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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Reports Show, New Airstrike Targets Iran-Backed Militia Near Baghdad; President Trump On Deadly Airstrike, That Killed Top Iranian General, We Did Not Take Action To Start A War; New York Times Reports, White House Withholds 20 Emails Between Two Trump Aides On Ukraine Aid. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired January 3, 2020 - 21:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:00:00]

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Chris Cuomo is off tonight.

Top in this special late edition of 360, what comes next Iran, in the Middle East and potentially around the world in the wake of the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad Airport.

CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward in our first hour said his killing marks an inflexion point for the region. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who you will hear from in a moment, goes further and he calls this the closest we've been to war with Iran in four decades.

Today, the president said this. He said, we took action last night to stop a war, did not take action to start a war. We couldn't get the tape on time. I'm sorry.

Iran begs to differ calling the strike on Soleimani an act of war, vowing revenge for the strike. And as we've been discussing tonight and well in the hour ahead, Tehran has numerous ways of making life difficult for the United States and American allies.

At the same time, General Soleimani, over the years, has been a bloodthirsty force in the region, responsible for hundreds of American deaths in Iraq.

We begin though with the latest on the decision to take him down. CNN's Boris Sanchez joins us now with that.

So what do we know about how the strike came about, the details of it?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, we're being told that this plan had been in the works for several days with things really ramping up on Tuesday. That's when the president held an all hands on deck meeting here at Mar-a-Lago, the president meeting with top military brass with advisers, even with some friendly lawmakers going over all potential options to respond to the strike at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad by that Iranian-backed militia. And we're told that there was really a robust debate at this meeting, President Trump being confronted with the harsh realities of going to war with Iran. And we're told that the president was questioned on his policy in the Middle East and about how he would retaliate to retaliation from Iran.

The president, we're told, was clearly aware of the gravity of what he was facing, but he was adamant, even defensive that this had to be done and we heard that from him today when he spoke with the press saying that this should have been carried out a long time ago and that he's trying to prevent a war and not start one. Anderson.

COOPER: Has the president said anything about next steps, about possible retaliation by the Iranians?

SANCHEZ: Yes. Well, like I said, he's obviously aware of the gravity of the situation. This is probably the most consequential step that he's taken when it comes to foreign policy in his tenure as president. We're told that the president actually skipped golf today to focus on developments in the region, breaking from his usual routine. The president obviously uncertain about how Iran many respond, the range of options are broad, as you well know, Anderson. But the president talked about the U.S. military and how prepared they are to respond to any sort of attack, the president saying specifically that if any Americans are threatened, he is ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary.

COOPER: The White House is also saying that the president is also still open to diplomacy with Iran. Is that right?

SANCHEZ: Yes. So this is really one of the surprising things that we heard today from Robert O'Brien, the national security adviser, on a call with reporters. He told us that President Trump is still open to a dialogue with Tehran, one without preconditions. Of course, it would be shocking if Iran came to the table to have a dialogue with the United States at this point.

The administration had been trying to engage on some level for months with Iran basically balking and saying that they would not speak to the United States unless some sort of sanctions relief was provided. It would be absolutely surreal to see Iran come to the table now considering Trump had one of their top generals executed. Anderson?

COOPER: Yes. Boris Sanchez, I appreciate it.

The president did not notify the four top Democrats in this so-called gang of eight before launching the drone strike. That would be the top Democrats in the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Presidents until this president have traditionally notified top lawmakers on both parties before significant overseas operation like this one.

[21:05:04] Now, Democrats are upset about that and the bigger picture as well, Senator Tim Kaine today introducing a war powers resolution to force a debate and vote in Congress to prevent further escalation of hostilities.

Joining us now is Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. Senator Blumenthal, President Trump said today that he ordered this in order to, quote, stop a war. Is that your view of the strike?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT): What really alarms me is that this step clearly seems to be an escalation towards war. In fact, the administration seems to be stumbling into war head first without a strategy that has been defined or communicated to Congress or the public.

And what's also alarming is the lack of consultation with our allies, which further creates the danger that these additional strikes, which have been reported tonight, will lead to the misperception, perhaps miscalculation that there will be continuing escalation.

So rather than stopping a war, what is so deeply alarming here is the fact that the administration seems to be moving toward it.

COOPER: Well, what is -- I mean, there's plenty of people who -- once you learn about Soleimani and you hear about he has the blood of American soldiers on his hands, many of them in Iraq through funding these Shia militias, he has the blood of probably hundreds of thousands of people on his hands in Syria and Iraq of civilians, what is wrong with the administration killing him?

BLUMENTHAL: There is no question, Anderson, that Soleimani is responsible for sending to their grave countless Americans. He has American blood on his hands. He's an enmity. He has real enmity, had enmity toward the United States. But the question is why now. And we lack facts because the administration has failed to come to Congress, as it must do, we need the American public and the Congress to be fully and fairly informed.

And let's remember as well that as mythically powerful as he may have been, he is one general. There will be somebody else to replace him, in fact, already has been. And Iran is going to use its proxies, its surrogates, its militia around the region and maybe the globe to continue fighting this malign war of terror. And it is terror war and he was a terrorist, no question about it. But the question is what the ramifications will be, what retaliation will be. And it will be probably asymmetric to disrupt the global economy and the world's oil supply. We need to be prepared with proportionality and restraint to meet that retaliation.

COOPER: The secretary of defense, Esper, is planning to give a detailed briefing to all members of Congress about the Soleimani strike. I think it's next week. What gaps does he need to fill in for you about this?

BLUMENTHAL: The question of why now and what's next. There's no clear path here, no apparent strategy. The administration seems to be lurching from day to day. Reports tonight of these militia strikes create additional dangers of miscalculation and misperception on both sides. That's classically the way wars begin tragically and unfortunately.

And the administration also owes it to do a public hearing. I think as a member of the Armed Services Committee, I'm going to be calling for Secretary Esper to be coming to the committee, talking in public under oath about what is the rationale and the strategy here and what is the path forward and the endgame. That's the kind of gap that needs to be filled.

COOPER: The Times, The New York Times is reporting now, and I'm quoting, one Defense Department official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, said that there was nothing new in the threat presented by the Iranian general. If that ends up being the case, that there wasn't a major attack, because the president said a very major attack imminently about to be planned and it just, yes, Soleimani, this is what he did, he plans actions against the United States and others on a daily basis. If there wasn't something specific intelligence, would that matter to you?

BLUMENTHAL: It would matter that there was no specific intelligence indicating an imminent threat. Certainly, that was the public rationale. But this administration is hardly known for its consistent veracity and that's a very troubling threat to our credibility around the world and most especially to our allies. We have rarely, if ever, in fighting terrorism, acted without our allies at our side.

[21:10:04]

They have had our back. And now the alienation of them, not just our potential ejection from Iraq is a very grave threat to our being successful.

And I emphasize about Congress. The president needs Congress, more important, he needs the American people to support him. There are very few wars that our nation cannot win. In fact, I would say no war that America cannot win if our people are united. Winning with a divided nation is much more difficult and only Congress can give the support.

We have an obligation to exercise oversight, checks and balances. It's our constitutional job. We need to do it.

COOPER: Senator Blumenthal, appreciate it. Thank you very.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

COOPER: We mentioned Leon Panetta at the top. He has served as defense secretary, CIA director and White House chief of staff in two Democratic administrations. A few people have his experience to bring the perspective he brings in moments like this. I spoke to him just before air time.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Secretary Panetta, what's your reaction to the killing of Qasem Soleimani?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, I think it's important not to mourn the death of General Soleimani because he was a bad actor and somebody who was involved in killing thousands of innocent people, as well as U.S. military personnel.

But I think the principle question is whether or not the killing of Soleimani has increased or lessened the chances of war. And I think, frankly, they've increased the chances of war and the chances that Iran will now respond with a -- what it calls a crushing response.

COOPER: In terms of a response, I mean, you're not talking about a ground war the likes of which we saw in Iraq with U.S. forces. You're talking about more asymmetrical strikes by Iran in a variety of places potentially?

PANETTA: Yes, no. Look, I think we're now in a cycle of punch and counterpunch. I think, to a large extent, both countries failed in the way they approached each other. They both thought they could bully each other to somehow get them to do what they wanted to do. And that just did not happen.

And so the end result now is that we're in this cycle of punch and counterpunch, in which one side hits back and the other side responds. How long that cycle goes on and whether it ultimately leads to a full- scale war is the question that I think concerns everyone.

COOPER: If you're going to do something like this, you would think any administration would try to kind of, you know, think two or three steps beyond this to prepare. Do you have the sense that there is that level of preparation with this or is it too soon to tell?

PANETTA: Well, it obviously raises concerns about whether or not there's a process in the White House to fully evaluate the consequences of taking this kind of action. Normally, in the presidencies I've been involved with when you face something like this, it goes through the national security process. You evaluate different options. You evaluate the consequences of those options. Ultimately, it's the president's decision, but it's usually an informed decision.

Whether or not that takes place in this White House is difficult to know because it's pretty clear that the consequences of killing somebody like General Soleimani would clearly have repercussions in Iran and would clearly lead to some kind of response.

COOPER: Former Obama administration officials have said that discussions to take out Soleimani, to kill him, never reached beyond an operational phase. As the former secretary of defense in the administration, why was that? What's your memory of the rationale?

PANETTA: Well, I don't -- frankly, I don't remember any discussion about, you know, potentially targeting General Soleimani because, you know, we're dealing with Iran. There are a number of generals that operate in their military, just as there are a number of generals in North Korea, in Russia and in China. So you focus on the political leadership to determine whether or not you're going to be able to deal with that country or not. You don't focus on whether or not you can start killing individual generals. That's not the case.

The people we did focus on killing were the terrorists who were involved obviously in 9/11 because they were clearly devoted to killing Americans.

[21:15:04]

And that's -- those were the targets that we cared about.

COOPER: There are many reports, I mean, Soleimani is said to have had the blood of hundreds, if not, several thousand Americans, on his hands in Iraq specifically, that they provided -- through him, they provided training, they provided equipment for explosive devices that militias used in and other forces used against American forces in Iraq.

So would you consider Soleimani a terrorist?

PANETTA: Look, there's no question he's a bad actor and he was involved in those kinds of attacks. But the real question that I think everyone has to ask is whether or not we have increased the chances of war with Iran as a result of what happened. And I don't think there's any question the chances for war are more serious now than they have been in the last 40 years, that we could ultimately escalate what's happening now into a full-scale war with Iran.

COOPER: Secretary Panetta, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

PANETTA: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: There's a lot more in the second live hour of 360. We have some top military minds, including retired Army General Wesley Clark joining us with their perspective on the strike and how the U.S. might prepare for what could be the next steps from Iran. Also a live report from the only western T.V. crew in Iran tonight, that and more when we continue.

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COOPER: We've been talking about what comes next now that a U.S. drone strike has taken the life of a key Iranian general, we should point out, a killer of hundreds of Americans and many thousands more across the Middle East.

The president says he launched the strike to stop a war, not start one. Iran is saying the opposite. A third contingent of U.S. troops is heading to the region. It could all get very dicey very soon, including in Iraq where Americans are being told to leave.

[21:20:02]

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh joins us right now from Baghdad, where there are reports of another airstrike.

So a lot of media outlets are reporting on what seems to be another airstrike. Do we have any independent confirmation? Who allegedly was the target?

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we don't have independent confirmation of this alleged airstrike, Anderson, but what we do know is that the Popular Mobilization Forces, that's the umbrella group that is made up mostly of the Iranian-backed Shia militias here.

They put out a statement saying that one of their convoys was targeted in an airstrike in the town of Taji to the north of Baghdad early hour Saturday a short time ago. They say that none of their leaders were in that convoy but it was a medical unit that was hit and they say that several of their members were killed and wounded in this alleged airstrike.

Now, we have no indication, no confirmation that this was a U.S. airstrike at this point. But, of course, this is coming at such a tense time. Everyone here is on edge, really expecting further escalation, Anderson.

COOPER: Iraq is obviously an incredibly complex place and with a lot of different competing groups and ideologies. What's the reaction been kind of across Iraq today to the killing of Soleimani?

KARADSHEH: Well, you know, Anderson, mixed reaction as you would expect. But for the most part, everyone has been witnessing these rising tensions that we have seen over the past few months between the United States and Iran. But at the same time, I don't think anyone was expecting this kind of unprecedented escalation. So you've got people here in a state of shock, not just in Iraq, of course, also in the region.

But also there's a lot of anger here, while you have some who are obviously happy to see the end of Qasem Soleimani, at the same time, there's this anger. There's this concern that Iraq is once again being turned into an arena for global powers, for regional powers to settle scores here.

And it's not just about Qasem Soleimani, Anderson. You've also got Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. He was a senior figure in these Shia militias. He's essentially a top commander in what is considered to be the Iraqi Security Forces. So this is going to have major consequences here.

And you've got the Iraqi government in such a tough situation right now caught between two allies, between Iran and the United States, pretty much backed into a corner to try and act now because we're seeing more and more calls in the past 24 hours pushing the Iraqi government to reassess its relationship with the United States, to reassess the presence of U.S. forces here, to reassess its security agreement with the United States and that certainly is going to be the main focus of the parliamentary session, that exceptional session that is expected to take place on Sunday, Anderson.

COOPER: Jomana Karadsheh, thanks very much. I appreciate it. Before the break, Senator Richard Blumenthal said the Iranian response of the drone strike would likely be asymmetric, in other words, from any number of directions, not necessarily conventional-looking, certainly not a set piece battle and potentially involving terrorist attacks on soft targets or cyber warfare.

Whatever form it may take, it would be a challenge Americans and allies will have to be prepared to meet. I want to talk about that with retired Army Four Start General Wesley Clark, retired Navy Commander Kirk Lippold, who faced deadly asymmetric warfare by al- Qaeda as commanding officer of the USS Cole. Also joining us is CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, author of Trump and his Generals, the Cost of Chaos.

Peter, let's start with you. Your new cnn.com piece is titled President Trump has created his biggest foreign policy crisis yet. Explain why do you say this at this stage.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I mean, I think pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal is the sort of original sin here. I mean, the Iranians began sort of harassing America and its allies with things like shooting down an American drone, attacking Saudi oil facilities, restarting their enrichment program, not to the point for nuclear weapons but certainly past what was allowed in the agreement. So I think that's point one.

And then point two is, by taking the strike against Soleimani, and everybody's agreeing this was a very bad guy, you know, what are the results that we're going to see? And, really, no one knows, probably including the Iranians. I mean, they are probably having some of the same discussions that we're having here on CNN and other to think about like what are their options that the Iranians might exploit.

And, of course, they have proxies in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Lebanon, they have one of the more virulent terrorist groups in the world, Hezbollah, which has branches in Latin America and even has attempted a terrorist attack in Washington, D.C. So they have a lot of options on the table.

[21:25:00]

What can they do? At the end of the day, Anderson, I think neither Iran nor the United States want a shooting war because the outcome of that would be so -- I mean, would be bad for all concerned.

COOPER: General Clark, I mean, do you think it was at this time appropriate, wise, to kill Soleimani?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well, I understand I think how the administration or least President Trump must have looked at it. I mean, look at it this way. Iran is under severe economic sanctions. There's demonstrations and anti-government actions all over Iran. They're coming at us militarily because they can't do anything economically against our economic sanctions. And so I guess maybe to speculate, maybe the administration thought, bang, hit them hard and that will knock them right out of the arena and they'll come crawling to us.

But, you know, nothing in 40 years of our struggle against this regime has ever given us any indication that when you apply force, they back off. They took a million casualties in the Iran/Iraq war. They used children as martyr brigades to walk through mine fields. They retaliated against Iraqi chemical weapons with their own chemical weapons.

So this is a tough bunch of people. Soleimani was a bad guy. Better to have him out of there. But what's the price and how does it relate to the strategy? This is the thing that so many of us are trying to understand. If you want the diplomacy to restart, then how is it that you talked your way into this knockout blow against Soleimani and maybe some of his lieutenants?

Most military organizations, and we don't think Iran is any different, if you kill the commander, the number two guy, the number three guy, the number four guy, they step up. Maybe they're not as good the first day, but within a couple of weeks, the organization picks itself back together. And what nation have we seen in recent times when it was attacked, people said, oh, okay, okay, they're attacking us, so let's surrender to them. No. Usually, the population gets mad and supports the government.

So this is a hard strategy to understand right now. I'm hoping the administration has a strategy.

COOPER: Commander Lippold, how do you see it?

CMDR. KIRK LIPPOLD (RET), FORMER COMMANDER, USS COLE: Right now, Anderson, I think this was taken similar to what we always wondered. Post- 9/11, we said how did this happen, why didn't we do anything to prevent it? And I think we had enough intelligence and indicators that Iran was planning something beyond just that little run they did the other on the embassy to something much larger.

And I think we took a look at Iran and said there's no such thing as a non-state sponsor of terrorism, this guy is the number one fomenter of terror in the region, and let's take an aim at him and we took him out. I think that the long-term strategy is if not now, when. There was never going to be a good time to confront Iran. That is what it was coming to.

But why should we always be operating in a defensive posture rather than taking the fight to them and saying, you want to know something? We have put up with over 600 Americans dead and essentially nothing done by the previous administration, two of them as a matter of fact. And now this administration finally said, we're not going to afford that anymore. We have drawn that line, we're going to stand by them and there will be consequences and there have been.

COOPER: I want to continue this discussion. We've got to take a quick break. There's a lot more to cover tonight, including also what the president's overall strategy might be for the Middle now that he's launched an airstrike against Soleimani. We'll be right back.

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[21:30:00]

COOPER: We're talking tonight about the future of U.S. security in the wake of the airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani, as well as the calculations and intelligence acquired to conduct an operation like this.

Back with us, General Wesley Clark, retired Navy Commander Kirk Lippold and Peter Bergen.

General Clark, just in terms of what U.S. forces and installations and civilians should be prepared for in the region and elsewhere, what happens now?

CLARK: Well, we'll tighten up security, we'll be working with host nation governments and their security forces, we'll deploy additional intelligence assets, we'll be on guard on this. These are the purely defensive measures. We've had this in place really since the first Osama Bin Laden strikes and the reactions to them back in the late 1990s. And we're much better at defending ourselves now than we were then, so we've got a reasonable chance.

But there's nothing that's going to stop a couple of missiles flying into the American embassy in Baghdad if that's what the Iraqis -- we don't have any anti-missile defense that I know of in the region. Maybe if we got an early warning, maybe we would take action, or some strike against another embassy or a cyber attack or something against one of our allies. So there're a lot of options there.

But we're going to certainly be more alert. We're reinforcing our troop presence so we can deploy security forces wherever we have to in the region. Now, these are prudent measures tactically.

But I come back, the question is strategic, where is this going?

COOPER: Commander Lippold, where do you think it's going in terms of policy vis-a-vis the U.S. and Iran and, frankly, now Iraq as well? I mean, does this lead to de-escalation or at least -- or does it -- I mean, it appears to be escalating right now.

LIPPOLD: I think right now, Anderson, what you're seeing is absolutely what we'd call an operational pause. I think everyone is taking a look at what they're going to do and options are available. The United States is going to continue to reinforce the area around the embassy and in our forces in the region itself in case there is a buildup.

I think that the Iranians are going to take a look and say, okay, this was a terrible blow to us but what kind of fight do we really want to get in and what kind of fight may actually jeopardize the livelihood and the existence of the mullahs and the regime itself. So I think they're going to be taking a calculus.

[21:35:00]

I don't think you're going to see anything happen immediately. But I think you will see a reaction by them.

I think in regards to General Clark's supposition that there may be missiles shot, if anything like that were to come out of Iran, that's an indication that they want war. And at that point in time, we have to look at what our options are available in order to prevent it. Let's hope it doesn't get to that point.

COOPER: Peter, both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, it's reported, had opportunities to strike at Soleimani. Certainly George w. Bush reportedly did but chose not to fearing that, at that point, there were a lot of American troops in Iraq and they would be targeted through the Shia militia forces that Soleimani was funneling weaponry and money toward.

I'm wondering, this certainly doesn't support (ph) with President Trump's overall strategy, which is getting troops out of the region.

BERGEN: Yes. I mean, that goes to some of the sort of schizophrenia that we've seen from the president. I mean, on one hand, he's saying let's get out of the Middle East, on the other hand, he's sending thousands more troops. One hand, he's saying let's negotiate with the Taliban, then he's saying, well, we shouldn't. And then again he's saying we should. And on one hand, he wants to withdraw from Syria and then he goes back and forth and he's consistently inconsistent. And I think that's a problem for our allies and I think it's also a problem for our enemies. Because I think both want to know really what our red lines are.

Now, one red line he has established to his credit here is if an American life is killed or we have American servicemen lives on the line, he will respond and I think that's appropriate and that is defensive and I think that obviously killing Soleimani, hundreds of Americans have died and that's appropriate.

The question is what next. And I think that even in this area, he's being schizophrenic, because the State Department is suddenly talking about having negotiations with the Iranians, which is really what the last thing they want to have right now.

So what is our policy? Going back to what General Clark has said, what is our strategy here? It's not clear.

COOPER: Commander Lippold, do you think it's clear?

LIPPOL: I think right now, we're still developing the strategy. To be quite honest, Anderson, I think that the long-term impact of what this operation did, especially since it clearly is a step up in taking someone out as high order as Soleimani but by the same token, if not now, when. We have to come back and sometimes you have to bring it right down to the tactical level when it comes to making a decision like this.

We wanted to take him for a long time, previous administrations have been hesitant to do that. But at this point in time, I think President Trump said, you want to know something, we're going to make a decision, we're going to do it. Yes, there may be and will be consequences as a result, we will deal with them.

But to Peter Bergen's point, I think there is still going to be negotiations that will go on, because both sides are going to seek an off-ramp so that we do not have that full-blown war in the Middle East.

COOPER: I appreciate your time. Everybody, General Clark, Commander Lippold, thank you, Peter Bergan as well.

Just ahead, I'm going to talk to retired military intelligence officer and Trump critic about why even some anti-Trump conservatives like himself are praising the president for the airstrike that killed Soleimani.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:40:00]

COOPER: The airstrike President Trump ordered that led to the death of a notorious Iranian general who has divided Americans has also provided the president the unique opportunity to win applause (ph) from people, in particular, some conservatives who generally do not approve of him or his administration. One such person, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters who now serves as a strategic analyst and author.

Colonel Peters, as someone who has often been very critical of this president, I wonder what you make of his decision to take out Soleimani.

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS (RET), U.S. ARMY: I think it was absolutely the right decision. And I was actually very disappointed by the reaction from the other side of the aisle today, which seemed awfully petty.

General Soleimani was -- he was the ace, the ace of spades that our enemies in the Middle East had. Soleimani was a visionary strategist, he was a brilliant mastermind of terror. Here's a man who with a paucity of resources was able to build while fighting the U.S. military, however surreptitiously, he was able to build the most expansive Persian empire in 2,500 years.

I mean, Iran's influence now stretches from Western Afghanistan, touches Central Asia, goes west through Iraq, through Syria, through Lebanon, through the Mediterranean Sea, down to Gaza. It's a remarkable achievement and we are very, very, very lucky this man is dead.

And I, for one, am grateful and have no reservations about it.

COOPER: He is a general but he is a terrorist. He has killed hundreds of -- or is responsible ultimately for the killing and murder of hundreds of American forces, American men and women but also probably hundreds of thousands of others in Syria and beyond.

PETERS: Yes, that's an absolutely critical point that people forget. Yes, he's got the blood of thousands of Americans dead and wounded on his hands but plenty of Iraqi blood and certainly an incredible amount of Syrian blood as he and the Russians have supported and at times spearheaded Assad's campaign against the civilians of Syria.

But also let's not forget, here is a man dedicated not only to killing Americans but to the destruction of Israel.

And during his rampage across the Middle East, we've seen a vast stock of missiles built up, up to 40,000, by Hezbollah in Lebanon, an estimated 10,000 in Gaza and in Israel. So I just cannot understand how people can be reluctant to see this guy go.

You know, we've all heard a lot of hysteria today. We've heard, well, a replacement has already been named. Well, yes. But you can't replace Einstein with a high school science teacher as much as I like high school science teachers, he may be impossible to replace. And as far as repercussions go, yes, there will be some.

And you've also heard the question all day, are we safer now? No.

[21:45:00]

But in the mid to long-term, we may well be.

So Iran has to respond but it's not going to be World War III. There are ways to deal with it. In the meantime, we have taken just prevent -- we have inflicted justice on a monster and we're very, very fortunate that he is dead.

COOPER: I guess the question is, strategically, does it make sense to have done it now. I understand why target this person and the justice to it from a strategic standpoint, does it make sense in the region?

PETERS: I suggested killing him 15 years ago when he was killing American troops in Iraq and maiming them.

And actions have consequences. This action will have consequences. But inaction also has consequences. And the Consequence of inaction 15 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago was dead Americans, dead Syrians, attacks on Israel.

And you're absolutely right, this charismatic man had incredible influence within Iran, often considered the number two most powerful man in the country, in some fields of operations, probably the most powerful man.

And in the short-term, you'll see death to America protests. The hard core anti-Americans will rally to him. In the long-term, we don't know exactly what will happen.

Somebody said on this network today that we're now in unchartered waters. When have we been in chartered waters? I mean, it's very -- as Yogi Berra said, the hardest thing to predict is the future.

And we -- the Middle East is so convoluted that we cannot say for certain where we'll be in five years. But we can now say with certainty that Soleimani is dead and we have avenged the deaths and the maiming of many a brave Americans.

COOPER: Colonel Ralph Peters, I appreciate your perspective. Thank you.

PETERS: Thank you.

COOPER: Coming up next, we have more breaking news tied to the impeachment battle, a new report on how the White House is defying a court order and withholding 20 emails on Ukraine aid.

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COOPER: Here's some late impeachment breaking news. It centers on internal administration emails and it comes in the wake of a prior batch that provided a clear and unfiltered look at the freeze on aid to Ukraine and the president's direct involvement in it.

Now, The New York Times is reporting on another batch that we've yet to see that the White House is fighting despite a court order to withhold.

[21:50:05]

Eric Lipton shares a by line on the story, he joins us now.

So, Eric, if you can walk us through your reporting, what are these -- who are these emails between, and why is the White House holding them?

ERIC LIPTON, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: These are emails between an aide to the chief of staff. His name is Robert Blair. He works directly for Mick Mulvaney, and he was corresponding with a gentleman named Michael Duffey, who works in the Office of Management and Budget.

And they were writing back and forth this summer discussing the president's order that they put a hold on aid to Ukraine. And so Charlie Savage, my colleague from the Washington Bureau of The New York Times, asked for all correspondence between Rob Blair and Michael Duffey, and Rob Blair from the chief of staff's office and Michael Duffey from the Office of Management and Budget relating to the freeze.

And so there was a freedom of information request, and then there was litigation to try to force the White House to release these emails. There was a deadline set for 5:00 P.M. this evening for them to release the materials.

COOPER: So a judge has said that they should release them. The White House, what is their argument? Is this the argument essentially saying that these are internal communications and those should remain private in order to, in the future, allow people to have a free exchange of ideas?

LIPTON: Well, the judge ordered the White House to conduct an expeditious search to review the materials and gave them a deadline of 5:00 P.M. And then when we were anticipating some form of documents, we thought -- we knew that they would be heavily redacted, but we anticipated getting at least some emails.

And instead, we got a one-page letter that said there are 20 emails that have been identified that represent approximately 40 pages of documents, and we are withholding all of them because we consider them to be privileged, A, because they are deliberational. They consider -- they consist of, you know, staff going back and forth, contemplating what they should do. And, secondly, they involve presidential communications, so therefore they're not subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act.

COOPER: So what happens now?

LIPTON: Well, The Times can then go back to the judge in the federal court and say, you know, at least some of this material should be subject to release, and there's an urgent need for the public to have access to this material so that it can -- you know, it can evaluate just what was going on in the White House in this period when, you know, we're moving towards a trial in the Senate. So there's an urgent public interest in this matter, so I expect that the court should move pretty quickly to take this up.

COOPER: There was new reporting that broke yesterday from the group Just Security that showed some of the emails the White House had previously redacted regarding Ukraine. They got a look at what was behind some of the redactions.

And Just Security, they viewed the parts or some of the parts that were redacted, and they were pretty damning. I mean, is this in any way a response to that?

LIPTON: I mean, there's been, you know, a steady stream of things that are coming out and different freedom of information requests that are pending. And so this is like the fourth batch of emails that are in play right now. So the center for public integrity has gotten about 400 pages worth of documents. American Oversight, a non-profit group, has gotten a certain number.

But most of the emails so far have come from the Department of Defense. So The Times asked for emails that have to do with the Office of Management and Budget and the White House. And so it's a slightly more harder thing to get because the White House has some exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act.

But the bottom line is that there has been a trickle of emails that have been emerging that show that there was a great -- this intense dispute going on about whether or not it's legal to be holding up the release of this aid. And we've seen some of those emails as well. What we were blocked from getting tonight were emails that were entirely within the White House itself.

COOPER: Eric, I want to bring in our Legal Analyst, Carrie Cordero, on the phone. Stay with us, if you can.

Carrie, I'm wondering what your reaction is to this reporting. Is the White House's argument valid here to withhold all the emails, you know, not even considering redactions? CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's consistent with the positions that they've been taking in their congressional interactions. So in other words, I think if they started to release -- what they might be concerned about is if they started to release these pursuant to FOIA, then they would have to release more information that they don't want to release to Congress.

So I think just following this quickly as it's tracking, I think it's possible that their FOIA litigation strategy might be related to their congressional strategy, and what's very clear is that they don't want the content of these emails to get out.

COOPER: But is that legal? I mean is that -- would a judge ultimately say you have to -- you have to at least, you know, turn over something?

CORDERO: Well, we're going to find out. I mean, this is going to test the bounds of FOIA litigation.

[21:55:00]

I think from The New York Times report, it looks like the General Counsel, Dave McGraw, and The New York Times obviously has a history with being able to push through these types of conflicts with the government. And so they're going to take this as far as they can, I think, to see if they can justify breaking through the White House's obfuscation on it.

COOPER: So, Eric, this goes back to court. I mean, The Times is going to continue on this?

LIPTON: Yes, that's right. And, I mean, one of the complicating factors is that the White House itself has this somewhat different status than the rest of the federal government, similar to Congress. I mean, Congress is actually exempt from FOIA. The Office of Management and Budget is part of the White House but it is not exempted from FOIA. So that's why this is a little more complicated than a standard Freedom of Information lawsuit.

COOPER: Is there any sense of how long this process would take? I mean, you go back to court. I mean, is it all on a rushed schedule or could it be months and months and years?

LIPTON: It's unclear. I mean, if the Senate were to vote with 51 votes to demand documents and witnesses, then I think there's a pretty good -- and then it would be up to perhaps even the Supreme -- you know, the Supreme Court justice to decide on this if there's a dispute. But, I mean, the Senate could ask for documents or witnesses, and so that would be a faster route to get these documents most likely than a newspaper suing in federal court.

COOPER: Eric Lipton, fascinating reporting, I appreciate it, Carrie Cordero as well.

We'll be right back.

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