MARTHA RADDATZ, “THIS WEEK” CO-ANCHOR: I’m joined now in studio by Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Great to have you here this morning. We have a lot to talk about. And I know you were in The Situation Room. One of the things that President Trump said earlier today was that you were all watching this live — you, the president, Chairman Milley. Tell us what you saw and go through this operation.
MARK ESPER, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Sure. That’s right Martha. Let me first say as the president said earlier this is a great day for America. It’s a great day for the world. The president made a bold decision to launch this raid and our military service members and our interagency partners executed brilliantly. So here we are — earlier in the year we defeated the physical caliphate, destroyed the physical caliphate, and now it’s leader is dead. So it’s a great day.
RADDATZ: And watching that in The Situation Room must have been quite extraordinary. Let us know what aircraft were involved. This started a couple of weeks ago, the president said you had eyes on him. Just take us through it if you can.
ESPER: Well the stars started lining up some time ago and in the past couple of weeks — week or so, the operational forces, which would — which were one of several options available to the president, started rehearsing and practicing and doing what they would have to do on the objective. And it wasn’t until Thursday and then Friday the president chose his option and gave us the green light to proceed as we did yesterday.
RADDATZ: Chose the option meaning he wanted to do a ground raid?
ESPER: That’s right. A helleborn (ph) raid if you will on to the objective in — in (ph) the province.
RADDATZ: I know you’ve been looking for him, the Pentagon has been looking for him, certainly, the U.S. has been looking for him —
ESPER: For years.
RADDATZ: — for years. What was the break here?
ESPER: Good — very good intelligence work by the intelligence community. We had cooperation from partners and, of course —
RADDATZ: Help from the Kurds?
ESPER: — the operate — I won’t get into details. The president spoke that, you know, we did get help from other countries with regard to the past 24/48 hours for sure. But a lot of good intelligence work by those professionals.
RADDATZ: So you’re in The Situation Room, you’re watching this go down, eight aircraft, can you tell us what kind of aircraft — I’m sure you had surveillance over the area — and the president described this as like watching a movie, so tell us what that movie was.
ESPER: Well we did have a number of aircraft, different types. Principally — I don’t want to get into details but principally the CH-47s —
ESPER: The helicopters. That’s right. And to put the raid force on the ground and they were on the ground for two plus hours.
RADDATZ: Let me just go back a little bit. They came under fire at one point, the president said.
ESPER: They — they did early on. You know there were locals in the area and others and it’s always hard to positively identify them but, of course, some of the helicopters took fire. And, of course, we returned fire in self-defense.
RADDATZ: And then the gun fire stopped. So the helicopters arrive on scene, al-Baghdadi is in a building — in a compound.
ESPER: He’s in a compound. That’s right. With a — there were a few other men and women with him and a large number of children. And our special operators have tactics and techniques and procedures they go through to try and call him out. But at the end of the day, as the president said, he decided to kill himself and took some small children with him we believe.
RADDATZ: So we’re looking at some video now. I know that is not confirmed of ruble aircraft — U.S. aircraft came in and destroyed the building once —
ESPER: Once — once our —
RADDATZ: — Baghdadi was dead.
ESPER: Once our forces were off the objective we destroyed the target site to ensure it was physically destroyed.
RADDATZ: So the special operations forces arrive and start moving in on Baghdadi. The president described these tunnels — a dead-end tunnel basically is where Baghdadi ran.
ESPER: Yes. We knew he — there was some underground places where he might hide, he might try and go into to seek shelter. We eventually found him and before we could get in there and get him he blew himself up —
RADDATZ: When you say you found him, did our forces have eyes on Baghdadi?
ESPER: I’m not going to get into that level of detail. It’s just — we knew he was there, we had a high degree of confidence that was — that he was there and we have subsequently verified that through DNA evidence.
RADDATZ: And — and he did take three children with him —
ESPER: We know — we believe he had children with him in the tunnel.
RADDATZ: And — and any of his wives?
ESPER: I think two of his wives were killed on the objective.
RADDATZ: The president talked about Baghdadi whimpering and crying and screaming. How do we know that?
ESPER: Well I don’t — I don’t have those details. The president probably had the opportunity to talk to the commanders on the ground but, clearly, the guy was a coward and a murderer. I mean, the things at (ph) the event that the president called out how he murdered people, murdered Americans, the beheadings that were conducted over the past several years, he — you know, he raped a young American woman — it’s just he’s a thug, a murderer, and the world is better off without him.
RADDATZ: And the president mentioned James Foley. I want to read something from Diane Foley — a statement, I am grateful to our president and brave troops for finding ISIS leader al- Baghdadi. I hope this will hinder the resurgence of terror groups and pray that captured ISIS fighters will be brought to trial and held accountable. Again the mother of James Foley, the journalist who was beheaded very early on —
ESPER: And she’s right. I think all the praise goes to our service members and to our intelligence professionals and others who took this on. And the message is if you’re a leader in ISIS, if you’re a leader for a terrorist group, we are going to come after you and we will hunt you relentlessly.
RADDATZ: Can — can you give us an idea of how many of our forces were involved? I know no one was hurt.
ESPER: Well, on the ground, less than a hundred. But these are always much bigger operations that the tale (ph) of which stretches back pretty deep and, again, into the intelligence community and other parts of interagency. But, again, our troops are the best in the world. They know what they’re doing. They’ve done this hundreds of times and it was a brilliantly executed operation. And the president deserves credit for giving it the green light.
RADDATZ: And —
ESPER: These are always inherently risky and, as I like to say, our folks make the complex and the dangerous look simple and safe.
RADDATZ: And how was he IDed and where is the body now?
ESPER: Well I’m — I’m not going to speak to the latter but he was IDed visually, we had some visual confirmation on the ground and then certainly the DNA confirmation.
RADDATZ: And you had DNA confirmation because he was in that prison in Iraq and I — and I want to talk about that. That is a hotbed. That was certainly a hotbed of extremism. We’ve got those kinds of prisons right now in Syria and we’ve got U.S. forces pulling out. How concerned are you?
ESPER: Well we have about 11,000 estimated prisoners throughout Syria. Those under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces are under their control and being guarded. They’ve been told us — tell us that. We’re in close contact with the SDF on a daily (ph) basis. And I’ve spoken to my Kurdish counterpart, the Turks are keeping control of those prisons or prisoners that are under their control. So the good news is out of 11,000 prisoners fewer than — a little bit more than a hundred have escaped. And I know the Turks and others are taking action to try and round them up.
RADDATZ: And — and have any been recaptured —
ESPER: My — my — the Turkish government informed me they had begun capturing folks.
RADDATZ: And I want to say that the — this was a fight that is more ideological at this point. It’s online, he will be seen as a martyr. Are you concerned that there will be an uptick in violence?
ESPER: I — look, leadership makes a difference and al-Baghdadi was the founder of ISIS, he formed the caliphate, he was an inspirational leader in addition to being a thug and a murderer so when you take out a leader like that it’s going to have, I think, a major impact on the organization. But we’ll see over time. Our job is to stay on top of that and to make sure that we continue to take out their leadership and their (ph) organizations.
Again, we went into Syria working with our SDF partners to defeat ISIS — that’s where we are today, that’s where we will remain.
RADDATZ: OK. I want to thank you so much for joining us this morning —
ESPER: Thanks Martha.
RADDATZ: Quite an operation.
ESPER: Thank you.
RADDATZ: Thanks again Secretary Esper. More on the Breaking News from Syria.
Let’s bring in our Military experts, Retired General Joseph Votel, the former head of U.S. Central Command, who for years oversaw the U.S. Military efforts in the Middle East, and Retired Admiral James Stavridis who served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander and is the author of the new book, “Sailing True North.”
General Votel, I want to start with you since just months ago you were in charge of this region as head of U.S. Central Command and before that you are in charge of U.S. Special Operations Command. You just heard from the president and the Defense secretary, what’s your reaction?
RETIRED GENERAL JOSEPH VOTEL, FORMER, HEAD OF U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Well thanks Martha, it’s great to be with you.
Well first off congratulations to the president on his extraordinary bold decision and as the secretary said, there’s a lot of risks that come with this so credit has to be given to the president for accepting that risk and authorizing this mission.
But of course it’s our men and women and particularly the forces that are on the target that accomplish the mission last evening and so all the credit has to go to them, the intelligence community, of course they’ve done a fantastic job and our into agency partners, and other partners and allies in the region for their support so I think we — I think we have to acknowledge all of that right up front.
RADDATZ: And can you talk a little bit more, I know the Defense secretary was hesitant, just the drama of a raid like this and what goes into it, and the secrecy?
VOTEL: Sure. Well you know, these are very deliberate operations and they’re very dependent upon a very deliberate process of intelligence, to make sure that we understand what is happening on the ground and what we can expect. Doing this helps reduce the risk and allows the forces to develop the best plan to ensure the highest amount of success. I’m sure there were a variety of different options that were looked at, we could certainly strike this building or we could put people on the ground; there’s advantages, disadvantages and associated risks, associated with all of that.
And of course the area in which we’re going to is an extraordinarily complex area, perhaps the most complex area in Syria today, with a variety of different organizations, on the ground and of course different partners and other entities that control the area around there so this is an extraordinarily complex mission. But as we’ve come to come to expect from our Special Operations Forces, extraordinarily well executed.
RADDATZ: General Votel, you were working for many years under President Trump, did you see a difference in his attitude toward ISIS in what he was doing to go after ISIS, then you saw from the president before?
VOTEL: If you’re thinking about today, I think the president was quite resolute in his remarks today about the importance of addressing this particular ISIS leader here and making sure that he is — that he was taking out so I — you know, but I think this is a good step and it certainly is — by any standard is a significant milestone in our efforts against ISIS.
It’s probably not the end, we’ve got to keep the pressure on them. These — what we find is these groups are resilient, they do have the ability to come back so now we’ve got to keep the pressure on them to prevent this kind of resurgent — resurgence but this in conjunction with the elimination of the caliphate, these are extraordinarily important milestones.
RADDATZ: And thank you very much General Votel.
And Admiral Stavridis, what do you think are the possibilities that ISIS reemerges? This is of course a huge victory today in killing Baghdadi but we are pulling out our forces from Syria as we speak?
RETIRED ADMIRAL JAMES STAVRIDIS, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER & AUTHOR OF THE NEW BOOK, “SAILING TRUE NORTH”: Martha, if you look at the forest fires in California, they burn, they come down to the ground, and what’s left? Their embers on the ground. I would liken this moment to a moment when we have for the fires, we’ve taken out a significant thing, all credit to our Special Operations troops, to our conventional troops who backed them up, our intelligence community, terrific.
Those embers are still on the ground and the potential for them to reflash is actually quite high unfortunately. Principally because the Islamic state is not just Baghdadi, it is an ideology and it is also a network so it will continue unfortunately, it will link with Al Qaeda, with al-Shabaab, with Boko Haram, other groups around the world.
We are not done with ISIS yet but we ought to feel very good about what happened overnight and continue to work on international coalitions, to deal with this challenge, continue to work on our inter-agency cooperation, clearly in evidence in this mission.
And last thought, we also ought to be concerned about the Cyber world and the ability of the Islamic state to recruit, proselytize, conduct operations; even after we took away all of their territory in Raqqa, they still conducted last Easter a significant operation as you know, in Sri Lanka, killed 250 million people, this is a lethal organization, it has taken a punch, I think they will be back…
RADDATZ: And Admiral…
STAVRIDIS: … unfortunately.
RADDATZ: … I do want to talk quickly about the intelligence. Obviously, this was an intelligence coup, they got the right man, went in there quickly and found him, but without those forces on the ground, it has to be much more difficult to gather intelligence?
STAVRIDIS: Indeed. And it’s more difficult in two ways. Tactically simply because we won’t have special forces on the ground, they won’t be able to back up our CIA officers on the ground; we just — we lose actual bodies, ears, on the ground, tactically.
Strategically, they are going to be questions as we pull back from working with the Kurds for example, whether or not the United States is a reliable ally and so often Martha, our intelligence comes because local forces, indigenous organizations, see us as reliable, want to work with us, want to provide that intelligence, that’s why I believe though, withdrawal of the 2,000 Special Forces from Syria is a mistake. I’m glad we’re going back in, in and around the oilfields but in both those instances, tactically and strategically, we ought to be concerned about the diminution of intelligence in facing the Islamic state going forward.
RADDATZ: And General Votel, just a last thought from you about those oilfields, we are keeping probably a couple of hundred of U.S. Forces around those oil fields, will that help mitigate this or do you see a resurgence as well?
VOTEL: Well I think as we heard Secretary Esper talk about, he clearly focused on the need to keep the pressure on ISIS and the president talked about the — about the oilfields. I think what’s really important for us right now is to make sure that we are very clear in terms of what our strategic objectives are in Syria and to — and to make sure that others that are operating in the area understand what that is as well.
We’ve been well served by our — by our — laser-like focus on ISIS over the last several years and we’ve been able to put in place all the mechanisms that have allowed us to do that. As the situations changed over the last couple of weeks, even with last night’s success, it’s important to return to those principles, make sure we are very clear in terms of what we want to do, and then make sure that we have the architecture in place that allows us to do that.
RADDATZ: Thanks so much for joining us this morning, General Votel and to you Admiral Stavridis, always appreciate your comments.
RADDATZ: Joining me now exclusively is Congressman Adam Schiff, the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee who is leading the impeachment inquiry.
Welcome Mr. Chairman this morning…
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF, (D-CA), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Thank you.
RADDATZ: … and I do want to start with this raid on Baghdadi, that left (ph) Baghdadi killed, you were not told, was Nancy Pelosi given any sort of heads up about this?
SCHIFF: My understanding is that she wasn’t. You know, couple things. First of all, good riddance. This was a blood-thirsty killer to the degree that he retained operational control of ISIS; it’s an operational success, it’s a symbolic victory. He had the blood of thousands and thousands of people on his hands, including many Americans and American journalists. So this is a great day, a ruthless killer has been brought to justice.
It’s not the end of ISIS by any means and we have had some recent Syria setbacks with the release of over a hundred ISIS fighters, that struggle is going to have to go on, made more difficult by the fact that we have betrayed the Kurds and withdrawn our forces from parts of Syria but nonetheless, an important victory against this brutal killer.
In terms of notifying the Gang of Eight, that wasn’t done. Look, the reason to notify the Gang of Eight is frankly more important when things go wrong. If you know, the president said, it was dangerous flying in, the Russians could’ve shut down American planes had that…
RADDATZ: And the Gang of Eight was told about the bin Laden raid…
SCHIFF: … that’s my understanding…
RADDATZ: … back in 2011?
SCHIFF: … I wasn’t part of the Gang of Eight at that time but that’s my understanding. But had this escalated, had something gone wrong, had we gotten into a firefight with the Russians, it’s to the administration’s advantage to be able to say, “We informed Congress we were going in, they were aware of the risks. We at least gave them the chance to provide feedback,” that wasn’t done here. I think that’s a mistake but let’s not lose sight of the fact, it was a success and a ruthless killer has been taken off the battlefield.
RADDATZ: But still concerned about those troops coming out?
SCHIFF: Absolutely. No. I think it’s a disastrous mistake to betray the Kurds this way. I think it just improves the Russian position in the Middle East, something they desperately want. I vehemently disagree with what the president said today about, “Oh, the Russians love having us there,” that’s simply not true, not even remotely…
RADDATZ: Not sure…
SCHIFF: … true.
RADDATZ: … what he was thanking the Russians for but…
SCHIFF: But more than that, the idea that we would pull our forces away from this vital ally, the Kurds that we fought with, died by our side, and now we’re sending our troops back into protect oil, so we’ll betray an ally but we’ll go back into protect the oil; that sickens me frankly.
And I think as you could see from so many of the troops, that have had to pull out and abandon their allies, their sickened by the president’s decision as well.
RADDATZ: And I want to move onto these investigations, and I want to start with the new one, the Justice Department has shifted its review of the 2016 Russia probe to what they call “A criminal investigation.” You’ve said that you have had, quote, “profound concerns” that the move means Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department has become what you call, “a vehicle for President Trump’s political revenge.” What makes you draw that conclusion?
SCHIFF: Well if these reports are correct and now Bill Barr’s Justice Department is doing a criminal investigation of people who properly looked into Russian interference in our election, in the FBI or in the intelligence agencies, it means that Bill Barr on the president’s behalf is weapon eyes in the Justice Department, to go after the president’s enemies.
I serve for years — I don’t anymore, on a commission that would help emerging democracies, and we would always inform the parliamentarians of these democracies; when you win an election you just don’t seek to just prosecute the losing side but this is what Bill Barr is seeking to do, he’s demonstrating once again that he is merely a tool of the president, the president’s hand, not the representative of the American people.
RADDATZ: But the prosecutor running the investigating — investigation, John Durham is a very well-respected prosecutor, why not just let the investigation run its course?
SCHIFF: Well first of all, we have an Inspector General who is an independent body who is doing an investigation that’s near conclusion so there’s been no public explanation for why this needs to be a criminal probe. But look you can assign…
RADDATZ: Would you…
SCHIFF: … good people…
RADDATZ: … accept the results of such an investigation?
SCHIFF: … well as we say, you can assign good people to do and illegitimate investigation. You can assign good people to investigate the president’s political rivals. It doesn’t mean that the investigation is any less tainted. This is tainted because of the motivation which is a political one, to serve the president’s political interests.
RADDATZ: OK. I — you have no evidence of that yet whatsoever however?
SCHIFF: Well, the evidence I think is pretty clear. The president has been calling for the Justice Department to investigate Comey, to investigate Clapper, to investigate anyone who stood in his way and now what is Bill Barr doing? He’s doing an investigation of — a criminal investigation of some of the people responsible for this probe so you can I think connect one dot to another.
RADDATZ: OK. Let’s move on to your investigation and impeachment. Senator Lindsey Graham introduced a resolution condemning the impeachment process, and he called — for the House to hold a vote to formalize the inquiry, allowing President Trump to call witnesses, gives subpoena power to House Republicans. Let’s listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
Senator Lindsey Graham, (R-SC), Chair, Senate Committee on the Judiciary: All I’m asking is, give Donald Trump the same rights as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton had when it comes to impeachment. Any impeachment vote based on this process, to me is illegitimate, is unconstitutional, and should be — dismissed in the Senate without a trial.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RADDATZ: And why not move forward with that request at this point?
SCHIFF: Well you know, this is poor timing for Lindsey Graham because on the heels of his saying, he’s going to introduce this bill, the court just ruled that his arguments essentially have no merit, that the House of Representatives can proceed as it has with an impeachment inquiry that has been authorized by our leadership, that no vote on the House floor is necessary so there’s no merit to Lindsey Graham’s argument.
I think what we’re seeing really is Lindsey Graham trying to respond to the devastating testimony that’s come out from Ambassador Taylor, and others, from Mick Mulvaney’s own admission, that not only was this White House meeting that Ukraine sought with the president withheld but the military aid itself was withheld as a way of pressuring Ukraine to do these two political investigations that the president believes would help his re-election campaign.
Lindsey Graham doesn’t want to talk about that, Mitch McConnell…
RADDATZ: Well we know…
SCHIFF: … doesn’t want to talk…
RADDATZ: … there’s some historical presidents…
SCHIFF: … about that.
RADDATZ: … precedents with Clinton and with Nixon. And I…
SCHIFF: (inaudible) and on those precedents, it’s important to realize and Lindsey doesn’t want to talk about this either, in both of those prior impeachments, there were lengthy, closed-door, investigations, fact-finding before grand juries in both Nixon and in Clinton, that we didn’t have here and why? Because Bill Barr wouldn’t authorize a criminal investigation into the president’s misconduct vis-a-vis Ukraine, that’s why we’re having to do this.
RADDATZ: Two quick things if you can. What’s the timeline here? When do you expect public hearings and do you believe John Bolton is important to this and will he testify?
SCHIFF: We will be doing public hearings, and I think we’ll be doing them soon, in a week…
RADDATZ: Soon, in a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving?
SCHIFF: … you know, I don’t want to give precise timing because in part we’re struggling with the White House’s continuing efforts to obstruct our investigation, to obstruct witnesses coming in. My guess is they’re going to fight us having John Bolton in for example. John Bolton is a very important witness. We…
SCHIFF: … already know from the testimony of others that this is someone who has — you know, concerned that people in the State Department, Ambassador Sondland and others, Mulvaney, were cooking up a drug deal and by meant — he meant a corrupt deal, involving withholding White House meeting or perhaps withholding of aid as well, for these political purposes, so obviously he has very relevant information and we do want him to come in and testify.
RADDATZ: OK. Thank you very much for joining us, Chairman Schiff, we appreciate your taking the time.
SCHIFF: Thank you.