Mike Pompeo defends Soleimani strike, says Iranian general was on US radar for awfully long time

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report with Bret Baier," January 13, 2020. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joins us tonight. Mr. Secretary, thanks for the time.

SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: Thank you, Bret. It's great to be back on the show with you.

BAIER: I want to clear up some things. Qassem Soleimani was a regular in your threat briefings when you were CIA Director and that someone who at that point had been targeting American troops and U.S. interests for decades, really.

When did you Mike Pompeo come to the decision, the determination that he should be eliminated? And when did you first raise that with President Trump?

POMPEO: Well, I won't talk about the internal deliberations, but your points' well taken. Not only when I was a CIA Director to see the history, and then what was the current activity for the first year and a half of this administration. But when I was a member of Congress, serving on the House Intelligence Committee, I saw it too.

Soleimani has been a bad actor for decades in the region. He has the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hand, he's killed or contributed to the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria, Muslims, mostly throughout the region. And this was a bad actor, and when we came to the point where we could see that he was plotting imminent attacks in the region to threaten Americans a big attack. We recommend to the President, he take this action, the President made the right decision.

BAIER: I'm going to talk about the evidence in a second, but there's some reporting that the actual decision to kill Soleimani goes back about seven months. Is that true?

POMPEO: Bret, I don't want to talk about the internal deliberation.

BAIER: OK.

POMPEO: But, it's been the case that Soleimani, Soleimani is been someone who's been on the American radar screen for an awfully long time. We've known of the risks that he presented to the world, and we had to reach the right moment where it was the case that we viewed the attendant risk associated with that with the inevitable good that came from having him off the battlefield.

BAIER: So, multiple outlets are now reporting that State Department security officials were not notified of imminent threats at these U.S. embassies. The President said there were four and there's been this evolution kind of the definition of eminence. What is the ground truth here?

POMPEO: Well, Brett, with respect to these claims that officials in the embassies were notified, that is both false, and dangerous, and intentionally undermining what it is this administration did to protect the amazing men and women who worked at our embassies. Not only our State Department officials but people from all across the United States government that work at these important diplomatic outposts.

They were not only notified, but we took extensive actions to do everything we could to ensure that they were safe and secure. And that they were prepared that there were reinforcements in the case that something went wrong. President Trump would never have put diplomats in a position where they were at substantial risk.

And we would have never undertaken action like this without not only notifying them but making sure they had the time and the resources that they need. And we were responsive to the requests that they made so that we could reduce any risk to more than just for multiple embassies throughout the region that we viewed as being under risk. When we took an attack like the one that we did.

BAIER: I know you heard a lot of talk about this over the weekend. Take a listen to one democratic senator and the Secretary of Defense.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-MD): There was not specific information about an attack, and there was a little justification for an imminent threat. Yet the President characterized it as such.

And now, his intelligence community is trying to justify what the President said. You can't. The President uses his own language, uses his own set of facts.

ESPER: I didn't see one with regard to four embassies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER: The Secretary of Defense talking about specific intelligence about the four embassies. I guess the question is, did the administration use the word imminent because it please the lawyers or why?

POMPEO: I don't know who used it first, but it reflects what we saw. We can dance around the maypole on the word imminent, I can assure you of this. The intelligence picture that was painted not only in those days but in all of the history that builds up to this.

This essence just come to your radar screen, new and fresh. What we could see was that there was an increasing threat from the activities of Qassem Soleimani, and we knew that he was traveling in the region, both to Beirut and then to Damascus and onto Baghdad with the intense -- intent purpose of delivering a strike -- a blow against Americans in the region. And we weren't about to take that risk.

I think General Milley described it as culpably negligent, had we not made this recommendation to the President. We made America safer. There was active plotting underway by Qassem Soleimani himself and all of those around him. And we took the leader of that plot that plan off the battlefield.

BAIER: Was there concern that congressional Democrats would leak the information if they were told about the attack ahead of time?

POMPEO: Always worry anytime information about something that is so sensitive gets into too many hands. You should know that not only did we limit this information in the legislative branch, we limited inside the executive branch as well.

We made sure that everyone who needed to know knew precisely what they needed, different people needed different levels of information. But we kept this information in a very tight circle.

To undertake a strike like this took incredible professionalism. It took incredible knowledge and we needed to make sure that that information was in only the number of hands that absolutely needed to know so that we could execute the strike. We caught him red-handed when we took him from the battlefield.

BAIER: You know, you've heard the pushback from people like Senator Mike Lee and Rand Paul about not being in consulted -- being consulted at a -- at a level in on Capitol Hill that they felt was necessary.

Back in March of 2011, Congressman Mike Pompeo, about Libya said, I'm concerned about the lack of leadership congressional consultation exhibited by President Obama on the issue of Libya. Throughout his decision-making process, the President gave more consideration to the views of the United Nations, in the Arab League than to the views of the American people and their elected representatives.

As a former officer of the U.S. Army, I support our men and women serving abroad to defend freedom and democracy. But it is essential that the President clearly articulate why he is placing them in harm's way.

How is that different from what they're saying up on Capitol Hill?

POMPEO: No, I still believe firmly what I said he said. Like you said, it was 2011, I stand by every bit of that. As a member of the legislative branch, you want to make sure that you get the information you need. Every administration does this as best they can. I remember when there were strikes in the previous administration, they didn't give pre-notification to Congress.

There is a process. We have intelligence committees, we have foreign relations committees. This administration fulfilled all of our obligations to that. We informed the Congress and the legislative branch with as much detail and specificity as we could possibly do. We'll continue to share that information with the American people.

The demands that I made when I was a member of Congress are fully consistent with the actions I've taken as secretary of state. We have accomplished that, we've shared this information broadly, and we will continue to do so.

The American people absolutely have a right to understand what our strategy is, how we're executing that, and we will continue to communicate that.

BAIER: You referenced as a congressman going back concerns about Iran. I want to play a sound bite that I interviewed about this issue back then. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BAIER: Is there anything, Congressman that is good out of this deal?

POMPEO: Bret, I can't think of a thing.

BAIER: Not one.

POMPEO: I can't think of a thing that has put America in a better position as a result of this deal. Every single action the Iranians have taken has been bolder and starker than the ones they took before the agreement.

BAIER: Has the support for Hezbollah or Hamas dropped off at all?

POMPEO: Not at all.

BAIER: Modified?

POMPEO: None, if anything greater.

BAIER: Support for Bashar al-Assad changed?

POMPEO: None.

BAIER: Military alliance with Putin's Russia been moderated?

POMPEO: Stronger.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BAIER: You're pretty clear back then, Mr. Secretary. You did have a speech today in Stanford, and what you said, President Trump is insistent that Iran not harm a single protester. Is that a new red line?

POMPEO: Well, Bret, the remarks that I made when I was speaking to you, the last time, I think, we were together on this remain accurate.

What took place during the JCPOA made America deeply, deeply less safe than it was before. There was an enormous amount of money, enormous amount of resources that were made available to the Ayatollah and his henchmen to put America, Europe, the Middle East at risk.

We've now turned that around. We've engaged in economic, a diplomatic, and now a military effort to convince the Iranian regime that they have to behave like a normal nation and impose costs on them when they choose not to do so.

We're hopeful that every nation will choose peace, but we're prepared for the alternative. And with respect to the protesters, you've seen the President over the last few days speaking directly to them. You've, you've watched these protests, we don't want any Iranian harmed, we fear that the Iranians will use the same repression that they've used for decades against their own people.

I think the President's exhortation was to encourage the Iranian leadership to rethink that, to redouble their efforts towards restraint so that the voices of the Iranian people can be heard. And ultimately, that the Iranian people will get the leadership behaviors that they want.

BAIER: I have two last things. One is Afghanistan. Is the Taliban a threat to America?

POMPEO: And so, the Taliban reposed risk to American soldiers in theatre for an awfully long time. To my brothers and sisters who are still over there serving, they still create an enormous risk.

We are trying to find a solution that protects the homeland, from not only the Taliban but from al-Qaeda and from ISIS and any terror threat that might emanate from Afghanistan.

To create a space where we can have fewer resources, expended fewer American lives at risk while continuing to protect the homeland. It's what State Department's mission has been since I've been the secretary of state now, 20 months from now. And I hope we're getting closer.

BAIER: I mean, I guess for people at home, we just killed Qassem Soleimani for the role he played in killing Americans and the likelihood that he'd kill more. But the Taliban has killed hundreds of Americans and remains committed to do so, it seems, so, even as we speak.

So, you know, why kill Soleimani but negotiate with the Taliban is the question?

POMPEO: We've killed lots of Taliban leaders too, Bret.

BAIER: All right, and if the U.S. removed its troops from Afghanistan, would America be safer?

POMPEO: We're going to try and get to the right place, we're going to try and make sure that we have the right force posture. We make this decision throughout the region, we make sure we have the right forces in place in the Gulf, and the eastern med, in our facilities and air bases in the region.

The President's made very clear, we want to devote fewer resources to this problem set that means two things. One, we need create the conditions for that diplomatically and economically, and we need our partners to step forward. One of the things we've been discussing with our NATO colleagues over the past five days is how they might take a greater role in this region as well.

The President's intent on reducing the American commitment of this region, but make no mistake, either Hamza bin Laden, nor al Baghdadi, nor Qassem Soleimani, should ever underestimate President Trump's commitment to ensuring that we protect and defend America. Every place their American interest, and every place their American lives at risk.

BAIER: And that's the same message for Kim Jong-un in North Korea. Are you concerned that he's going to resume testing long-range missiles this year?

POMPEO: He still has an outstanding commitment to President Trump. He made a commitment that he would denuclearize, he has not walked back that commitment. We have every hope and expectation that he'll do so, and there will resolve the nuclear file in North Korea peacefully and will make it better, brighter future for the North Korean people as well. We hope that that's the case. Bret.

BAIER: Mr. Secretary, we appreciate your time.

POMPEO: Bret, thank you. Have a great day.

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