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The Situation Room
Biden Honors 12 U.S. Service Members Killed, 15 Wounded in Kabul Attack as Heroes; White House Briefing after Kabul Airport Attack; CentCom: U.S. Death Toll Rises to 13 Troops in Kabul Attack. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired August 26, 2021 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room with our breaking news coverage of the horrific terror attack outside the Kabul airport.
Just moments ago, President Biden honored the heroes of the mission in Afghanistan, the 12 U.S. service members killed and 15 wounded in suicide bombings. The president making a solemn vow to the ISIS-K terrorist claiming responsibility for the attack, and I'm quoting the president of the United States right now when he said, we will hunt you down and make you pay.
The loss of life even greater among locals so desperate to flee the country. The health ministry in Kabul now says more than 60 Afghan men, women and children were killed and 140 were wounded.
Now, we're standing by for a White House briefing. We'll have live coverage of that coming up.
Let's start our coverage this hour with our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins. You were there. You were in the room. Kaitlan. The president was very determined to make it clear the U.S. is getting out, but the effort to find Americans and Afghan allies will continue.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. The president essentially argued that was part of the reason why they are maintaining that August 31st deadline, because he said there are still American citizens, green card holders, permanently residents and also those special immigrant visa applicants that need to get out of the country and have a desire to do so.
And he said, essentially, echoing what the Pentagon had told reporters earlier, which just that this mission is going to continue. But, of course, talking about that grim attack today that left 12 U.S. service members dead, the president did vow retribution. He vowed to hunt down those who are responsible and said he believes he knows where some of these leaders of ISIS-K, that offshoot of the Islamic State may be hiding.
He did not say where, he said, but he thinks they have a pretty good idea of where. And he has instructed the Pentagon, according to the president, to develop plans to potentially strike ISIS-K assets, Wolf. So that is obviously in response to what happened today.
A big aspect of this and a big question going forward is how that airport and these evacuations are going to continue over the next several days, given, you heard the Pentagon say earlier, they do still believe there are extremely active threats happening right now and thousands of U.S. troops on the ground at that airport working on these evacuations.
Of course, a big question still is how long those evacuations are going to continue because we have heard the Pentagon say they will need several days to actually drawdown their forces and their weaponry and their resources that have been brought in to help with this evacuation.
One other big aspect of this, Wolf, is the Taliban, which is responsible for the security outside the airport and allowing people into the airport, which has been a tenet, essentially, of this evacuation plan from the White House. The president said he does not trust the Taliban. He said, no one trusts the Taliban, but he does believe it is in their self-interest to let this evacuation continue and let the American forces leave on August 31st.
BLITZER: And we're standing by. You are in the briefing room. There's going to be a White House briefing with the press secretary; is that right?
COLLINS: Yes. That's right, Wolf. This is going to be the first time we have seen the press secretary, Jen Psaki, initially, before this attack happened. This was something that was scheduled for noon. But, obviously, the day's events disrupted the schedule here. And we did hear from the president, of course, a few moments ago. We now will have questions for the press secretary about the decision the president made to maintain this deadline because the question had been essentially whether or not they were going to pack up and live early and wrap up this mission earlier than expected given what happened and given the attacks on U.S. service members today.
And so, right now they are maintaining that. There will be a lot of questions, of course, about what went into that decision, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. We'll have live coverage of that coming up. Kaitlan, thank you very much.
I want to bring in Phil Mattingly right now. He's also at the White House. Phil, first of all, tell us more what you are hearing from your sources about the message that the president had for the terrorists who carried out these brutal attacks.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know, White House officials made clear, the president wanted to be unequivocal. And I think when you saw or heard what he had to say, he most certainly was. There will be retribution, the president said, and has ordered his top military leaders to draft plans to strike ISIS and Khorasan leaders, those responsible for those dual suicide bombings earlier today. This is how he framed things. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this, we will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: And, Wolf, Pentagon officials made clear earlier today they believe they have the capability to do just that or in the midst of a 24/7 search for those responsible for the attacks. And one question would be the timeline. Obviously, U.S. troops are withdrawing by August 31st.
But the president said, while it might not be a large military footprint, in fact, it would not be a large military footprint, the effort to find and bring those to justice who perpetrated the attacks today would most certainly continue. Wolf?
BLITZER: Big question also remains, Phil, about how the evacuation efforts will continue. There are still hundreds of Americans, thousands of Afghan allies, friends of the United States who are so desperate to get out of that country right now. What are you hearing?
MATTINGLY: And a quickly shrinking time window. I don't think there is any question about that. And everything just got significantly more complicated after this morning in terms of actually getting people inside the perimeter and on to planes.
Now, one thing to note, the president made clear in the last 12 hours, 7,000 additional individuals have been evacuated and also made clear his result to complete the mission has hardened. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN: Here's what you need to know, these ISIS terrorists will not win. We will rescue the Americans in there. We will get our Afghan allies out. And our mission will go on. America will not be intimidated. And I have the utmost confidence in our brave service members who continue to execute this mission with courage and honor to save lives and get Americans, our partners, our Afghan allies out of Afghanistan.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: And, Wolf, U.S. officials are fairly confident they can get Americans who want to leave out over the course of that compressed time window. The biggest question right now is something the president alluded to. Afghan allies, particularly those with special immigrant visas, is there the time to get the sheer number of them, which most people say on Capitol Hill is in the thousands right now, out of the country given all the security dynamics at play, plus the urgency. There are real question about how possible that is. The president, if you noticed, hedged a little bit, continuing what officials said starting yesterday that they would try to maintain some ability to get people out of the country even after U.S. forces depart. They believe they have leverage to get that done. There are real questions as to whether that's possible. But at least for the timeline that they're working under right now, the president making clear evacuations will continue. The mission will continue, Wolf.
BLITZER: And they're also bracing and we're standing by for the Jen Psaki White House briefing that's supposed to begin any minute now, you are looking at live pictures from the White House briefing room, but the president and other officials are making it clear in the next few days until the complete withdrawal, they're bracing for more potential terror attacks.
Well, hold on for a moment. Here is the press secretary.
JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I know you all have heard from General McKenzie today, as well as the president. But, obviously, I wanted to provide the opportunity to answer additional questions from all of you.
Just one thing to note at the top, as a mark for respect starting today, the United States flag will be flown at half-staff at the White House and upon all public buildings and grounds at all military posts and naval stations and on all naval vessels of the federal government and the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its territories and possessions until sunset on August 30th, excuse me, 2021 in honor of the victims of the senseless acts of violence in Kabul, Afghanistan. With that, onward (ph).
REPORTER: Thanks. Just few months ago, one of my colleagues asked a question about what the president would say to Afghans who fear they won't get to leave. The president said, getting every single person out can't be guaranteed of (INAUDIBLE). Was he lowering expectations for smaller but still significant populations that are still trying to get out that are still there?
PSAKI: That wasn't his intention. I think what he's conveying is that at a time when the Taliban is taking over the country, certainly not our preference, as you all know well. It is not going to be possible for every single Afghan, millions potentially who want to leave Afghanistan to be evacuated.
At the same time, I think you also heard the president made clear that there is not a -- there is not an end to our commitment to getting American citizens out who don't want -- who are not ready to leave and to getting partners out and those who are served alongside the United States over the last 20 years.
REPORTER: Real quick. On the Taliban, they are in charge of the perimeter for the suicide bomber to get in, they would presumably have to be on the Taliban guard. So why isn't the Taliban, in part, responsible for what happened today?
PSAKI: Well, I think General McKenzie addressed this earlier this afternoon, and he made clear, and I understand your question slightly different from that, but I think it's worth repeating and important to repeat, that we don't have any information at this point in time, and that has not change over the last couple of hour to suggest the Taliban had knowledge of or was engaged in or involved in this attack.
Obviously, what happened today and the loss of lives of the U.S. service members, of Afghans is a tragedy, is horrific, is one of the worst things, if not, the worst thing we have experienced during President Biden's time in office. But, again, we don't have any additional assessment at this point in time.
REPORTER: Just a few things to clarify, Jen. Thank you. He talked about the ongoing mission to get people out after the 31st.
REPORTER: But to be clear, as of tonight, is it still the plan to get all U.S. forces out by August 31st?
PSAKI: Nothing has changed on that timeline.
REPORTER: Okay. Did the president -- based on his public comments over the last few days, did the president see this coming?
PSAKI: Well, I think what you have seen the president say and many members of our military and our national security team say is that we have been closely watching and assessing the threat of ISIS-K, and that we have had increasing concern about that threat growing over the last couple of days. So, this has been a concern that we have been watching and we saw, of course, the tragic events happen today.
REPORTER: And does -- what does today's attack say about the U.S.'s ability to keep the terrorist threat in check once the U.S. pulls of military forces out of Afghanistan? Because this is something he talked about in July when he reiterated what the plan was.
PSAKI: You're right, and I appreciate that question. I think it is important for people to know and understand that the threat that is posed by having thousands of U.S. military on the ground, still currently on the ground implementing a mission, committed to a mission, as you heard General McKenzie and the president also say, that is a threat. They are a target. People gathering around the airport, that is a threat. That is a target.
But ISIS's ability to target individuals who were on the ground in Afghanistan is very different from ISIS's ability to attack the United States and attack the homeland. And we will maintain and continue over the horizon capacity with presence and in partnership with the countries in the region to make sure they don't develop that ability.
REPORTER: Do you know yet if he would go to Dover to greet the caskets of those who were killed? PSAKI: I'm certain the president will do everything he can to honor the sacrifice and the service of the lives who were lost today. I will note, you didn't ask this question but some others asked it. He didn't have the opportunity to ask it. So let me answer it to provide you an update on -- I know some have asked you about whether he has called the family members. And for those of you who have covered this, you know the process. But for those of you who have not or people who are watching at home, the process would first go through the Pentagon. There is a next of kin notification process. I know General McKenzie spoke to this earlier today. That is the process that still underway at this point in time. Until that process concludes, the president would not make a call because that's the first step in the process. And then in terms of additional steps just as Dover, of course, you know he would consider and want to be a part of any means of honoring the lives that were lost today.
REPORTER: Thank you Jen. General McKenzie described this one of the explosions at the Abbey Gate happening at a point after someone had been searched by the Taliban. How is the United States still going to work with the Taliban the way that the president is describing or considering his remarks to get American citizens and Afghan allies out if that is what we're working with?
PSAKI: Look, I'm not trying to sugar coat what we think of the Taliban. The Taliban is not -- they're not a group we trust. They are not our friends. We have never said that. It is also the reality that the Taliban controls large swaths of Afghanistan. And to date, because of coordination with the Taliban, we have been able to evacuate more than 104,000 people, save 104,000 lives. And that coordination is necessary in order to continue our evacuation measures.
Now, I understand your question, Peter, and the questions of others on what they knew or what their role was. There is no assessment we have at this point in time of their involvement in this. Obviously, that's at this time. If that changes, we will let you all know.
REPORTER: And does the president really think that they are going to be reliable partners if we're already getting reports that they're not letting Afghans to the airport and the U.S. is still at the airport?
PSAKI: Well, I think -- you mean after the 31st or moving over the next couple of days?
REPORTER: Well, we've heard that it's already happening. So does he think that's going to get there?
PSAKI: Well, I note also that as the president just said, more than 7,000 people have been evacuated over the course of the last 12 hours. That was while there were active attacks that were happening. Those were individuals who were let on to gates, who were let on to planes and got as well over a hundred thousand people who have been evacuated.
Again, this is not about trust. This is not about relying on the Taliban as an equal partner. No one is suggesting that. But because they control large swaths of the country, including a lot of security perimeters around the airport, we have to coordinate with them in order to get people out. We will continue to do that.
Go ahead -- but, look, one more thing I would say is that we have an enormous amount of leverage. This is our view over time. That includes economic leverage. That includes leverage that we will make clear to the Taliban as it relates to coordination continue to get American citizens and our partners out. Go ahead.
REPORTER: Jen, there have been reports of explosions happening throughout the afternoon in Kabul or evening now, obviously, and some reporting to indicate that this is the beginning of a process of the U.S. military beginning to destroy equipment on the ground.
Can you confirm that that's what is taking place?
PSAKI: I would defer you to the U.S. military on specific steps of their retro grade process which as we know would have to take place in advance of a departure.
REPORTER: And in terms of what we heard from the Pentagon, and then the president just articulated, which is this confidence that they have enough troops on the ground at this point to continue to facilitate the mission, I guess the question is how can that be the case given what we saw today, the tragic loss of life? And doesn't that call for additional troop levels potentially needed reinforcements we need on the ground? And, additionally, what is the concern for the ongoing threat that ISIS-K continue to pose to this level?
PSAKI: There is an ongoing threat, and every day that our troops are on the ground, they are at risk, and that's the reality. And as you saw the Pentagon brief out earlier today, this was -- these were attacks that we had, obviously had intelligence in terms of over the last several days of our rising concerns. But I will tell you that, as it relates to your first question, Mike, I have been sitting in these meetings as well. And every meeting the president asks the Pentagon nearly every meeting before they conclude, is there anything else you need to conclude your mission? Do you need equipment? Do you need troops? Do you need resources? He's asked them that again today as it relates to completing their mission over the next days and going after the individuals, the terrorists who killed service members today as well.
COLLINS: Thank you, Jen. You just noted you were in some of these meetings today. Was there ever a point where the president was reconsidering this deadline of having all U.S. forces out by August 31st?
PSAKI: No, and here's why. The president relies on the advice of his military commanders and they continue to believe that it is essential to get out by the 31st. That is their advice. And there are several reasons for that. One is the ongoing threats. And the second is that we need to be -- we want to be able to have the ability to get individuals out who have been partners of ours after the 31st. And they believe the best way to do that is to stay on that timeline at this point in time.
COLLINS: And does the White House still anticipate that those flights of mass evacuations will end before the actual 31st?
PSAKI: I'm not going to get into an operational timeline of when the last evacuation flight will be and I don't expect the Department of Defense will do that either. We will let you know, as we have twice a day, as we have updated numbers.
COLLINS: One more question, is there an alternative plan being discussed for how to get these people who are seeking to leave to the airport given it is potentially perilous to go wait outside the gates right now to get in?
PSAKI: There are a range of operations and operational approaches that our commanders and military on the ground have been utilizing over the course of several days, if not, more. I'm not going to outline those from here, but that is why they're in touch with American citizens, why they're in touch with partners who were working to evacuate to get them safely to the airport and evacuated at the appropriate time.
REPORTER: Is it your opinion that the president has the authority he needs from Congress or wherever else to continue operations beyond August 31st? He kind of talked about pursuing ISIS-K wherever, whenever he needs to. Is there any about expectation that he'll need any additional authority to do so?
PSAKI: I don't think there is expectation of additional authority needed.
REPORTER: And what about for military commanders on the ground, will they need to come back in order to conduct counterterrorism operation in order to do anything of this sort?
PSAKI: Well, again, as the president just said in his remarks just a little while ago, he's asked them to draw up plans. The president was -- I don't think he could have been more clear about the fact that he believes we will not forgive, we will not forget and we will hunt down these terrorists and kill them wherever they are. He's asked them to draw plans. Whatever they need for those plans, he is committed to delivering on. But I don't have anything to outline for you today on that.
REPORTER: And is it possible to do that with no military troops and the military bases in the surrounding countries around Afghanistan?
PSAKI: Again, I would say, I would note for you, Trevor, as you know, we have covered these issues quite closely. We have a range of counterterrorism capacities and a number of countries around the world where we don't have military bases. Obviously, I'm not going to outline what their approach would be for the military. I will leave it to them to take and leave it to them to outline anything on their timeline.
REPORTER: When you mentioned about the increasing concerns about this terror threat, the president just two days ago saying each day of operations brings added risk to our troops. Today, we saw the consequences of that. If the risk grows tomorrow and keeps growing the next day and beyond that, how should Americans feel about this operation continuing right now for the coming days?
PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, you heard General McKenzie convey clearly that we had every intention, they had every intention of continuing this evacuation mission over the coming days and that they plan for incidents of this kind, I mean, to the degree that they can. They have every intention to continue.
The president has regular consultations every day, multiple times a day on days like this about how they see the circumstance on the ground. But that is our expectation at this point in time that it will absolutely continue over the coming days.
REPORTER: Can you give us details about how the president spent his day?
REPORTER: He was scheduled to get briefed to the 9:00 hour by the national security and that's when the first reports were coming in on this. Walk us through what he did over those coming hours and color behind the scenes today.
PSAKI: Sure. For people who are watching, color means additional details of what he was up to. I will say, Karen, that the initial -- initial reports of the attacks came in as members of his national security team were gathering in the situation room for a regular meeting with the president. So they were just gathering and sitting down, so those -- and gathering in the room. Those initial reports came in at that time.
As the president arrived in the situation room, one of the first updates he received, of course, was about the attacks on the ground in Kabul. There were -- this was a developing situation, and as it has been through the course of the day. And through the course of his briefing with his national security team this morning, his commanders on the ground also and in the region gave regular updates as they learned more information.
Once he left the situation room, those updates proceeded through the course of the day. He's been in constant contact with his national security adviser, his secretary of state, secretary of defense and military commanders both here and in the region throughout the course of the day receiving updates on what's happening on the ground.
REPORTER: Was there ever a second meeting of that entire national security team and the president --
PSAKI: No. This was just regular ongoing contact with members of his national security team through the course of the day.
REPORTER: Just to clarify, since you said you were with him, how is he? How is his mood? How is he -- in dealing with all these -- with the incoming information, how was he in asking the questions of military commanders?
PSAKI: Well, I would say that anyone who has watched the president up close, which is most of you, knows that the -- putting the lives of servicemen and women at risk and those decisions that you have to make as commander-in-chief weigh heavily on him. And as I noted a few minutes ago, any day where you lose service members is maybe the worst day of your presidency. And, hopefully, there is not more. But we are certainly early in the presidency at this point in time.
So I would say, you know, he was somber and, as he said today, outraged at these terrorists taking the lives of service members. And he wanted to make clear to the public. He wanted to have all the information that he could before he spoke to the American people so he could convey exactly what we knew at the point in time where he addressed the public and he has wanted very detailed updates of exactly what we know about what is happening on the ground. And that is why he's been in constant contact with members of his national security team.
COLLINS: Jen. Can you confirm your reports that it is now13 U.S. service members who have died?
PSAKI: I would leave that to the Department of Defense to confirm any additional casualties.
REPORTER: Thanks. Jen, you talked about the ongoing threats earlier. We heard from General McKenzie you talking about, you know, this quote, extremely active threat stream. How would you sum up right now the level of confidence that the administration has there won't be another attack like this before the completion of this evacuation mission?
PSAKI: I can't give you that assessment. As I think our national security team has said, members of our national security team, these are ongoing threats. We are watching them closely, but I can't give you that assessment from here.
REPORTER: Can you speak a little bit to what the impact on the flights has been? You have been touting U.S. and coalition flights, but this attack has slowed some of those flights from coalition partners. Other countries are now out. Does this restrict with the thought you would have for the next five days, to get people out or are fewer Americans and Afghan allies, SIVs, et cetera, going to get out because of this attack?
PSAKI: It is a good question, Josh, and one of the reasons we put out the numbers twice a day is because we want you all to have an understanding of how many people were able to get out. I would note that more than 7,000 people were evacuated over the last 12 hours. Those include members from coalition partners.
And we're working now, and this is one of the pieces that the president has been focused on is getting as many people out and on to this planes as possible even as we're working to address these security threat on the ground. But I don't want to give you a prediction because our U.S. military is incredible and they are working even while they are facing the security threats to continue the evacuation mission.
REPORTER: Would you believe the case that the airport now as opposed to -- not at this hour would be there, but can Americans go, should Americans go? Are Afghan SIVs getting through Taliban checkpoints and to the airport? Are you discouraging them from doing that? What is the situation on the ground in that perimeter?
PSAKI: I can, Josh. I would say that we are giving very specific direction to individuals, American citizens and others on when they should come to the airport, where they should meet, how they should come to the airport.
We're obviously not going to outline or detail those from here or in any public manner, but that is certainly the direction we would be giving to people, to pay attention to the security alerts and to pay attention to notifications and contacts they are receiving from us or coalition partners.
REPORTER: Jen, I'm sorry, just to clarify. There are warnings that led up to this attack, other countries have been warning the administration, the warning it is a dangerous situation, et cetera. Can you speak to whether there was specific indications to this was being planned? And if so, you have specific indications that other ones are being planned now.
PSAKI: I'm not going to get into specific intelligence, but I will tell you and reconfirm for you that the threat is ongoing and we are continuing to watch and assess the threat.
REPORTER: Thanks, Jen. President Biden has spoken a lot about the need to end the forever wars. How do you end -- but how do you end the forever wars in Afghanistan if you are still or if the United States is still continuing to attack ISIS-K?
PSAKI: Well, first, I would say this is a specific case today where 12 individual service members and 15 who were wounded today. And certainly I would expect any president of the United States would be clear that he will avenge those deaths and the acts of terrorists. And I don't think that came as a surprise to anyone. But the president stands by as he -- as he outlined to all of you just in the last hour his commitment to bringing into this war, as he has implemented over the course of the last month. And what we're talking about here is avenging these deaths from terrorists. We're not talking about sending tens of thousands of troops back from an endless war that we've been fighting for 20 years.
REPORTER: If I may ask a bit of a related question to Josh. When the Obama administration was bringing in Syrian refugees, there was a lot of push back from various states and locals about refugees coming in to their communities.
REPORTER: How do you see that situation this time around? Is this going to be different? Are -- do you anticipate those same kind of pushback and hard feelings (ph)?
PSAKI: We will see. But I will tell you that what we have been working to do is to work closely with governors, with localities, with local leaders to give them detailed briefings on what our vetting process looks like, what the background check process looks like before any individual comes into the United States. And that is a background check process that's thorough before they are allowed to come in and step on U.S. soil.
We also know that there are some people in this country, even some in Congress who may not want to have people from another country come as refugees to the United States. That's a reality. We can't stop or prevent that on our own. But we are going to continue to communicate our intensive vetting process and we have been working hard to do that behind the scenes, and we are going to continue to convey clearly that this is also part of who we are, part of the fabric of the United States and not back away from that.
REPORTER: Thanks Jen. There is an American that has been detained by the Taliban since last year. His name is Mark Frerichs. And I'm wondering if the administration has been in negotiations to release him as part of these broader negotiations with the Taliban.
PSAKI: We certainly raise his case in every opportunity and it has certainly been raised but I don't have any update on that case.
REPORTER: And, Jen, you said that there is a threat in these remaining days and that U.S. troops are in Kabul. Is there -- are there any additional precautions that are being taken to protect these troops? Obviously, you will not send in additional troops but are any precautions that have being taken?
PSAKI: I don't think I'm going to get into operational details of what is happening on the ground. Certainly there are steps taken to protect our troops on the ground by the commanders who are leading the efforts on the ground. Go ahead in the middle. Go ahead.
REPORTER: Thank you, Jen. Just last week, the president have following, you made clear to the Taliban that any attack on our forces will disruption of the operation at the airport will be met with swift and forceful response. Was this an attack? Were our forces targeted? Was this at the airport? Were our operations disrupted? And if indeed it was, would this qualify as a swift and forceful response?
PSAKI: I think the president just addressed exactly that when he said, we will not forgive, we will not forget and we will hunt you down when he spoke just an hour ago.
REPORTER: -- outside bombers, people who live so that they could kill themselves?
PSAKI: He is was referring to the attack of terrorists from ISIS-K who launched these attacks and killed the U.S. service members. I don't think he --
REPORTER: He should be going after them regardless of whether they attack U.S. service members.
PSAKI: I don't think he could have been more clear. Go ahead.
REPORTER: Yes, Jen. At least 67 House Democrats now signed on to a letter asking the president to raise the refugee camp in fiscal year 2022 to at least 200,000. I think you are looking at about 125,000 right now. Is that something that the White House is willing to accept?
PSAKI: I have not talked to the president about this specific question. What I will tell you is that what we are trying to do is get our muscles working again both in our systems and in the incredible refugee groups that working on welcoming refugees from around the country and working on getting our vetting processes and systems around the world that need to be in good shape to welcome refugees to get as many as we can.
But I have not had a conversation with him beyond raising the cap beyond 125. As you said, I'm happy to do that.
Go ahead, Eli.
REPORTER: You have given that Kabul has been the only departure point in the country. I wonder if the administration knows how many of the American citizens left, the green card holders, SIVs that are in the country still are outside of Kabul and if there have been or may be in the future efforts to go out and rescue people from those more far flung places.
PSAKI: Yes. On your latter question, I'm not going to get into more details and will continue to be. On your former question, the vast majority are within the Kabul vicinity. But as the State Department provided an update a little bit earlier today, but I know there has been a lot happening today, so let me just reiterate a couple of these numbers.
Of the 1,500 they briefed on yesterday, roughly 500 have been evacuated. And so we're talking about roughly an additional thousand that we are -- we believe remain in Afghanistan. The vast majority over two-thirds informed us they were taking steps to leave and we are in touch with. That's what we are working through and what we are focused on every single day.
REPORTER: Just to be clear, you are saying that those missions, even if you have to be vague about it, they have taken place at times?
PSAKI: I'm not confirming if they have or haven't, I am just going to convey and will leave that to the Department of Defense. What I will tell you is that we are committed to getting American citizens home and out of Afghanistan should they want to leave and that includes people around the country.
REPORTER: Thanks, Jen. Earlier, today General McKenzie said that right now, they are focused on other active threats to U.S. service members there on the ground. Are all the threats the U.S. is facing from ISIS- K, are there other groups that may be bad actors.
PSAKI: I'm just not going to detail additional information about ongoing life threats.
REPORTER: And are -- do we know if the president still feels as though the chaos and the violence that we have seen there on the ground in Kabul was all unavoidable even at this point?
PSAKI: Do you mean from about 11 days ago?
PSAKI: Well, I would say I have spoken to this a few times if we go back to 11 days ago, if that is your specific question. We certainly didn't anticipate that the leadership of the Afghan government would leave in the manner or would topple in the manner and the time line that they did or that the Afghan national security forces would cease to protect the airport and parts of Kabul. That is not what we anticipated in that timeline. That is true. What I will say and reiterate again is that within 24 to 48 hours, we had secured the airport. And since then, we evacuated more than 104,000 people.
REPORTER: How would you describe the relationship right now with the Taliban in light of the attack? And are they still helping out with security? What's there relationship right now?
PSAKI: Again, this is not a friendship or a relationship where there is trust. It's based on trust, but we are continuing to coordinate to move American citizens, to move Afghan partners and our allies out. And the fact that we have evacuated 7,000 people in the last 12 or 13 hours now is evidence of that. Go ahead.
REPORTER: Thanks, Jen. So, two Republican senators so far have called on the president to resign over the attacks in Afghanistan today. What is the White House's response to that?
PSAKI: I would say, first, this is a day where U.S. service members, 12 of them lost their lives at the hands of terrorists. It is not a day for politics. And we would expect that any American, whether they're elected or not would stand with us in our commitment to going after and fighting and killing those terrorists wherever they live and to honoring the memory of service members. And that's what this day is for. Go ahead.
REPORTER: Hi. Thank you. I -- yesterday when I was leaving the White House I spoke to a group of men at the White House gate who said that they were service members here in America in our armed forces, various branches. They had their photos on posters and they are seeking help for their families. We have prioritized which groups we are helping, namely those who have helped us in the mission. But they are not. They're currently in the military, but they are not people who fit the description for the criteria for getting assistance.
However, in our interview, they told me that they are getting assistance. Can you speak to this prioritization and who really is eligible to get assistance going forward considering what happened today?
I know you have already spoken to them, but can you drill down a little bit to make sure people know who we are allowing into the country at this point.
PSAKI: I'm not sure that I totally understand your question, but let me do my best. American citizens, which I assume these U.S. service members are.
REPORTER: They serve here in our country. They're from Afghanistan. And they have family members there. So they said they went to the State Department, and the State Department was helping them get their family members in and they wanted to get attention so that other people in their situation could get their family members in, and they didn't seem to fit the criteria. So I'm just asking you to clarify.
PSAKI: Are you concerned that we're letting -- we're helping the family members of people who have fought by our side for 20 years, helping them come to the country once they have been through a thorough vetting process? What is the root of your question?
REPORTER: Well, the root of my question is consistent information for those who need help. So I have been doing some reporting around people getting correct information about the process. So I want to be able to say in my reporting, if you meet these qualifications, you are the folks who can come into the country. And I think a lot of people want to know that information. PSAKI: I think we have been very clear, Mona, that U.S. citizens, their family members, some of those are dual nationals, many of them who are left or dual nationals. Some of them may have lived their whole lives in Afghanistan, immediate family members. That means spouses and children. It also means SIV applicants and others who might be eligible for a range of the programs we had and vulnerable populations. That does have a broad range of meanings because there are a lot of people are vulnerable in Afghanistan. And we're going to work to get as many of those people out as we can. There is a range of programs if individuals have questions. Information is available on the State Department website and the Department of Defense website. Go ahead.
REPORTER: Thank you. Over 65 Democrats in Congress are calling on Biden to raise the refugee count to at least 200,000 --
PSAKI: I think I just answered this question.
REPORTER: And then the president had cited intelligence data earlier in the speech that ISIS-K have been planning attacks on U.S. personnel for quite some time and that's why he was trying to get everyone evacuated by August 31st. But if that was the case, then why did the administration make the decision in late July to not do more of that early evacuations on military aircrafts?
PSAKI: Well, first, I would say that we have over the course of the last 11 days evacuated more than 100,000 people. And that is a credit to the U.S. military and the men and women who are serving, who have been able to conduct and oversee this operation and done it at great risk. And that was an operation that began, again, just two weeks ago. Before that time, we had also evacuated a number of people. I can't speak to what the difference of the ISIS threat would have been, but, obviously, that has been increasing over time, which we have spoken quite publically about.
REPORTER: Despite the lack of true trust that you and president that everyone who is highlighting in this threat to the Taliban is understandable, but having said that, it's been a remarkable level of cooperation, I mean something no one would imagine, whatever, a month ago. And as the president is saying, it is actually ongoing now despite the incident. They're kind of helping try and deal with this. Given that, after the 31st, is it actually conceivable that there could be some kind of a longer-term relationship on the mutual interests that the president talks about, security, humanitarian aid and whether you call it recognition or not, they're basically working alongside the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan long term?
PSAKI: Well, I would say first that we will continue to work to get people out of Afghanistan even after the 31st, and we will need to coordinate with the Taliban in order to do that. I'm not going to label that a partnership or anything other than continued coordination. And we, again, believe we have a great deal of leverage in order to implement that commitment.
REPORTER: Sorry. One other issue, beyond the evacuations, let's say that's get done -- you know hopefully it is done. But there is going to be also a problem, it's going to be the security, the terrorism, from their point of view, the humanitarian aid. Could you see this kind of mutual interests agenda continuing with them?
PSAKI: I don't want to get ahead of where we are. Obviously, we are committed to continuing to delivering humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. There are a range of international partners who are committed to doing the same thing. The United Nations also will continue to have a presence on the ground which will be a mechanism for delivering of great deal of that assistance. And I would just reiterate again, we need to have continued coordination in order to continue to get people out and evacuate them as we are going to plan to do after the 31st.
Go ahead. Go ahead Shelby.
REPORTER: Thanks. I just have two for you. This morning, Kirby tweeted that the evacuations operations in full won't be wrapping up in 36 hours and that they will be evacuating as many people as they can until the end of the mission.
What is the administration defining the end of the mission as? Is it the 31st or is it once we evacuation everyone that the administration has promised to get out?
PSAKI: The end of this mission, yes, the 31st. But our commitment to getting American citizens out who may not be ready to depart continues. There is no deadline. There is no end of that time line, I should say, to getting our Afghan partners out. And I think he put out that tweet, John Kirby, he is the Pentagon Spokesperson, put out that tweet because there was a great deal of reporting that was inaccurate, that we were ending evacuation flights tomorrow. And that is not accurate.
REPORTER: And then just one more. The president promised earlier that they will continue to get any American who wishes to get out of Afghanistan out, even after the 31st. How is the administration going to ensure the safe evacuation for U.S. citizens without troop presence when even with troop presence, we just saw this attack happen?
PSAKI: Well, again, over the last 11 days, we have evacuated 104,000 people, including the vast majority of Americans who were in Afghanistan. But our commitment does not end, right? We are continuing to work to get every American citizen who wants to leave out before the 31st. We will need to have -- we will need continue to coordinate with the Taliban in order to get people to the airport and out from the airport. Those operational details and discussions are ongoing, and as we have more to report to all of you, we will provide that information. Go ahead.
REPORTER: Thank you, Jen. Moments ago you said that the commitment doesn't end at the end of the month and that despite August 31st, the commitment remains. During his remarks a moment ago, the president said that we were going to try to get, quote, as many people out as we can. Is he trying to prepare the American public for a sort of harsh reality that some Americans might still be left on the ground there when we leave?
PSAKI: There are some Americans who may not have decided to leave by the 31st. That is possible. Many of these Americans who remain are dual citizens. They may have extended family members, 20 family members, 30 family members, others who they want to bring with them and they're not ready to make that decision yet. Our commitment to them does not end. We will continue to work to get them out.
But his objective and focus and laser focus, which he asks for many updates a day on, is getting every American who wants to leave out now in the next few days. That is what you are U.S. military is working to deliver on. Go ahead.
REPORTER: A follow-up to that. What are those Americans supposed to do on September 1st?
PSAKI: We have been reaching out, in touch with every single American who has reached out to us and we have contact for. We have phone, email, text, WhatsApp. That will continue. That will continue. But our focus right now is on getting every single American who wants to leave out in advance of the 31st.
REPORTER: Jen, given that you had intelligence about the attack even as I understand it down to the very gate but weren't able to stop it, what hope do you have of thwarting further attacks that the president told us just now, and I quote, were inevitable? And if not, isn't the decision to stay potentially the wrong one, is my first question. I got a quick follow up?
PSAKI: Sure. What I would say first that General McKenzie spoke to this earlier today, our version of this question, which is a very good question. And what he conveyed clearly is that they are committed, our U.S. military is committed to continuing the mission, despite the fact that there are daily risks and despite the fact that there are ongoing threats. That speaks to their courage. That speaks to their commitment and their service to this country.
Obviously, anything they need, anything that the national security team needs, our military commanders on the ground need to thwart, to prevent these attacks, to go after terrorists, they will be granted. But I'm not going to go into more details than that.
REPORTER: And just secondly, you mentioned earlier I think in an answer to Kaitlan that there were other operations or methods of getting Americans to the airport given what happened today. What will you do for the thousands or tens of thousands of Afghans with and without visa papers who were finding it impossible to get to the airport prior to the attacks today who will now be presumably even more full of fear and confusion as to how they can possibly get out? What do you say to them?
PSAKI: We are also in touch with many, many of them, and we are giving them clear instructions on where to meet, when to come to the airport, where -- how they can get out and evacuated from the country. We are also mindful in providing security threats when warranted as we did last night to prevent a large gathering that would be a greater attraction to terrorist threats. But we are -- for individuals who are eligible for our programs, whether they are SIV programs, P1, P2 programs, other vulnerable Afghans, we are continuing to work to get as many out as we can and we will work with our partners and allies to get them out.
REPORTER: Can I follow up on that? It seems like right now Americans and Afghan allies still in Afghanistan are facing two choices. Either they stay where they are and risk being hunted by Taliban, or they try to get to the airport and risk being blown up by ISIS.
How does this evacuation mission continue without evacuee evacuees risking their lives?
PSAKI: We are in direct contact with every American citizen. We have contact information for -- email, phone, text, WhatsApp, and we are working with each of them and their families on an individual basis on how to get them evacuated to the airport and evacuated. That's the process I'm not going to get into more details about how that works because it's not in their interest. It's not in the security interest of our troops or in individuals we are trying to work to get evacuated.
Go ahead in the back. Pink -- pink shirt. Yeah.
REPORTER: Has Joe Biden spoken with any foreign leader after the attacks in Kabul?
PSAKI: This -- today, I will have to check on that for you. That's a great question, I'm not sure he has today but I will check on that for you. As you all know he's going to be meeting with the prime minister of Israel tomorrow.
OK. Thank you, everyone.
BLITZER: All right. So, there you have the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki answering reporters questions for more than half an hour.
I want to go immediately to retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling of the U.S. Army, CNN military analyst.
The -- Jen Psaki just said, I think it's significant, I'm anxious to get your thoughts, any day where you lose service members as may be the worst day of your presidency. How heavily does this day weigh on the president of the United States?
LT. GENERAL MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, as the commander-in-chief, Wolf, it does weigh heavily on him. I will say any day you lose service members, which General McKenzie based today showed directly and I've experienced multiple times, weighs heavily not only just on that day, but throughout your career.
You pledge as part of your team to keep your soldiers, your marines, your airman safe, your sailors safe. When something like this happens, when a life is taken by the enemy, especially when soldiers are performing a mission, as I said earlier today, it's not only a combat mission, but it's a humanitarian mission of getting people out of harm's way, it just -- it just rips that your soul, it rips that your heart and its something that I know for sure General McKenzie will feel the rest of his life. He will remember this day forever, just as I did so many times we lost soldiers in combat.
BLITZER: I'm sure the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States will remember it as well.
Jim Sciutto, you broke the story yesterday that there was a real concern that this ISIS-K, these terrorists would launch some sort of strike before the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan next Tuesday is the deadline. And it -- sadly, it happened, and we did hear the president say we will hunt you down and make you pay.
Jen Psaki just went one step forward. She said not only make you pay, she said we will kill you.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Sadly, the intelligence was right here. They said that they were concerned ISIS-K had both the capability and the intent to carry out exactly an attack like this on entries to the airport where crowds were, with the intent not just to get it Afghans but U.S. service members and they were successful in carrying that out.
No one I've spoken to about that intelligence has told me that capability and intent has disappeared with this attack. And that's why you are hearing from the president, from Psaki, and others that the threat is real it remains. I think you can expect U.S. forces and others to take steps to prevent further loss of life.
The other point I would make is this, the president saying we will hunt you down. This will be a test of the new reality in Afghanistan because by pulling out U.S. forces which also includes U.S. contractors but also U.S. intelligence assets, and also placing U.S. air bases outside of the country, that means less time over target by drones, et cetera, you have less intelligence gathering, less capability to carry out strikes like this.
President talks about over the horizon capability. Yes, the U.S. has a lot of technology. It's not the same. So, this will be a test to whether he can follow through on that threat.
BLITZER: Kaitlan Collins is in the briefing room over at the White House.
Kaitlan, I am hearing, I'm sure you are hearing a lot of reporters are hearing the U.S. is bracing for more terror attacks against U.S. targets, Afghan targets over the next few days. And I assume the president of the United States is deeply concerned about that contingency.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Wolf, they say those threats are very active still at the airport. We should know thousands of U.S. troops still remain and Jen Psaki was saying these evacuations are still ongoing. They are still aiming to meet that August 31st deadline of President Biden that he stuck by for several months. And she said today as he met with his national security aides, he did not reconsider that deadline whether leaving sooner or extending it as some lawmakers have called for.
Instead citing the advice that he got from his top military aides, he is sticking with that 8/31 deadline.
And I know Jim was just talking about the questions this raises about this hunt for those who caused this attack as President Biden was saying earlier. He has instructed the pentagon to draw up plans to target ISIS-K assets. It also raises a lot of questions about what this evacuation will look like between now and Tuesday, as -- as it is continuing, because the president said today there are still U.S. citizens, green card holders, SIV applicants and other endangered Afghans who are waiting and want to get out of Afghanistan.
And so, of course, the situation has become even more perilous given the attacks they had been warning about, did actually become true today with the attacks on those as well, potentially more U.S. service members. And so, the question also is how do they actually get those people to the airport, Wolf? Because so far, they've been giving them specific instructions of one to come to the airport, what's gate to go to. That was going from the Pentagon to those people and now, of course, it's raising questions about how they are going to get there.
She said they are developing several other contingency plans, alternative options to get those people to the airport, of course. And, Wolf, the clock is ticking and time is of the essence right now.
BLITZER: It certainly is.
Kim Dozier, the president and the military and political leadership of the Biden administration making it clear that they are going to unfortunately have to rely on the Taliban for cooperation.
KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: What they need to do is have better cooperation than ever before because if he wants to even meet his reduced promise of trying to get the Americans out who want to leave, that's a sizable number. They keep saying a lot of them have decided they want to stay, we think. But they closed a number of the gates, and their avenues to having people go meet them in a hotel and they bust them in. The enemy is on to those and different factions of the Taliban who don't want Afghans to leave might be frustrating efforts by their own political wing to try to make this go smoothly.
This is going to be rocky because you have this transition period of the Taliban trying to impose control on itself as it tries to impose a new government on a just captured country, and you've got the U.S. trying to pull out safely.
BLITZER: You know, Nic, you've covered Afghanistan for a long time, Nic Robertson is with us. This should not have been a surprise to anyone that these ISIS-K terrorists would launch this kind of suicide mission.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Not in the least. I mean, there's a huge track record of it. But the Taliban, in essence, were sort of the progenitor in the Afghan context of the suicide bomb. They develop these with the Haqqani network, which is part of them but also affiliated to al-Qaeda. They developed a conveyor belt of taking young children from madrassas, these religious training schools sometimes in some cases drugging them, convincing them to wear what they would call special jackets and send them out on suicide missions.
ISIS-K, their current leader was from that Haqqani network that had all those skills. They've been practicing those skills in Kabul, with deadly effect. I think we have more to learn about today's blast, a suicide bomber can only carry so much explosives on his body. The death toll and destruction we've seen today, we've heard about the possibility of follow-up gunfire. In that environment, the death toll, number of casualties seems very high for a suicide bomb, even if there are container walls and concentrating a blast. That's not something you would see outside of a very confined space.
There's more to learn. They have a strong skill set and they brought it all to bear.
BLITZER: You know, Andrew McCabe, you're the former deputy director of the FBI. I've been told there is enormous growing concern right now especially today after what ISIS-K did at the airport, killing all these people, these heroes and these Afghan civilians as well, that it will embolden other terrorists to try to do more especially as we get closer and closer to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 that's coming up in a few weeks, in a couple weeks.
How serious of a terror threat is there in the U.S. right now?
ANDREW MCCABE, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR, FBI: Well, I can tell, Wolf, what the FBI is doing right now, and that is looking across the expanse of all the counter-terrorism work here in the United States. They're looking at all of their subjects of investigation, who they think might be motivated by what they are seeing on television, maybe followers of ISIS-K or followers of ISIS or people who were lined themselves with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network and other groups to see if these events and the coverage of these events work as a triggering mechanism for folks who are already on the edge and looking for an excuse to go forward.
Of course, with the anniversary of 9/11 just around the corner, it's something that I am sure has been lurking in the backs of their minds. But events today in Kabul have certainly turned that effort up to full blast.
BLITZER: I know police here in D.C. as well as in New York, they're going on a higher state of alert right now, just under the worst-case scenario right now.
And you've been doing excellent reporting, Jim, on this threat facing the U.S. right now. Do you think what happened today will embolden other terrorist groups not just ISIS, but other al Qaeda like groups to go ahead and launch strikes against the United States?
SCIUTTO: Terrorists consider attacks like this victories, right? I mean, death is a victory, this is a victory, and inspiring one for them.
Already, frankly, the Taliban taking over the country was a victory and Afghanistan as a result in recent weeks and months has seen enormous influx in fighters from all over the world. We remember this in Syria a few years ago. We are seeing it again in Afghanistan.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody, standby.
I want to bring in Republican Congressman Brian Mast of Florida right now. He's an Afghanistan war veteran. He's a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Congressman, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for all your service to our country. We are grateful to you.
And I know what's happened in Afghanistan today is a personal for you. You served in Afghanistan. You lost both your legs and a blast from an improvised explosive device.
What goes through your mind learning 12 U.S. service members and maybe more were killed, 15 others seriously wounded in his attacks?
REP. BRIAN MAST (R-FL): I've shed a good amount of tears over it already today. Sometimes you can't help it. When you've seen a lot of folks buried. I've got a lot of rage going through me and truly against this president.
BLITZER: Well, the president, he delivered his message in the last hour and he's had this warning to the terrorists responsible for these horrendous attacks, saying, we will hunt you down and make you pay.
What does that look like with the U.S. potentially in the next few days about to completely withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan?
MAST: It's hollow. His words are as hollow as his heart and his head. That's the truth of it. All of this goes back, the missteps from the very beginning. You look at everything that's gone on here, they've been messaging for the last week the exact opposite of what's going on in the world. He said today he wasn't going to be intimidated. This happened
precisely because he was intimidated. Every step that he's taken has been because he's been intimidated along the way.
He's been worried about optics along the way. He's been worried about not having this appear as a combat mission along the way. He's been worried about getting out by the 9/11 so he can have a celebration for that.
He's been worried about getting out to people with the guns before getting out the people without the guns. He's been worried about giving up the strategic places in the middle of the night that gave no back up to the Afghans that have we've served alongside.
I could break things over -- over what I am seeing on this. And I don't believe a single word that comes out of that man's mouth.
BLITZER: I know that you listened earlier in the day, as I did, and so many others did, to the U.S. military's commander of the Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, he put it very bluntly. He said they expect these kinds of terror attacks to continue.
So, Congressman, what options does the U.S. military have right now to thwart these attacks when so many people are still gathering outside the airport? As you know there are thousands and thousands of Afghan friends of the United States who are so desperate to get out of the country.
MAST: It's a 180. Don't be intimidated. Don't let them set the deadline. Don't let them set the red line.
He wants to say, send me, then do that. Send me. Go out, their land Air Force One in there, secure a bigger perimeter, take the high ground, determined that he is going to be the one that sets the rules for the terrorists and not the other way around. That's one of the quotes that he gave out there.
What don't you go out there, act like an American, set the rules, kill those that killed us instead of backing away from your original statement that was you are going to respond swiftly to those that interrupt our operations? I would say the whole pour down has been an operation by the Taliban. This was certainly a large interruption, well beyond that. Them taking our embassy, them taking Bagram Airbase, those were certainly interruptions.
You go out there and he wants to back off and say, well, we're going to meet them at the time and place of our choosing, that's backing up. Go out there and say, we're going to get back out hold of the most advanced military weaponry that he said that they now have. Let's get back hold of our equipment so that Americans, civilians, military and alike aren't being killed for years to come with what was left, that their intelligence agencies predicted that this kind of fall (ph) would happen. We can talk about this forever.
BLITZER: Congressman Brian Mast, once again, thank you so much for your service. Thanks for joining us. We'll continue this conversation down the road.
I want our viewers to take a look at the live pictures coming out of the White House right now where the American flag was just lowered to half staff. We've also just learned the death toll among U.S. troops has gone from 12 to 13 -- 13 American troops killed in this horrific attack, and 18 U.S. service members injured, seriously injured in this attack.
We're staying on top of the news, the breaking news, thanks for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.