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U.S. Launches Strikes In Iraq & Syria In Response To 3 Soldiers Killed; Rep. Pat Ryan (D-NY), Is Interviewed About U.S. Launches Strikes In Iraq & Syria In Response To 3 Soldiers Killed; White House: U.S. Successfully Struck Three Facilities In Iraq, Four In Syria. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 02, 2024 - 17:00   ET


MARK ESPER, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: But also what made it -- what are the consequences for them as this plays out over the coming days and weeks?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN ANCHOR, INSIDE POLITICS SUNDAY: That's right. A major story and a major moment as you laid out for President Biden. Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, thank you very much.

We are following this breaking news of a major retaliation strike by the United States against Iranian backed militias. We will be following this right here on CNN. I will see you back here at 10:00 p.m. Eastern tonight on CNN News Night. CNN's coverage continues right now with Alex Marquardt, who's in for Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Happening now breaking news, the U.S. launches airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, targeting Iran backed militants in retaliation of the killing of three U.S. soldiers in Jordan. We're getting new information from our correspondents at the Pentagon, the White House and in the Middle East at this hour.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Alex Marquardt and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking News.

MARQUARDT: Let's get right to this breaking news. The U.S. military retaliating for a deadly attack on a U.S. base in Jordan with airstrikes now underway in both Iraq and in Syria against targets tied to Iran backed militants. We have correspondents fanned out at key locations getting new information as we speak. I want to get straight to Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon.

Oren, news of these strikes breaking just moments ago. So what do we know at this point?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Alex, we expected these strikes to be bigger and more powerful in many ways, and that's exactly what we're hearing from U.S. Central Command, which put out a statement a short time ago about the number of targets that were struck and what was used to carry out this operation.

So, let me read this statement that just came out a short while ago from U.S. Central Command. At 04:00 p.m. Eastern time, February 2, U.S. Central Command forces conducted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds force and affiliated militia groups. U.S. military forces struck more than 85 targets with numerous aircraft to include long range bombers flown from the United States. The airstrikes employed more than 125 precision munitions. The facilities that were struck included command and control operations centers, intelligence centers, rockets and missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicle storages and logistics and munition supply chain facilities of militia groups and their IRGC sponsors who facilitated attacks against U.S. and coalition forces.

There's a lot in that statement, so let's unpack a few key points here. First 85 targets is an order of magnitude or more above and beyond the sorts of strikes we have seen the U.S. carry out in Iraq and Syria in response to previous Iranian backed militia attacks on us forces. Those were much more limited, involved, frankly much smaller aircraft, F-15 and F-16 fighter jets that can certainly carry a punch, but not like the B-1 bombers that were used as part of this operation. Those are heavier bombers. They're able to carry out and carry a much bigger payload to carry out a series of strikes like were just carried out in Iraq and Syria.

It's also worth noting this is the first time we have seen the U.S. carry out strikes in both countries simultaneously, and that speaks to the size of this operation and the level of planning that went into it in terms of the timing of the operation itself. Weather certainly played a factor here, one of the environmental factors that goes into the decision about when to begin the operation. But just a short time ago, the U.S. beginning what we expect to be a multi phased, multi- tiered operation to go after these Iranian backed militia groups that the U.S. holds responsible for carrying out not only the deadly drone attack on Sunday that killed three U.S. service members and wounded scores more, but many of the 160 plus other attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria over the course of the last few months since the beginning of the Gaza war.

Alex, I'll make one more quick point here. The U.S., it seems, making the decision not to strike inside Iran. The U.S. had clearly stated it was not looking for a larger regional, open, wider war. So this list of targets speaks to that, going after the capabilities of these Iranian backed militias, sending a message to Iran, but no direct strikes within Iran's borders here. So that too speaks to the administration's strategy about how to carry out these operations.

Last question, is this it or is there more coming over the next hours and perhaps days?

MARQUARDT: And the administration has certainly indicated that there could be more to come. Oren Liebermann at Pentagon, we'll get back to you when there is more news. I want to get straight to CNN's MJ Lee at the White House.

So, MJ, what are you learning about the scope and the timing of these strikes today?

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, importantly, Alex, I am told by a senior administration official that the U.S. does not, for now, intend to strike inside Iran. That for now the strikes that we have seen beginning tonight are targeting assets that are outside of Iran, as of course we have seen in Iraq and Syria. Targeting inside Iran would have been hugely escalatory, and U.S. officials had made that very clear in recent days saying that basically striking inside Iran would have been akin to going to war with Iran.


Now, in terms of the timing, I'm told that U.S. officials have actually known for days that the first set of strikes would begin tonight. The President, who is in his home in Wilmington right now, is being updated on these strikes in real time. I'm also told, and this is really important, that in terms of the timing, there was no coordination as for the dignified transfer of the three fallen U.S. Service Members that we saw earlier today, that the timing of those two things really happened on two separate tracks. And as Oren mentioned earlier, that the consideration for when to begin these strikes took into account so many factors, including even the weather in the region.

And I'm also told, and we've been, reporting on this for several days, that just the deliberations that went into how to actually retaliate and take into account the three U.S. Service Members that died in the Jordan strike, that that has been incredibly complicated and fraught for this president. He has made clear that he wanted the retaliation and these strikes to take into account the fact that three Americans are dead, but also wanted to make sure that this didn't become an even bigger war.

But, Alex, I think one space that we have to watch is just the fact that these retaliatory strikes that we've seen prior tonight, they have not been successful at serving as a deterrence. When the President was asked earlier this week what is going to be different about these strikes, he said, we'll see. There was not a confident this is what will make these strikes different. So again, we are just in the earliest stages of this. We are about to learn in the coming days how these strikes will continue to unfold potentially.

So we're going to get some better questions -- these answers to these questions about what about these strikes actually might be different and if they end up being more successful at serving as a deterrence.

MARQUARDT: All right, MJ Lee at the White House, I want to ask you to stay with us.

CNN Chief International Security Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is also with us. Nick, these strikes, of course, coming in Iraq and Syria at a very volatile moment. How do you think these are going to play into the flare ups that we're seeing elsewhere between Hezbollah and Israel and that northern Israeli border, what we're seeing in the Red Sea?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes, look, I mean, it's early days still. We don't know if this is it, but it does seem to be essentially telegraphed enough to give those on the receiving end enough time to relocate or lessen the damage that potentially could have been done. It seems carefully packaged with the use of B-1 bombers abnormal and the declaration that 85 targets were hit, that's pretty much in the Pentagon's gift to decide what's a target and what's not to make it feel as though this is significantly more substantial. It may indeed prove to have been the case, but so far we are looking at geographically areas that have been hit before over previous years, and we are, as I say, looking at a telegraphing of a response that will likely have reduced its effectiveness. We've heard from the Pentagon saying the weather was potentially behind some of the timing here, too.

But Joe Biden, President Biden has an exceptionally difficult thing to thread here. He has to show adequate aggression to Iran that three American soldiers are not killed likely, that Tehran sees consequences for that act. But remember, Alex, we've both been around long enough to remember 2019 when attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and other American facilities led to the assassination of the Revolutionary Guard Chief Qasem Soleimani by the Trump administration, that was a strident move that many thought would have consequences, it didn't, to the extent many had feared. And so today's response, to some degree is lesser than that, certainly. But it's done in a very different world with the Israel-Gaza conflict raging, fears for months that might potentially have sparked a wider conflagration across the entire region.

But it's clear Joe Biden doesn't want that. He has to show strength here militarily in the region at this time, show Iran clearly that it's capable of a tough military response. But it probably knows, too, that Iran also doesn't want an open, full on conflict here. It's not economically capable or militarily capable, and frankly, isn't ready for it in the region at all. It sat back from that over the past three to four months, while the Israel-Gaza conflict has raged.

In fact, we heard from Iran's president that they did not want open conflict, but will respond to bullies. And so I think we have both the U.S. and Iran here keen to stay away from a conflagration, a wider conflict here. But this particular night, the Biden administration having to make some kind of strident statement. I think we're seeing that in the rhetoric and the telegraph, in the signaling of what happened. We're not sure we've seen that force yet in terms of the battle damage assessment, what's really being done to these Iranian proxies, but that may come out in the hours ahead, but a complex time for the White House. Alex.

MARQUARDT: Yes. Certainly hoping to get more details about what is actually being struck right now. Nick Paton Walsh, stay with us as well. I want to go back to MJ at the White House. MJ, I understand that the president just put out a statement. What did he say?

LEE: He did. This is the first time that we're hearing from the President since these strikes began. So I want to read that statement in full, Alex. It says, this past Sunday, three American soldiers were killed in Jordan by a drone launched by militant groups backed by Iran's IRGC. Earlier today, I attended the dignified return of these brave Americans at Dover Air Force Base and I have spoken with each of their families.


The President goes on to say, this afternoon, at my direction, U.S. military forces struck targets at facilities in Iraq and Syria that the IRGC and affiliate and militia used to attack U.S. forces. He says, our response began today. It will continue at times and places of our choosing.

Now, importantly, Alex, in this statement from the President, he goes on to say that the U.S. is not seeking conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world. But he says, let all those who might seek to do us harm know this, if you harm an American, we will respond.

So, Alex, you can see clearly from this statement how much focus there is on the three American soldiers that were killed in that drone attack in Jordan last weekend. We know from all of our reporting that as soon as that drone attack was confirmed, he had convened his national security team last weekend and was immediately presented with a range of options on how to retaliate. And I think the statement very much makes clear that the strikes that we are starting to see tonight, they have everything to do with the fact that these three Americans were killed. And he is trying to send a clear message to any foes, any of these Iran backed militia groups that might be looking to strike further, don't do it. And particularly if you end up leaving Americans as casualties that the U.S. is going to respond.

But again, as we have been talking about for days, that question of whether the U.S. has been successful in having their strikes serve as a successful deterrence, so far that has not been the case. So we will wait to see in the coming days whether that is any different this time around, Alex.

MARQUARDT: Yes. President Biden saying don't do it for months now, and yet they have consistently and obviously the Biden White House hoping that Tonight's strikes will start to change that.

Nick Paton Walsh, MJ Lee and Oren Liebermann, thank you very much.

I want to bring in a panel of experts to dive into all of this. We are getting a lot more details about what is underway right now. Jim Sciutto, I want to start with you. When you hear that statement from the President, not seeking conflict, that this is clearly in response to those three American service members who were killed. And then what we know about the actual strikes, 85 targets, 125 precision munitions, B-1B bombers. What do you make of this response? JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Listen, the administration, I think there's a parallel to the way it handled the war in Ukraine, does not want -- there, they did not want to direct conflict with Russia. They're arming Ukraine to defend itself here. They want to defend Israel. They want to keep a lid on tax -- on shipping by the Houthi rebels and of course, on attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria. But they don't want to direct conflict with Iran, even though they know, and they say repeatedly Iran is backing these groups, arming them. And these attacks would not be happening without Iran, regardless of whether they believe they're directly issuing the orders.

And the fact is they have a conflict with Iran here because their interests are in direct opposition in a number of places and U.S. soldiers have died. These strikes happen, as you were showing the pictures there as Biden and his wife and the secretary of defense were at Dover receiving the remains of three service members who died in attack by Iran back militia. So, they're already in the conflict with it. And it's already expanded beyond Gaza, sadly on a number of fronts.

So the question is, does this keep it from expanding further? And it's not clear it does. I mean, the U.S. has responded to militia attacks on U.S. service members in recent weeks. Those attacks have continued, they've escalated, you've killed soldiers. So, those answers haven't worked.

This is larger, but it took a number of days. You could be certain the Iranian personnel went to ground or left, so they weren't there when these attacks took place. They probably hit a lot of their material as well. So you have -- you already have a question about the effect of the detergents. We'll only know, we'll only know over time. But it's not a clear cut solution to something that is already expanding beyond what they wanted.

MARQUARDT: Yes, we've talked about all these efforts to make sure that it doesn't escalate, that it doesn't expand, but it has steadily, obviously, as you say, the effort is to make sure that it doesn't explode and grow beyond what it is already.

Beth Sanner, this notion that the U.S. doesn't want direct war with Iran, it is something that they have said throughout the course of the week, the Biden White House tonight making clear that they are not striking inside Iran. How does the Biden administration deter Iran and tell it essentially to tell its proxies to knock it off while also making clear that they don't want to really take the fight to Iran?

BETH SANNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, they have said those things out loud, maybe a little bit too much from my perspective. You know, but this is a very fine line, right? They're threading a needle here. And some of this is informed by history. You know, Nick was just saying, you know, when we struck Soleimani, and I was around briefing President Trump during those days, nothing really happened, well, I kind of disagree with that.

[17:15:08] Two days later, there was this massive missile attack on a U.S. base. It was only by luck and some forewarning that U.S. soldiers didn't get killed from that. And two months later, there was another attack --

MARQUARDT: In March, right.

SANNER: -- in March where two U.S. Servicemen and U.K. servicemen were killed. We actually just didn't respond very much to those attacks because we wanted to keep a lid on things. So, this is what every administration does. There's nothing special or whatever. You're trying to figure out where that line is.

I'm kind of worried that this might not be enough. And so, this is why President Biden says there -- you know, there will be more at a place in time of our choosing. So we're just going to have to see how this unfolds.


SANNER: But there isn't a thing that you can point to. That's the dot. You're going to have to feel your way around it.

MARQUARDT: Yes, multi phased over time is something they're saying, but certainly out of the gate. It doesn't appear that there's anything close to --

SANNER: Correct.

MARQUARDT: -- something like a strike on the head of the Quds Force of the IRGC.

I want to bring in Colonel Cedric Leighton. We're lucky enough to have a retired Air Force colonel. When you look at what was used today, this B-1B bomber flown from the United States, when you look at that long list of targets that were struck that Oren initially read out from that CENTCOM statement, does anything stand out to you?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: Well, I think the big thing here is that a lot of what is going on, Alex, is happening in an area where the intelligence community knows the militias are active. So, it's pretty clear we're focusing on the Euphrates river valley --

MARQUARDT: Which has been struck before by the United States.

LEIGHTON: Exactly. It has been struck before. They know that, in essence, what we call that is a restrike of the target. Now, usually restrikes happen within a cycle of air tasking orders, but what that really means is those targets can be restruck at our discretion. And when they are struck in this way, yes, there's a message that's being sent to Iran, but also to the proxies. And if we -- if they continue to fight with the American forces and if they continue to attack them, there can be more attacks like this.

So in terms of the target set, I -- what we're looking at here, I think, is something that's pretty clear that it's commander and control, supply oriented and logistics oriented. So what they're trying to do is they're trying to starve them out from their capabilities and in essence, cut the link from Iran to those militia groups. Now, they're not going to be completely successful in doing that with this one strike, as extensive as it was. But it's still a message that it can be done, and it's a message that we will use any weapon at our disposal, almost any weapon at our disposal to do this.

MARQUARDT: Yes. A very important border area right there between Iraq and Syria. Of course, there's a straight logistics line from Iran just to the east of there.

I want to get to David Sanger. He's also with us.

David, you said that the response options for Biden range from what you've called unsatisfying to highly risky. So, from what we've seen so far, where do you think this is on that range?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, somewhere in the middle, probably leaning a little more toward unsatisfying. The risky part of this would have been to go attack inside Iran. And what I find interesting about the symbolism of using the B-1 is that it's a reminder to the Iranians that if the U.S. decided at any point it needed to go after the major nuclear sites in Iran, at Natanz and Fordow, this is probably the weapon they would use, this and B-2s. And so, they're making the point, they know how to reach this from the continental United States.

I'm sure that these strikes will degrade the capability of a lot of the proxies, but it's not a long term solution for cutting them off. And many of the proxies view their interests here as a bit different from Iran's. Iran's a major state has got a lot of assets to lose. These militia groups sort of win by not folding when the United States strikes them. And that's what we've seen happen with the Houthis, who came out of Yemen and were doing more attacks on shipping just yesterday and today.

So, it's not clear to me that this will deter. It may well slow them down for a while. And I don't know anybody in the U.S. government who thinks that this is a solution. It's a sending of a message, and they think the Iranians, for the reasons Beth raised, are probably receiving that message and trying to tell the proxies to back off for a bit.

MARQUARDT: David, you've written a lot about the targeting of Iran through cyber methods. There is an expectation that perhaps what is happening today and in the coming phases of this is not just kinetic, not just military like we're seeing right now with jets dropping bombs but could also -- there could also be some cyber targeting. What do you think the U.S. is doing on the cyber front vis-a-vis Iran and its proxies right now?


SANGER: Well, the most obvious target for cyber would be some of their command and control. It would be their ability to produce some of these weapons, including the drones, including their missile supplies. But you know, cyber takes a lot more time and planning. If U.S. cyber command has been inside the Iranian facilities for some time, then they could execute a simultaneous strike. But it's not something you can work up in a week or necessarily even a month.

It takes a long time to get access. Iran's been a target for so long, presumably they know what some of those accesses are. That could also be part of the next wave. And I think one of the reasons that they were using bombers coming in from the U.S. is that they want to preserve their capabilities in the Mediterranean, in the Red Sea and so forth, so that they've got that for a second strike. Same thing could be the case for cyber.

MARQUARDT: All right. I want everyone to stand by and bring in Jeremy Diamond, who is in Tel Aviv.

Jeremy, what are you learning?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think one thing to keep in mind here as we're looking at this analysis, is the fact that it did take the United States five days between this attack at an air base in -- at a base in Jordan to when the United States actually carried out these retaliatory strikes. And one of the reasons why that's significant is that it may have given time for Iran, for their militias, their proxies in the region, to actually be able to reposition some key personnel as well as equipment. And that may have reduced the effectiveness of these strikes. But what it also may have done is kind of reduced the pressure on Iran to retaliate in a forceful way. In particular, if there was some kind of significant personnel at any of these sites and some kind of a significant killing by the United States in these attacks, something that Iran would have had to forcefully push back on.

And so I think as we look at these strikes themselves, what's also significant is what has preceded them, and that is both the United States and Iran doing a lot of signaling in these last five days to indicate that while both of them were prepared, were ready to respond to an attack by the other on their proxy forces, on themselves, they also wanted to make very clear that neither of them were really trying to position themselves for a direct confrontation, for a direct war between Iran and the United States. And we have seen that kind of diplomatic dance unraveling over the last several days. I think, as David was saying there, we kind of fell in the kind of medium range option here of where the United States actually fell with these attacks. I mean, we're looking at, you know, 85 different targets striking both IRGC sites, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as affiliated militia groups in the region, trying to show that they are striking a range of targets, trying to show that this is a significant response to what was the death of three American soldiers at a U.S. base, but also trying to, you know, show that this is not as far as they could have possibly gone.

And I think it's very clear, as the President said in his statement tonight, the United States will continue to respond as they choose to. This is not the end of it. But it is also clear that he could have gone much further tonight than he actually ended up going.

MARQUARDT: And may still. Jeremy Diamond in Tel Aviv. I want to come back to my panel here in Washington.

Jim, in terms of the timing, the fact that we are five days removed from the strike on Sunday that killed these three American service members, why do you think there was that delay? And do you think that there was any -- was it a coincidence that today was the day that these three service members came back and we saw that dignified transfer?

SCIUTTO: I would expect that was a coincidence. Our understanding is that weather did play a part. So it's possible that these attacks might have happened yesterday. Had the weather been clear? That's part of the calculation that goes into it. But it also seems that given their predilection for being careful, not signaling to Iran that they were shooting from the hip, give a little bit of time to perhaps communicate via back channels that were not intending to hit Iran.

I mean, we know that they communicated via back channels about this terror attack or threat of a terror attack inside Iran. So we know those channels are opening perhaps through intermediaries. That all fits the approach of trying to prevent an escalation.

I will say that the discussion of attacking inside Iran, you know, it's the easiest political snipe to have in Washington, for one side to say you should strike harder. But the fact is no president, Democrat or Republican, has struck inside Iranian territory. I think the last, if I have this right, you would know better than me, U.S. military operation inside Iran was 1979, the failed hostage --


SANNER: Absolutely.

LEIGHTON: That's right.

SCIUTTO: -- operation. So, Trump did not -- I mean, Trump took out a very high level Iranian official --

MARQUARDT: But that was Iraq.

SCIUTTO: -- Qasem Soleimani, but it was not inside Iranian territory. So the idea that anyone does that without considering the much broader implications is just not fair. It doesn't fit at the history. That said, you had a number -- I imagine you had a number of things on his list and you've been in those briefings, and you -- that could have potentially been stronger or more aggressive or perhaps quicker, but they chose to strike when they were ready.

LEIGHTON: Well, one thing that's also really important here is that it takes a long time to plan these kinds of missions, and you may have them on the shelf. You may say, OK, this is our basic target list. This is how we're going to do this. But then you get the order that says, actually make this happen. And when you get that kind of an order, then you go through what you have on the list, you scrub it, and then you make sure that's the kind of thing that the president will approve. And in that particular -- in this particular case, with 85 targets, and to make sure that it doesn't have -- there's no collateral damage or at least a minimal amount of collateral damage, that's the hope. That's the kind of thing that takes a long time to plan from an airman's perspective.

MARQUARDT: The White House did say a couple of days ago that they did have a sense of what they were going to hit. But back to this notion, Beth, of striking inside Iran, that was made clear by Biden early on in the week that -- or by officials, I should say, that almost certainly wasn't going to happen.

SANNER: Right.

MARQUARDT: But at the same time, you have some very experienced Republican national security practitioners in the Senate, I'm thinking of Lindsey Graham, I'm thinking of Tom Cotton, who were very vocally calling for strikes inside Iran. What would have happened? What would happen, do you think, if Biden were to follow that advice?

SANNER: So I think it's mentioned by someone else already that if you take a strike that's significant enough, you force the other side to respond. So that's what we mean by escalation. Right? And so, you don't want to take a strike that's so serious that you require them in terms of saving face, in terms of like, this is the head of the axis of resistance here. Like, these people will need to respond and respond big if you go inside Iran, because it's never been done. So, if you think about what's at stake for escalation, we talk about the three soldiers.

When you're sitting in the resolute chair, you're around the deputies committee or the principal's committee meeting, NSC meeting, having these conversations, you're thinking about these range of things, how many Americans could die because they are very vulnerable? How does this affect our bigger policy options here and our bigger policy objectives, right? And if you force this escalation, you can throw away the idea of putting Gaza to bed and getting on to the day after a deal with Saudi Arabia, you know, all the things to stabilize the region. This means that we are at war going into an election.


SANNER: That's a big -- that's a big thing.

SCIUTTO: And a lot of U.S. forces and assets in the region, presuming that would be the expected Iranian response.


SCIUTTO: Right, yes.

MARQUARDT: Jim, you touched on the signaling that the U.S. was telegraphing to Iran. How about the other way around? There were some interesting messages coming in during the week.

SCIUTTO: Yes. MARQUARDT: Kata'ib Hezbollah, one of the biggest Iran backed groups, essentially saying we are standing down on our operations. Iran saying we don't want war, of course, saying, yes, we're ready to respond if need be. But they seem to be making clear as well they don't want to pick a fight.

SCIUTTO: It's a great point. And listen, they know even -- they know a B-1B bomber is a pretty powerful weapon, right? I mean, I'm sure that there was a fair amount of fear and expectation as to what was to come and certainly preparation, they had time to do it. But also reasonable concern about the damage and the danger to personnel on the ground and that sort of thing. So you could see them making quite reasonable calculations that, well, we better message that because this could be bad for us.

On the flip side, they clearly don't mind sacrificing those forces because they've taken hits before, they've lost personnel before, and they've maintained the attacks. But it does seem that Iran, and we know this at least from Iran itself, that they've tried to signal no, they did not, for instance, direct the attacks, the Hamas attacks on October 7. And by the way, the U.S. intelligence seems to match that -- to have assessed that to be true. And Iran deliberately putting some distance between itself and its proxies, perhaps with the intention of preventing themselves from getting attacked.

MARQUARDT: All right, everyone, stay with us. I want to bring in a key Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Pat Ryan of New York. He's a U.S. army veteran who served in Iraq.

Congressman, thank you so much for joining us on this very important news. We now know that the Pentagon is saying they've struck more than 85 targets in Iraq and Syria at the start of what they say will likely be a series of longer term, perhaps larger scale strikes on these militias that are backed by Iran. What's your reaction to what you've seen so far?

REP. PAT RYAN (D-NY), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Well, Iran needs to fully understand, and I think they're beginning to, if you take the lives of American soldiers, there will be swift and strong consequences. And that's what we saw at least the first sort of volley of here. And I also just think it's important to acknowledge those brave service members who we lost, as well as those who conducted these strikes today.

MARQUARDT: How effective do you think what we've seen so far will be at deterring this mosaic of Iran-backed groups?

RYAN: Well, that's what this is all about. It's -- I think it's too soon to tell for certain, but it's all about reestablishing clear, strong deterrence. Iran for decades now, and I fought them myself for 27 months in combat in Iraq, where they killed some of my close friends and fellow soldiers. We need to make clear, coming after U.S. soldiers is unacceptable. I think this is an important first step, but as the president said, and I expect that we will see more to come.

MARQUARDT: What about the concerns over escalation? There are no strikes, as we know, inside Iran tonight, but Iran has some extremely powerful proxies outside of Iraq and Syria, namely Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen. Do you think that there's a chance that they ratchet things up as a result of what's happening right now?

RYAN: I think it was a really important decision by the President to specifically strike the IRGC, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Quds force. These are really the puppeteers, the puppet masters of these militias. So not only did we respond to those who killed our three service members, we also made clear we know who was responsible and there's consequences for them.

I think that will have an immediate and a lasting message. But Iran is going to continue to test us, and these militias are going to continue to test us. We need to continue to show this same resolve and if needed, respond in kind. It's a volatile time, but I think it's actually even more important that we're very clear what the red lines are and that a red line is taking the lives of a U.S. Soldier. That's personal, and that is unacceptable.

MARQUARDT: It certainly is. And we saw how personal it is for the President attending himself along with his wife and the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that dignified transfer ceremony in Dover, Delaware, earlier today, those three flag drape coffins coming off the transport plane.

Congressman, when you look again at what was struck by these bombers in Iraq and Syria, some 85 targets, 125 precision munitions. You touched on it off the top. What else do you think the Defense Department should be doing in the coming days in terms of other targeting?

RYAN: Well, we've been getting regularly briefed on this. Of course, I can't share the full details from a classification perspective, but there's no shortage of targets that our incredible intelligence community and DoD have developed, continue to develop to give the President additional options. And I think it's all about getting that calibration right.

I think this seems to be, from what we know, one of, if not the most significant response we've had for many, many years in the region, correctly so. And, you know, when you think about what you just said, and I've participated, unfortunately, in too many dignified transfer ceremonies, we can't lose that in the response here. And the Iranian regime, the Ayatollah, they need to feel that resolve from us. And I think this is an important step in that direction.

MARQUARDT: In your mind, how does the war in Gaza, Israel's war against Hamas, and that fight play into this? And how important is it, do you believe, for that war to wind down so that the rest of the region essentially calms down?

RYAN: Well, let's be clear. The common denominator in all of this for decades now, and certainly in the last few months, is Iran, whether it's directing and supporting the Hamas attack on October 7th, a tragic and barbaric set of attacks, certainly the 120-plus previous strikes on Americans and, of course, the one just a week ago, their fingerprints are all over this.

And I think that is just undeniable and clearly in the facts. So this is all linked is really what I'm saying. And what needs to happen, number one, in Gaza is return of the hostages, our American citizens and Israeli citizens, and a real defeat of Hamas. That's why, by the way, we need to even more urgently get this funding flowing to our partners, not only in Israel, but in Ukraine and Taiwan. The world is watching. Putin is watching as well as the Iranian regime. And our allies are watching, too, what our resolve is. And so it's -- this is an important step to signify our resolve.


MARQUARDT: Yes, without question, it is all interconnected and there are a lot of parties that are watching. Congressman Pat Ryan of New York, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

RYAN: Thanks.

MARQUARDT: I want to get straight back to our Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon. Oren, you have an update from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. What did he say?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Alex, he put out a statement a short time ago, and I'll read a little bit of the statement from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, following the attack on U.S. and coalition forces in northeastern Jordan this past Sunday that killed three U.S. service members. At President Biden's direction, U.S. military forces today conducted strikes on seven facilities, which included more than 85 targets in Iraq and Syria that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and affiliated militias used to attack U.S. forces.

This is the start of our response. The president has directed additional actions to hold the IRGC and affiliated militias accountable for their attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. That single line, this is the start of our response, is perhaps the strongest indication, certainly with a statement that came from the White House a short time ago, that what we're seeing tonight is not the end of what we should expect from the Pentagon and from the military in terms of a response to not only the attack that killed three U.S. service members and wounded scores more, but also the ongoing attacks on U.S. forces.

Worth noting that one of the most powerful Iranian-backed militias in the region, Kata'ib Hezbollah, put out a statement saying they would cease their attacks on U.S. forces. Asked about that, the Pentagon said, actions speak louder than words. And the actions, the Pentagon sees its continued attacks on U.S. forces, and it is to that the Pentagon is responding with these strikes, not statements, but actions.

And here the expectation from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is that these actions have not come to an end. We saw strikes an order of magnitude larger than what we've seen before from the U.S. when it comes to Syria and Iraq. Again, the first time the U.S. has struck both at the same time since the beginning of the Gaza war. That in and of itself is a statement, in addition to the platforms used, one of the largest bombers in the air force, the B-1 bomber, that too, an indication that the U.S. is taking the attack that killed three U.S. service members far more seriously than previous attacks. And this is not the end of it.

The question, of course, what will the U.S. do next? And when will the U.S. do it? There, the Pentagon, the White House are being very careful in what they're willing to say openly, only that further U.S. actions will come at a time and place of U.S. choosing. That's a statement we've heard before, effectively when the U.S. is getting prepared to act. The question now, where does the U.S. go from here? It certainly has its options.

Iran's arms reach to not only Iraq and Syria, but also Yemen. So the U.S. has options in terms of how it chooses to respond, and now it's a function of waiting to see where that action comes. And again, if it's as broad as what we have seen take place tonight.

MARQUARDT: Oren, there were indications that Iran was growing uncomfortable with what some of its proxies were doing across the region. What more do you know about that?

LIEBERMANN: According to sources familiar with U.S. intelligence, Iran had begun to become a little concerned with the actions of its proxies. That would be groups like Kata'ib Hezbollah, groups like the al-Nujaba movement that have carried out attacks on U.S. forces. These are all Iran backed militias. Iran provides the money, the arms, the funding, the supplies, the training to a very large extent. But Iran doesn't have direct control over what these militias do.

So even if Iran was OK with some level of attacks on U.S. forces, we have seen those attacks grow. And certainly the attack, the drone attack that killed three U.S. service members on Sunday was a grave escalation in attacks on U.S. forces. And according to the sources familiar with U.S. Intelligence, Iran was growing concerned. U.S. officials have said in the past that Iran was also not looking for a broader open conflict in the region neither was the United States.

But the continued attacks on U.S. forces risked exactly that happening. The question, though, what sort of pressure could Iran put on the groups to stop it? Also worth noting that Iran was watching very carefully the response to Houthi attacks on international shipping lanes in the Red Sea, some of the world's most critical waterways. Those attacks had an impact on the global economy and were making China and India uncomfortable with the actions of Iran's proxies.

So there was not just U.S. pressure on Iran, but international pressure on Iran to pull back its militias from the brink. The question, to what extent are those militias even listening? Again, Kata'ib Hezbollah, one of the most powerful Iranian-backed militias in the region, had indicated it would cease its attacks on U.S. forces, their reasoning, so as not to embarrass the Iraqi government. But another group that has carried out multiple attacks on U.S. forces, the al-Nujaba movement have said, they'll keep attacking U.S. forces. So there's no one clear answer about where Iranian-backed militias go from here. That's something we'll have to see, especially after these broader strikes. Do they have the deterrent effect that the U.S. is trying to achieve?


MARQUARDT: Yes, very important to note, as you did, Oren, that these are obviously Iran-backed groups. That doesn't necessarily mean that Iran is aware of everything that they're doing. They often operate quite independently of Iran on. So I'm glad that you pointed that out. Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon, we'll come back to you when you learn more. Thank you very much for all your reporting.

I want to come back to my panel, Colonel Cedric Leighton and Beth Sanner. Colonel, you heard Oren there talking -- reading that the statement from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talking about seven facilities being hit, but also talking about the expansion of targeting that could come in the next few days, the next few weeks, this multi stage operation that they've been talking about for several days now. Would you expect that to broaden out beyond this area that we've been talking about, this border between Iraq and Syria to elsewhere in the Middle East?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think it's possible that it could expand a little bit beyond where we are. So we talked a little bit earlier about the Euphrates River Valley being kind of the center of this operation. At least that appears to be the case at the moment. What I was thinking about as we were putting the maps up on, you know, in the graphics on screen here, the other thing that we could potentially do is attack the routes that they're using on the Iraq-Iran border.

Now, that's a bit more dangerous because it risks going into Iranian territory potentially if you misfire or if your bomb lands in the wrong place. And it also risks angering the Iraqi government even further than they've already been angered. So this would be a risky thing, but I can see it possibly happening if it's believed that interdicting those supplies would somehow stop or at least influence the proxy militias and Iran itself.

MARQUARDT: And, Beth, how about targeting Iranians themselves, Iranian citizens? We have seen reports on Syrian state media that there have been some deaths in the strikes tonight. Too early to say who they were. But given that this is in response to three American soldiers who were killed, how intense do you think the Biden administration is to be going after IRGC, Quds force members and taking them out essentially?

BETH SANNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I'm not sure we have a choice at this point because there are really pretty solid reporting that senior and mid level IRGC have been pulled out of Syria. And so I'm not even sure they're around to target at this point. I mean, everybody's been preparing for this. Should we or would we target IRGC people? I think that was probably on the list if they were around. But I also getting back to Jim's point, probably they, you know, maybe part of this delay was to see what the Iranians were doing and kind of let things work themselves out a little bit.

I will point out this idea that we're not striking Iraq directly might have something to do with the fact that the Iraqi government, at least parts of the Iraqi government, do not want the United States to leave. And recent strikes that we have done there, including one in the center of Baghdad or just around Baghdad where we took out a militia leader, I mean, that was pretty explosive. And now we are in talks with them about winding down the U.S. forces there. That would give Iran a huge win if we leave. And the Iraqi government knows it, too.

MARQUARDT: And we should note that the U.S. isn't the only one, the only player in this space, if you will. Israel has been quite active at targeting Iranian assets in Syria recently around Christmas. They took out a senior IRGC commander. There have been at least two strikes, I believe, in the Damascus area over the course of the past few days against what are believed to be Iranian advisors.

Of course, Israel not admitting to this because they never do, but that certainly is a suspicion. Colonel Leighton, I want to talk about something that Beth just brought up in terms of the signaling and the fact that this was five days after the strike against these U.S. forces. Again, these seven facilities that were hit 85 targets. What do you think the Iranians could have done, I'm sorry, these proxy groups could have done in terms of preparing for what they almost certainly knew was coming?

LEIGHTON: Yes, I think what they probably did, Alex, was move things around. They're trying to avoid getting hit. They're trying to protect as many of their assets as possible. And if they can go underground, literally and figuratively, they're going to do it. And they probably did that. So in some ways, the fact that it took us a while to respond, you know, there are technical reasons on our side for that, but there also are signaling reasons, as you're alluding to.

And those signaling reasons are very much, hey, we can do this, but be careful how much you attack us, how often you attack us and with what you attack us, because right now we're going to give you a little bit of grace. We're going to give you a little bit of space. But if you do these kinds of things, if you do this again, then you're not going to be -- you're not going to get that space. You're not going to get that time to move your forces, to hide your weapons, to do those kinds of things.


MARQUARDT: More will come.

LEIGHTON: And more will come.

MARQUARDT: I want to get back to CNN's Nick Paton Walsh in London. Nick, what are you hearing about how Iran is seeing these strikes tonight?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes, I mean, we've yet to hear a direct response from the Iranians specifically to these attacks on their proxies inside of Syria and Iraq. But I think it's important to point out that Iran has been clear it does not want a direct confrontation or war in the region, particularly with the United States, and avoiding that clash with the biggest military in the world is entirely in its interest, because it spent years now, decades, slowly increasing its outsized influence across the region, using these proxies, often using its influence in Shia populations around that region, too, to increase its capacity to influence events around there, to leave its military away from intense front lines.

If it were to, for example, find itself in open confrontation with the United States so that it can continue to try and get its economy to recover, get a handle on the unrest that recently has been rocking Iran, continue perhaps to make money or technological benefit from its trading with Russia, assisting Russia in its war in Ukraine, and also too, the larger, more strategic, potentially terrifying question here for the region, which is the alleged pursuit of Iran of a nuclear weapon, their enrichment of uranium, well, it got to 83 percent or so say some U.N. nuclear watchdogs in the past months, a rapid acceleration after the Israel and Hamas conflict began that may have slowed down, according to some of the latest reporting.

But behind all of this is clearly Iran that may still have a goal of some sort of nuclear weapon. We don't know. They say they don't, but it's pretty clear to most western countries that they do still have that potentially in their sights. It's closer than ever has been. And perhaps some of the reticence we're seeing it from Iran, clear to show its influence around the region, but certainly wanting to step back from the brink potentially, is that they have that wider goal potentially in sight. It may be closer than ever has been. Remember the JCPOA torn apart by the Trump administration. And there's been nothing in its place to slow enrichment down since.

And so that question, I think, is still lingering in the background, certainly. And it's perhaps one reason, perhaps why we're seeing Iran keen to step back from wider confrontation. And perhaps knows it might lose but in the region, I think it might have the capacity to stir things up against the United States. And I think it knows, too, as well, that the Biden administration, in the months ahead, the last thing it needs is another widening conflict because of what that would likely mean between Hezbollah and Israel, on Israel's northern border, what that would do to the price of oil, what that would do to Republican challengers to President Biden, who could claim they would have handled the entire situation much better.

So a complex mix here for Iran, where a low intensity, constant probing and pushing of the United States influence in the region increases its sense of grandeur, perhaps, and enables it to step back from a wider conflict it knows it will almost certainly lose. But tonight may well thus far not have changed the calculus. We have to see what Lloyd Austin's remarks about this being just the beginning actually means. A lot of noisy, large numbers here from the United States, 85 targets, but in only seven locations that isn't necessarily as big as the 85 target sounds. And so we have to wait and see as time plays out exactly how much damage has been done and what that does to Iran's calculus. Alex? MARQUARDT: All right, Nick, stay with us. We just got some news in from a White House source telling CNN that of these seven facilities that were struck tonight, three were in Iraq, four were in Syria. These were successfully struck, according to this White House source. And now we're told the U.S. aircraft that carried out these strikes are out of harm's way. So, Beth Sanner, it does appear that this operation, for now at least, tonight is over. What do you make of that? I think we got word of this just about two hours ago. That seems relatively short, does it not?

SANNER: Well, Cedric is going to know more about this than I will in terms of does this amount of time make sense? I think it does. I mean, you carry out your strikes, you try to do that in an efficient manner, and then you get out of dodge because you don't want to, you know, pose a target. So I think that's very normal and that's why we're seeing this telegraphing of but there's more to come, you know, but that's not going to come in the next hour, right? It's going to come in the next day, maybe, depending on what it is, it could be a couple days, especially if it's something more complex like cyber.

MARQUARDT: And likely, I imagine, Cedric, when targets of opportunity arise, what do you make of what we just learned?

LEIGHTON: Yes, I think that's interesting. You bring up a great point, you know, both you and Beth because this is one of those moments where you could have a sustained air campaign, which would mean this continues or, you know, potentially even around the clock. But this is not that case. This is not going to continue around the clock because the U.S. doesn't, at the moment, doesn't want to put those kinds of resources into this kind of a fight.


We want to send them a message, the Iranian proxies. This is what we can do. We're also sending the message to Iran, and we can do it very quickly, very efficiently, and we can get out of town. But the fact is that we can project our power from the continental United States to any point on the face of the earth. And that is a message that the Iranians probably needed to be reminded of. It's also a message that tells everybody in the region, in the Middle East that we have the capacity to not only come over large distances, but to target precisely these types of targets.

So what we're looking at is, you know, of those seven targets, we have yet to see, of course, what the bomb damage assessment or battle damage assessment is of the strikes, you know, was there damage? Was it sufficient damage? Is it going to knock them out? Probably not just because of the nature of the target and the nature of the organizations that we're dealing with.

But what it does tell us is that the United States is ready to do this again and again if it needs to. And that's the message I think that the administration is sending by doing it this way.

MARQUARDT: Can you just help our audience understand how you could have 85 targets with seven facilities? IGHTON: Right. So what they're talking about, when they talk about 85 specific targets, they're talking about specific points on the map, specific coordinates. So, for example, let's say you're targeting a specific installation that has multiple buildings within it, so one of the seven targets would be that installation. But within that installation, there are going to be maybe 10 or 15 different specific targets. And each one of those targets is going to get a bomb dropped on it, if it is the right kind of target and if it's the right kind of geography associated with it in distance from, you know, the other explosives and things like that.

But the key thing is this. Within that installation, let's say that's target number one, you have all of the different things that are part of that. And those very specific 85 targets are going to go after specific buildings, potentially even specific rooms, that kind of thing.

MARQUARDT: And we are learning again from a White House source that they did inform the Iraqi government that this operation was being carried out. Of course, they almost certainly, Beth, would not have informed the government of Bashar al-Assad, which is an enemy. And so what do you make of the fact that there were no other allies in this operation. The U.S. took great pains to assemble a coalition when it came to striking the Houthis in Yemen. There was a whole international group to escort those ships through the Red Sea. There has been targeting of coalition facilities in Iraq and Syria, and yet the U.S. went at this alone.

SANNER: Yes. I don't -- I mean, they killed three Americans, so that is our job to do that. Also, I think our allies have been reluctant to join in. I mean, you look at the Red Sea and really only the U.K. is fully participating. You have the Indians there that have been helping out, you have the French, but they're mainly escorting French ships. So, you know, this is really limited in terms of nobody wants to be on the dime, the receiving end of potential Iranian retaliation. And so, you know, it's our fight and they're happy for us to do it.

LEIGHTON: And one other thing that I wanted to mention was we're the only ones that have intercontinental bombers, you know, the only other country that has those, well, two other countries, Russia and China. And obviously they're going to help us in this particular moment. But part of it is an operational technical reason as well as exactly the capacity as well as, you know, the need for us to say something about the three service members who were killed.

MARQUARDT: Are you surprised that they used these bombers? And we've had months of, I believe, about two months of responses by the U.S. against these groups in Iraq and Syria. Of course, tonight was the biggest one, but I believe they only used, say, F-15s, F-16s fighter jets, presumably from the region. Of course, there's U.S. assets all across the Middle East. We've got a carrier strike group in the Red Sea right now. Are you surprised that they flew these long range bombers over?

LEIGHTON: Not really. I mean, you know, was it going to be used in this specific case? I guess the answer is if they were going to do something big, then you needed to use the bombers and this was the time to do it. And so if you really peel it back, you think, if I'm going to send a message to the Iranians, plus I'm going to use the appropriate kind of ordinance and the appropriate weapon system, then it was time to bring in the bombers at this point.

MARQUARDT: And in terms of communicating to the Iranians, obviously this is an extraordinarily loud message that is being delivered by military means. But there has been both direct conversation between the U.S. and Iran, that there was that warning ahead of the horrible ISIS attack in Iran that killed more than 100 people.



MARQUARDT: There have been intermediaries, Middle East allies who have reached out to Iranians essentially to say, knock it off. What do we know about how the U.S. is communicating its intentions and what it hopes to see with Iran?

SANNER: Yes, I think that, you know, we're using lots of intermediaries because we don't have the ability to directly talk to Iran. That's the way they want it, you know, just like we did with the JCPOA negotiations, right? So, you know, we have to use these proxies. And in some ways, I find it, you know, it's actually more effective. It's more effective in some ways to have China go to them. And say, hey, you know, we don't like what you're doing. We're buying almost all of your oil and we don't like it. So it's always better, in my view, to have kind of a gang up on them and say, like, there are lots of countries in the world that are very unhappy with you. So I think that's what part of the plan, it's necessity and it's also a good strategy.

MARQUARDT: And we have now heard from John Kirby, the national security spokesman, who did confirm on the record that strikes began tonight, but they won't be this -- it will not be the end of these kinds of strikes. Cedric, let's talk about Hezbollah, because I think it was Nick earlier saying that of all the proxy groups, this is perhaps the most worrying one. There have been sustained, I don't want to call them skirmishes, but it has been rather sustained, low level conflict between the Israelis and Hezbollah on that northern border.

Do you have a sense of whether they might ratchet up their operations because of strikes against what we're seeing, these groups in Iraq and Syria?

LEIGHTON: I think Hezbollah could use this as an excuse to do exactly that. But as you correctly point out, Alex, there's been a simmering pot of activity on the Israeli-Lebanese border, and the Israelis have gone after Hezbollah targets and vice versa. And one of the key things to keep in mind, I think, is that this could very easily get out of control very, very quickly. Right now, both sides, I think, have, in essence, kind of limited their activities. But Hezbollah could be used by Iran to send a message to both Israel and the U.S. potentially. And it could also be a situation where Hezbollah is told not to do that, depending on how the Iranians want to handle this latest activity. SANNER: I'm actually on the latter camp. I think that, you know, we'll have to see. We'll have to see how serious this was and what Iran wants to do. But frankly, the risk right now is that Israel is the one that escalates against Hezbollah. And the reason for that is there's like 80,000 Israelis who are displaced from the northern border and cannot go home because of the rocket attacks continuing.

And so Israel has given us basically, you know, maybe a deadline. They're pushing us to say, you've got to get the Lebanese and Hezbollah to push back to where they agreed to be decade ago plus and allow us to come home. And if you don't do that, we're going to have to open a second front. Most Israelis support that move.

MARQUARDT: There are many, including the prime minister of Israel, who say this all comes back to Iran, whether it's Hamas and Gaza or the groups all across the region. To what extent, Beth, do you think that tonight's U.S. action against these Iran-backed groups may serve Netanyahu's purposes, that he may want more U.S. Involvement in what is going on in the Middle East right now, certainly when it comes to confronting Iran?

SANNER: Well, look, you know, if that second front gets opened up with Hezbollah, I don't believe that Israel can fight that fight by themselves. They're going to need the United States. You know, there's a lot of speculation about what Netanyahu wants. I don't know that. I'm not inside his head. But, you know, there are commentators who argue that he wants to continue this war for political gain. I don't know. I do think, though, having the United States involved is a good thing from Netanyahu's perspective.

MARQUARDT: We only have a couple of moments left. Colonel, in this hour, what more do you think the U.S. needs to do in terms of this overarching goal of deterrence? Strong message sent tonight. What remains?

LEIGHTON: Well, I think what remains, Alex, is being ready to do this again if things don't turn out. In other words, if the strikes have not been as successful as the U.S. wants them to be, then I can see this happening again at some point in the not too distant future. But they also have to be prepared for other reactions where perhaps some of the groups withdraw from being actively engaged. We have to be able to respond to that in the correct way, which would mean not engaging them as well.

MARQUARDT: All Colonel Cedric Leighton, Beth Sanner, terrific conversation on a very important night.


I want to, sorry.