Defense Secretary Mark Esper talks with All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro at the Pentagon about the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and about the constitutional authority to strike Iranian proxies in Iraq and Iran on its home soil in retaliation for attacks on American forces.
Ari Shapiro: Secretary Esper, thank you for speaking with us today.
Secretary Mark Esper: Well, thank you, Ari. Thanks for inviting me onto the show.
Let me just begin by asking around this time last week, Iranian missiles were raining down on bases in Iraq that housed U.S. troops. Take us into what that moment felt like for you. Were you afraid that the U.S. was heading towards all-out war with Iran?
Sure. Let me say one thing real quick, though, to your listeners, and that is this: The United States is safer today than we were a few weeks ago because we eliminated the world’s foremost terror, Qassem Soleimani, who has the blood of hundreds of American soldiers and Marines on his hands. Secondly, we reset deterrence with Iran and did so without United States casualties. And third, we reassured our allies and partners in the region that we will stand up for them and for our interests. Now, with regard to your question, what’s it like, what was it like at the moment in time? I was here in the in my office at the time, down the hallway meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and my civilian leaders, talking about our next moves, if you will, second and third order effects that we would have to do when the alert came. My first reaction was, well, here we go. That it looks like they have finally acted as, as there was some anticipation they might. And it brought up of memories I had from my time in the Army in 1991 in the Gulf War. I was an Army infantry officer and our unit was deploying to a different part of Saudi Arabia at the time. And I was attacked. We were attacked by Scud missiles. So I was able to put myself in the shoes, in the boots, if you will, of many of our soldiers and airmen and Marines on those airfields to get a sense of what they might be experiencing at that time.
But in that moment that you didn’t know whether or not American lives had been lost, did you think that this might be the start of a full-scale war of the sort that the U.S. has been trying to avoid for years?
Well, we also knew that Iran was trying to avoid a war, that they didn’t want conflict with the United States. And we knew that between the messaging we sent them and the capabilities that we had on the ground, that that even made that more compelling for them. I also had great confidence our commanders who had a very good plan to disperse our forces, to harden in place and to be able to withstand any type of attack by the Iranians. So, so that’s how I went into it. But again, you never know. War is unpredictable.And my caution was always, let’s see what happens. Let’s understand their intent. Let’s get a good assessment of the casualties, and then we can figure out the next steps.
You and other senior members of the administration have been asked a lot of questions about the intelligence behind the Soleimani strike. And you and other members of the administration have given different answers. On Sunday, you said that you weren’t familiar with the intelligence the president cited about attacks on four U.S. embassies. Do you agree that the messages have been mixed at best from this administration?
I don’t think so. I think they are nested in many ways. You know, this is one of those cases where somebody says six and somebody else says a half dozen. And people like to find some type of discrepancy.
You said nested. I’m just not sure exactly what you mean by that term.
What I mean is that the information builds upon itself or is contained within a broader subset of things. But I will tell you this. This is the bottom line and the entire national security team agrees on this. Qassem Soleimani was responsible for 20 years’ worth of attacks on United States forces. He was also responsible for killing of civilians in other countries to include his own in Iran. He was responsible for the attacks leading up to the attack that killed the American on an air base and the siege of the embassy. And so there was complete agreement, based on what he had done and what he was planning to do, the broader attack that he was orchestrating in the region, that that would be bigger in scale and that would likely result in open hostilities, that this was a compelling target to take out.
But why in the week and a half since that attack hasn’t the U.S. been able to offer one consistent explanation for why this attack was necessary?
Well, I would disagree. I think we have had a very thorough explanation. As I cited a very senior intelligence community person who said that the risk of doing nothing, the risk of inaction was greater than the risk of action. It was very compelling. The challenge here is we’re dealing with very exquisite information, information that if we were to lose those sources and methods, we would lose insights into the thinking of the Iranian government.
NBC is reporting that the attack was authorized seven months ago in June. Is that true?
That’s not accurate.
That is not accurate you’re saying.
That’s not accurate.
You understand as well as anyone that when the U.S. goes to war or something short of war, you have to bring the American people and the politicians along with you. And in this case, the House of Representatives has just voted to limit the administration’s authority under the War Powers Act. The Senate may soon hold a similar vote. Do you fear that the people you need to convince are not being convinced?
Well, you always have these challenges. You know, again, I go back to my time in the military as an Army officer. I watched very carefully in January of 1991, how the Congress might vote at a time when President Bush at that time had deployed nearly half a million troops to Saudi Arabia. There was still a question as to whether they had the support of the American people in the Congress. And even that vote, I think, was 52-47, a very close vote. So contentious votes, close votes on these types of affairs are not unusual. It happens. It is the responsibility and the prerogative of Congress as the Article 1branch of government to have these debates and they should be had and debated fully. But at the same time, the president has responsibility under Article 2 to defend the United States, to defend American forces and interests.
Do you have a message to lawmakers about why you need these authorities and what would happen if this did pass both houses of Congress?
Well, we feel we have sufficient authority now either under the commander-in-chief’s Article 2 authorities or under the two authorizations to use military force, the so-called AUMFs, to do what we need to protect American interests, to defeat terrorism and to prosecute any operations that we need within those legal contexts.
The administration has said really clearly that Iran will be held accountable for actions by its proxies, such as militias operating with Iranian support in Iraq. Some of those proxies are attacking bases that house Americans — Balad Air Base, for example. Those attacks have caused injuries, thankfully not American injuries, but Iraqis have been hurt and killed. How will Iran be held accountable for that?
Well, there are no Americans at that air base right now
Only because the U.S. recently moved them.
You raise the bigger point. First of all, Iran has been funding, resourcing, directing, orchestrating proxy attacks for 40 years. In many cases against Americans, in fact, responsible for the deaths of 600 American service members and the wounding of thousands more during the period of the U.S. Iraq war 10 years ago or so. So this is not something new to them. This is something we have to continue to deal with and face. The elimination of Qassem Soleimani took out the principal player who has been orchestrating these attacks for 20 years.
And yet the attacks are continuing to this day.
Not at the rate that they were before. If you go back in time to the fall, we saw over a two-month period nearly a dozen attacks increasing in size and scale and scope. Those are the ones that resulted in the death of an American.
NPR Pentagon Correspondent Tom Bowman: Can I quickly add, at Balad, we were told the Americans there were pulled out as part of this pause against ISIS. So you were fortunate that there were no Americans at the base.
Well, the commanders, again, execute very effective dispersal plans, redistribute, redistribution plans and the hardening of our sites, the defense, we do a lot of things to make sure that our service members are protected.
Ari Shapiro: So to the question of accountability, would the administration consider striking targets within Iran as retaliation for the acts of some of these proxies in Iraq?
Well, the proxies in Iraq are available targets for us under the under the AUMF and under the commander-in-chief’s authority for Article 2. And we are prepared and will strike them in Iraq if they strike our forces.
Iran, we do not have the authority right now to strike the country of Iran for actions taken by a proxy group. I’ve said that very clearly in open testimony and I’ve said that privately to lawmakers. [Note: See Secretary Esper’s clarification after the Editor’s Note below.]
The American decision to pull people out of this base reflects a larger move to suspend operations against ISIS in Iraq, which is the main reason U.S. forces are there right now. How long do you expect that suspension to continue and what impact does that have?
Well, force protection always comes first. So we want to be very conscious of protecting our forces and the forces, the personnel of the nearly dozen plus coalition partners that are also on the ground with us in Iraq. But you make the important point. We are there for two reasons: To help the country of Iraq, the people of Iraq, train, advise and assist their military to be more capable, and to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. At the end of the day, what America wants is Iraq to be strong, independent and prosperous. That’s what the people of Iraq want. That’s why they are protesting in their cities against corruption in their government and against too much Iranian influence in their government.
Do you expect the suspension to last weeks, months? Do you have any sense?
It’s, you know, these are things that are conditions-based. Obviously, we want to get back to the mission as soon as possible, but we’re not going to risk our folks to do that. Keep in mind, at the same time, we are conducting counter ISIS operations from Africa through Syria into Afghanistan. So the pressure on ISIS continues.
What is the impact of suspending the U.S. counter ISIS mission in Iraq? We hear from our sources that ISIS is coming back in regions that the U.S.-led coalition drove ISIS out of.
Well, I haven’t seen reports along those lines. But keep in mind, if there’s one thing that we know is that the same Shia militia groups also don’t want ISIS in Iraq. So at the same time, they’re going after those groups as well.
So what is the impact of the U.S. suspending this mission?
I think it’s too hard to say right now. I think, you know, we are very vigilant. We have a lot of monitoring and surveillance, reconnaissance, that stays up there and we’ll watch it as it as it transpires. We have other means to attack ISIS without exposing personnel, for example, drone strikes or fixed wing attack strikes. So there are other ways we can go after ISIS and its partners.
At the same time, let me rephrase that. Around the same time, the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani. Around the same time the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani, there was an attempted drone strike in Yemen that failed to take out the leader of the Quds Force, which is an Iranian military organization that operates in the region. And so is this broader than a specific effort to remove one individual? Is this an effort to take out the leadership of this organization as a whole?
Well, look, I don’t speak to alleged operational matters, but I will tell you this much. We will take any legally available effective operations we need to to protect America, our people or our interests.
Should leaders of the Quds Force feel as though they could be taken out at any time?
We will take any legally available action to protect America, its interests and our forces.
Tom Bowman: You can see how people would look at this and say you’ve taken out Soleimani, imminent possibility of attacks. Meanwhile, you take a Quds Force leader in Yemen. Somebody looking at this could say, this seems like a concerted effort to take out the leadership of the Quds Force. Would we be wrong in even suggesting it?
Soleimani, Soleimani was a known terrorist leader. The Quds Force is a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that was operating on the ground in Iraq, which is consistent with the 2002 AUMF as an armed group within Iraq. And they were on the battlefield. Not only had conducted operations that killed an American, but were planning more operations to kill Americans. They were legitimate and remain legitimate battlefield targets if they are operating in that context.
Ari Shapiro: Should we view it as coincidence that these two things happened around the same time?
Again, I’m not commenting on any alleged operational matters.
Let me ask you about a different subject. Twenty-one Saudi cadets have been removed from U.S. bases where they were stationed, in Florida and in Texas. Fifteen of them for accessing child pornography, others for accessing jihadi websites. My first question is why were these people allowed on U.S. military bases in the first place?
Well, it’s a great question. And the first thing I’d like to say is, what sparked it was this tragic shooting and we mourn for the U.S. personnel that were lost in that.
Three of them, I believe.
Terrible incident. And others who were wounded. But it did reveal that we had shortcomings in our, our being the, the whole, whole of government approach to this vetting process. So in the wake of that, I formed a small task force that looked at a number of things. Since that time, I’ve issued directives that have taken a number of important steps that increased the vetting of all foreign students, not just Saudis, but all foreign students coming to our programs that improve the credentialing of those students. And third, that addressed other things like possession of weapons and whatnot to ensure that students that come here are thoroughly vetted and pose no, no threat, no risk to other students in the program, particularly Americans.
Shouldn’t this have happened before three lives were lost?
Well, they were being vetted before. But clearly in the wake of this, not thoroughly enough. So, yes, I mean, the short answer is these things should not happen. The good news is in the decades or so that we’ve had this program trained over 20,000, 25,000 students, this is the first incident I’m aware of. So for all intents and purposes, I think most leaders at DoD believe that the vetting was sufficient but we’ve come to learn that it wasn’t.
Specifically given that 15 people were accessing child pornography. You’re a veteran. You lived on a military base with a family. What do you say to those parents on those bases?
Well, look, this is, this problem is not unique to a particular set of students that come to our country. We had this problem within our own ranks as well. I think this is something we have to continue to monitor and crack down on because we can’t allow people who are conducting criminal acts or whatnot onto our bases and near our military personnel or our civilian personnel, for that matter.
I also want to ask this is an election year and it will be a hard-fought campaign. And you serve a president who has shown himself to be willing to use the military as a campaign device. What steps do you have to take to make sure that in this election year the military you oversee is not politicized?
Ari, the DoD stays out of politics. I reinforced that message again today to my top leaders, both uniformed and civilian, to say that our job is to remain apolitical and put the security of the nation as our top three priorities. That’s what we’re here to do, protect the American people, protect the country, protect our interests abroad. And we are fully committed to that and do not play politics and do not get involved in politics.
Are you comfortable saying that to the president who may want to use the military and the servicemen and women who serve the country as a campaign device?
The president knows that. The commanders know that others in the White House and the cabinet know that everybody recognizes that we are filling a longstanding tradition of keeping a DoD apolitical.
Secretary Esper, you have been generous with your time. And if I may, I’d like to ask about one other topic. We’re less than one month into the new year, and I imagine you had a plan for 2020. Can you compare the way these last couple of weeks have gone to what you anticipated when the ball was dropping on New Year’s Eve?
Well, I do have a plan for 2020 and a plan remains in place, and that is to implement the national defense strategy, which means looking at ways to make the force more lethal and ready, to expand our partnership and allies around the globe and reform the department so I can focus on our top priority. That is dealing with the long-term strategic challenge of China. Now the world doesn’t always come.
I’m sorry, how much time have you spent on China in the last two weeks?
Actually, more than you would think.
I mean, the world doesn’t, the world doesn’t — You have to deal with the world the way it is, not the way you want it to be. And this is the challenge I face and my predecessors have faced. But I can deal with the urgent. But at the same time, I have to deal with the important, which is the long-term challenge, and had two extensive meetings today focused on how do we get to that point in time that, that level of readiness, that modernized force that can deal with China and secondly, Russia in the long term.
Tom Bowman: Can I quickly add. You said, others have said, we’d like to pull troops out of the Middle East. The president has said that. There’s a report about pulling troops out of Africa and focusing again on China and Russia. First of all, talk a little bit about Africa. Can you pull troops out of Africa? And do you believe by year’s end you’ll be able to pull troops out of Afghanistan and the Middle East and Africa to focus on the national defense strategy?
Well, as Ari just asked, I’m looking at every theater and every command to look at where I can free up time, money and manpower forces, to reallocate to the Indo-Pacific, to deal with a long-term threat of China. And so that review has already begun with Africa. I will be going down to Southcom in the next couple of weeks to begin that discussion with them. I will be and have been looking at Central Command. I will look at every single command to do this. And I’m confident that we will be able to pull some forces out of each of these locations to make sure that I’m putting the priority of my resources to the long-term challenge facing the United States. That is the People’s Republic of China.
Tom Bowman: Some forces. Are we looking at thousands, clearly?
Oh, certainly in the thousands across the board. We need to. If it’s gonna be a material change in our posture and our footprint around the globe, it has to be is certainly in the thousands.
Ari Shapiro: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, thank you for speaking with us today.
Thank you, Ari. Thank you, Tom.
Editor’s Note: After the interview concluded, Secretary Esper’s Press Secretary flagged that Esper wanted to clarify his answer pertaining to potential U.S. retaliation against Iranian proxy groups. If we could do so with full transparency, NPR agreed to return to the Secretary’s office to put those questions to him again.
Ari Shapiro: As I was asking about retaliation and holding Iran. As I was asking about accountability and how the U.S. plans to hold Iran accountable for the actions of militias in Iraq, you had said the U.S. has authority to attack those militias in Iraq but not Iran and I understand you want to clarify that.
Secretary Esper: Right. So we have authorities under the 2002 AUMF as we just spoke. With regard to Iranian proxies I’d say this: First and foremost, we hold Iran responsible for its proxies and we retain the right to exercise self-defense and to take action where legally available and appropriate to hold those proxies accountable for their actions.
Does that include on Iranian soil?
We will take any and all legally available and appropriate actions to hold Iran accountable for the actions of its proxies.
Do you believe the U.S. has the legal authority to strike Iran for the actions of militias in Iraq?
If it is consistent with the commander-in-chief’s authorities under Article 2 to defend the nation, our people and our interests? Yes, we do.
This is different from what you said earlier, which was we do not. I just want to know why you’re no longer saying we do not.
I said we do not have authority under the 2002 AUMF to strike Iran.
And so you’re distinguishing between that and Article 2 of the Constitution.
That’s exactly right. Those are two very different legal authorities. One is limited to threats emanating from Iraq. And the one is the president’s constitutional authority under the under the Constitution that many presidents have exercised for decades to protect America, to protect our people and to protect our forces.
Which it sounds like you’re saying would allow the U.S. to attack Iran in retaliation for actions by militias in Iraq.
The president always has the right of self-defense to exercise and employ force under Article 2 of the Constitution.
Secretary Esper, thank you.
Thank you, Ari.