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U.S. Could Strike Iran Or Proxies 'Where Legally Available,' Esper Says


U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper thought he would be spending the year 2020 focusing on China, also Russia. Instead, he is leading the military through a series of attacks on and from Iran.

All Things Considered co-host Ari Shapiro went to the Pentagon late yesterday to interview Secretary Esper, and Ari joins us this morning. Hi, Ari.


GREENE: So we should say Secretary Esper - confirmed in this job six months ago...


GREENE: I mean, but these last couple weeks - wow, what's it been like to lead the Pentagon?

SHAPIRO: Remember, it was just one week ago that Iranian missiles started falling on bases in Iraq that housed U.S. troops. And Esper was at the Pentagon when that was happening. I wondered what he thought in that moment, whether he believed the U.S. was heading for all-out war. So I asked him just to describe that evening.

MARK ESPER: I was here 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.

SHAPIRO: David, he's a veteran. And Esper told me that that moment reminded him of being attacked by Scud missiles in 1991 during the first Gulf War. And he said his thoughts went to the American troops who may have been in harm's way last week in the path of Iranian missiles.

ESPER: 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.

GREENE: OK. So fortunately, no Americans were killed in those attacks, and the U.S. is not in an all-out war with Iran today.

But, Ari, there are those looming questions about why President Trump ordered this strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed - why they did that in the first place. How - did Esper clear this up for you at all?

SHAPIRO: I wouldn't say he cleared it up. He did defend the administration's intelligence explanations. Even after more than a week, there are still very conflicting accounts of why the administration ordered this strike. You'll remember that on Friday, President Trump said in an interview on Fox that there was an imminent plan to attack four U.S. embassies.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies, but Baghdad certainly would have been the lead.

SHAPIRO: And then on "Face The Nation" on Sunday, Secretary Esper said he never saw such intelligence.


ESPER: I didn't see one with regard to four embassies. What I'm saying is I share the president's view that probably - my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies.

SHAPIRO: So yesterday, Secretary Esper and I went back and forth about the intelligence and the inconsistencies. And finally, I asked him this.


SHAPIRO: Do you agree that the messages have been mixed at best from this administration?

ESPER: 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...

SHAPIRO: You said nested. I'm just not sure exactly what you mean by that term.

ESPER: Oh, 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.

SHAPIRO: 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?

ESPER: 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.

SHAPIRO: NBC is reporting that the attack was authorized seven months ago in June. Is that true?

ESPER: That's not accurate.

SHAPIRO: That is not accurate, you're saying?

ESPER: That's not accurate.

GREENE: All right. So, Ari, let's look ahead now. Right now, you've got these militias in Iraq that have the support of Iran. They're attacking bases that have housed Americans in the past. In terms of what the U.S. response to all of this might be going forward, what did Esper say?

SHAPIRO: Here's where it gets complicated because Esper actually answered this question twice. Administration officials have insisted that Iran will be held accountable for the actions of its proxies, these militias in Iraq. And I asked Esper, does that mean the U.S. would attack Iran to retaliate for what militias in Iraq do? And at first, he said the authorization for the use of military force, the AUMF, lets the U.S. conduct operations in Iraq but not in Iran. And as you'll hear, he also mentioned Article II of the Constitution, which establishes presidential power.


ESPER: The proxies in Iraq are available targets for us under the - under the AUMF and under the commander in chief's authority for Article II. And we are prepared and will strike them in Iraq if they strike our forces.

SHAPIRO: And Iran?

ESPER: 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.

SHAPIRO: And, David, here's where things got strange because we finished the interview, packed up our gear. And his press secretary chased us down to say, hang on, the secretary wants to clarify his answer.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

SHAPIRO: So we went back into his office, and I asked the question again.


SHAPIRO: Do you believe the U.S. has the legal authority to strike Iran for the actions of militias in Iraq?

ESPER: If it is consistent with the commander in chief's authorities under Article II to defend the nation, our people and our interests, yes, we do.

SHAPIRO: 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.

ESPER: I said we do not have authority under the 2002 AUMF to strike Iran.

SHAPIRO: And so you're distinguishing between that and Article II of the Constitution.

ESPER: 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 that many presidents have exercised for decades to protect America, to protect our people and to protect our forces.

SHAPIRO: Which, it sounds like you're saying, would allow the U.S. to attack Iran in retaliation for actions by militias in Iraq.

ESPER: The president always has the right of self-defense to exercise and employ force under Article II of the Constitution.

GREENE: I still can't believe he brought you back in...


GREENE: ...To resume the interview. Can you put his two different answers into context?

SHAPIRO: You know, I think this back-and-forth really captures how Esper is trying to delicately navigate this moment. You can tell listening to him that, on the one hand, he does not want to give Iran a green light to support these militias that are attacking Americans and their allies. And on the other hand, he doesn't want to sound belligerent, like he is threatening an attack on Iranian soil.

GREENE: All right. We're going to hear a lot more of your interview with the defense secretary on your program this afternoon - All Things Considered. That's my colleague Ari Shapiro. Ari, thanks.

SHAPIRO: Pleasure to talk to you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.