.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R-SC) SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I was briefed about the potential operation when I was down in Florida. I appreciate being brought into the orbit. I really appreciate President Trump letting the world know you cannot kill an American without impunity. We will stand up for our people. And that is an absolutely essential message.

But now, what will change Iran's calculation? How will they respond. They're going to come after us with a vengeance if we do not reset the table pretty quickly. And if I were the president, I put on the target, targets in Iran, not Iraq and Syria, economic targets that would crush the economy. The maximum pressure campaign has worked. What would take it to the next level would be destroy the ability of the Iranians to refine oil and to then sell it.


HARLOW: OK, back with us, Kaitlan Collins, our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, and CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon. Kaitlan, to you, huge question this morning, why was the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham, briefed on this, and to our knowledge, no members of the Gang of Eight?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, as of last night there had been no formal briefing for the Gang of Eight on this strike being carried out. So those are the questions that are now being raised by critics of the president and some Democrats asking why not only were they not briefed, why was there not congressional authorization for this.

And you see Senator Lindsey Graham saying he was briefed. He was happy he was briefed on this potential operation. The question is, was he briefed before the president made the decision to go through with this or after the president made the decision. We do know that Lindsey Graham was here at Mar-a-Lago right behind me over my shoulder on Monday and Tuesday. He was seen out on the golf course with the president on Monday. They two were in the same golf cart riding together, at times speaking closely, though that's not unusual because you often see them out on the links together.

But what is unusual is now that Lindsey Graham is saying he was briefed on this ahead of time. There are going to be questions from other members of Congress about being briefed on this. We're still waiting to hear more on that. And as you heard from Secretary Pompeo, he was pretty quiet on some of the details when it came to when the president made this decision and who was notified about this. So those are still things that we're waiting to learn. We didn't see that in the statement from the Pentagon last night, which is the only thing we heard from the White House so far. They were referring us to that, until, of course, the president started tweeting this morning, but we are yet to hear from him in person.

BERMAN: Jim Sciutto, why is it important to go through traditional processes like informing the Gang of Eight? Why is it significant that President Trump chose to brief or tell his friend Lindsey Graham about this before telling others?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I've spoken to senior members of the Trump administration who say that he has upended, bypassed, even dismantled the national security infrastructure of this country, through multiple administrations, not a Democrat or Republican thing. You have hundreds of people whose job it is to help develop policy and inform the president of the consequences, potential consequences, of his decision. This president has chosen to bypass that repeatedly. Look at the Syria withdrawal. That surprised everybody, including commanders on the ground, and oftentimes the policy making follows that decision. That has consequences, because you want your president to be informed when he makes decisions, especially when lives are on the line. This president has chosen not to.

And if you look at him talking to his pal, the Judiciary Committee chairman as opposed to the Gang of Eight. By the way, there are reporting responsibilities, too, between the president and Congress, because constitutionally Congress has the ability to wage war, to declare war. But we have seen this template before, right? For instance, say, when his personal attorney is running Ukraine policy, right, over those folks in government whose job it is assigned to do. So Americans at home have to decide if that is a policy-making infrastructure and process that they're comfortable with.

BERMAN: Bottom line is you want U.S. allies, you want bipartisan support when you are involved in operations that put American lives on the line. So that's why some of this stuff matters.

HARLOW: So let's get back to the significance of the man that has been assassinated by the United States, because, Arwa, you're live for us in Baghdad this morning. General Soleimani's impact, his power for decades cannot be overstated. How significant is taking him out?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Monumental in the sense that it really puts the region into unchartered territory. You basically now have the U.S. declaring war on Iran, because this is exactly what it's going to be viewed as by Tehran inside Iraq's borders. And not just that. This from the perspective of the Iraqi government is an act of aggression by the United States, which was meant to be an ally of Baghdad on Iraqi soil.

A violation of its sovereignty because not only was Qasem Soleimani killed in this, but so, too, was the second in command of what's known as the Popular Mobilization Force.


And so from the government's perspective, an ally just carried out an assassination killing one of its own top military commanders, not to mention the top military commander, the most revered individual of Tehran, a very close ally to Baghdad as well.

And then if we look at the dynamics that are already unfolding here in Iraq, you have this Popular Mobilization Force that I was talking about, it is an umbrella Shia paramilitary force that's mostly made up of former Shia militia groups who have gained the bulk of their experience fighting in Iraq's sectarian civil war, but also fighting against the U.S. military presence during America's occupation here. They were getting their funding, their training, their weapons from Tehran.

They are now all at the ready. Radical Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr has decided that he is going to unfreeze his Mehdi army. You have some voices here trying to urge calm or at least trying to urge people to take sort of a more rational position.

But what you have a situation that's going to escalate very, very quickly with dynamics now that are not yet foreseen. And what is especially disturbing in all of this is it does not seem at this stage as if America has a plan for what happens next. One can only assume that Iran has been ready for something similar to this, even if it wasn't exactly this scenario.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And that last point Arwa brought up is one of the three big questions. Number one, what does happen next? What is the response by Iran? And is the United States ready for this? Will this cost American lives? That's a real question.

The other question I still have after talking to Mike Pompeo is, why now? He said it was based on an imminent threat, thwarting some kind of attack.

Killing Soleimani, he said, saved American lives. He gave some kind of a vague promise they'd release whatever information they could.


BERMAN: But we don't have that information yet, and that's key.

SCIUTTO: Listen, President Trump has not been loathed to declassify summarily information in the past. It may be that the president provides details on this that Secretary Pompeo was not -- was not willing to do to justify. The other point I would make and good for Arwa for bringing this up --

Muqtada al Sadr that runs this Shia group which has its own domestic army has the ability to turn Iraq upside down. I remember -- you were there, too, covering the Iraq war a number of years ago, that when he was not on the U.S. side or willing to disrupt. He could turn the country upside down if he chooses to do so internally.

This again just shows you, you know, how the consequences of this can go far beyond, you know, uniformed, regular attacks and to asymmetric or things with some plausible deniability, a little distance from Iran, et cetera. There are real dangers today for Americans in that country.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Jim, thank you so much. Appreciate the expertise, all your reporting.

Kaitlan, to you as well.

And, Arwa, so valuable to have you there. We appreciate it.

Will we learn what intelligence the U.S. based this on that show that there was this imminent attack coming from Iran warranting an assassination? And will we hear from the president? We'll discuss, ahead.



HARLOW: All right. We are back with the breaking news.

Qasem Soleimani assassinated by a U.S. drone strike overnight. His importance in the region, a man responsible for more than 600 American deaths over the years, it cannot be understated how significant this is.

Joining us now, CNN global affairs analyst Max Boot, CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd.

I'm so glad you're both with us.

And, Phil, let me begin with you on the intelligence front. John asked Secretary Pompeo, will you release the intelligence to explain why this attack was imminent and why this assassination was needed? He said, sort of, to the best of our ability, we will, right?

My question is broader and that is the trust the American people should or should not have in the administration this morning and the intelligence assessment given the track record of this administration as being straight with the American people. That comes into question this morning. What is your read?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, I have a couple perspectives. Let's go tactical first. I wouldn't release much of the intelligence if I were them. There's only two ways you can get this intelligence, a high end penetration, human source penetration of the Iranian security services. I don't think that's what we have here.

The second option is technical information. That's intercepted communications. As soon as you talk about that stuff, the Iranians are very good at counterintelligence. As soon as you talk about that stuff, they're going to shut down the line and change the codes. This stuff is very fragile and it's easy to lose.

So I understand why Secretary Pompeo is a little bit concerned about releasing this stuff.

That said, I wondered here whether the intelligence is an explanation or an excuse. The intel on Saudi Arabia when the Saudis murdered a citizen, we ignored it. The intel on Russian interference, we ignored it because it's inconvenient for the president.

I think the president wants to pick a fight with the Iranians, and so, the intel becomes the excuse for why we do it. Otherwise, why would the president decide this intel is good and the other intel he doesn't like?

BERMAN: Really important point in this case, Max. This is an administration that chooses to ignore intelligence all the time here. It's particularly interesting, insignificant when we're talking about operations in this region, right?

The United States went to war in Iraq largely based on intelligence that was wrong, flat out wrong. So, we've just taken the United States major military action, the killing of this major figure, Mike Pompeo promised that it was an intelligence-based action. Those were his exact words.

How important is it for the American people to be able to believe that?


MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: This administration has a massive credibility gap, John, just because the president lies so much, it's hard to take at face value anything that they say. And the Pentagon's statement last night referred to deterring future action by Iran very different from what Secretary Pompeo told you about an imminent attack. So we don't know where the truth lies.

But the larger picture, John, is that there's no question that killing Qasem Soleimani was justified. We don't need intelligence that there was an attack about to occur to justify killing somebody like General Soleimani who was responsible for the deaths of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of people and for about 600 American service members killed in Iraq at the hands of General Soleimani's men.

So, that was certainly justified killing him. The question is not whether it was justified to kill him. The question is, was it wise? Do we know what comes next? Do we have a game plan for managing this growing confrontation with Iran?

And there are real reasons to doubt whether, in fact, the administration has thought through all the repercussions of this action, justified though it may be.

HARLOW: The president responded overnight by tweeting out a picture of an American flag and all we have officially heard from him since is one sentence. Let me read it to you on twitter. From the president, Iran never won a war but never lost a negotiation.

What did -- what does that mean, Max?

BOOT: Yes, that's the question, Poppy. I don't know what that means. I guess it's like a tag line he throws out there.

BERMAN: I think it's not important in this context. I think what he's doing there is making a reference to the Iran nuclear deal which is not part of what happened yesterday. And isn't frankly part of what the questions are this morning going forward.

BOOT: Yes, but what we need is -- this is the most consequential military action of Trump's tenure in office. We need him to speak to the American people to explain what happened and why, how he is managing this crisis. Instead, he tweets an American flag and tweets this cryptic, kid of bizarre statement that nobody knows what to make of it.

This is not how you want a commander in chief to behave in the course of this major escalating confrontation.

BERMAN: Particularly one of the major questions is, how safe will Americans be going forward because of this action, Phil? And you've been around. I mean, you've been around when the United States has taken actions before, and you know the first 24 hours, the first 72 hours after, they are critical times. There are people at risk now around the world.

Go ahead.

MUDD: They are. Let me offer a couple perspectives on this.

I don't agree with Secretary Pompeo. He's telling us that America is safer today. If America is safer, explain why we just advised Americans to evacuate?

There's a short-term issue here that we're in the turf that the Iranians control, everywhere from the Persian Gulf, that is United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, going into Syria, Iraq. We don't control the turf. They do.

We just realized the American embassy that we can't control everything out there. We can't control every crowd. So, short term, the actions the U.S. government themselves have told us the Americans are at risk.

Long term, let's look at the Iran nuclear deal for one second. The Iranian leadership was partly isolated in Iran because of economic pressure. If you are Iran -- in Iran today in a leadership position, you are better off because you look at the Iranian people and say, you want us to buckle to the Americans who just murdered our general? This gives the leadership in Iran an excuse not to move forward. I

think we're less safe in the short term and less safe in the long term because we just gave the leadership an excuse to say no to the Americans.

HARLOW: Max, what's the end game here? We know Iran is going to retaliate. What is the U.S. going to do and how does this not become a war?

BOOT: Well, that's a great question. I would hope there's been a lot of thought given to that within the administration, but given the way their national security decision-making process is so ad hoc, so episodic, given the way that the state department has been hollowed out, given the way that General Mattis was driven out of the Pentagon, you know, you have to wonder, is anyone at home? Is anyone on top of this crisis and figuring this out?

And, you know, we talk about General Soleimani as being a terrorist leader, and he certainly was that, but he was also one of the most senior officials of the Iranian government. And this is --

HARLOW: Right.

BOOT: The U.S. has not really killed a major military commander like this since we killed Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbor in 1943. This is very rare, very unprecedented and it's certainly justified, but it's also a huge departure from our norms. And I would hope that we'd have an orderly decision-making process to manage this.

But based on what we've seen from the administration over the last three years, you really have to doubt that's the case.

BERMAN: Max Boot, Phil Mudd, great to have you on with us this morning.

BOOT: Thank you.

BERMAN: Up next, we're going to speak with a Republican lawmaker about the assassination of the Iranian leader and the possibility of escalation by Iran and the response. Stick around.