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Former CIA Director David Petraeus Discusses Decision To Recall Strike Against Iran


All right. I want to bring in General David Petraeus, who has grappled with Iran both as former commander of Central Command in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East and also from an intelligence vantage point. He is former director of the CIA. General Petraeus, welcome.

DAVID PETRAEUS: Thanks, Mary Louise. Good to be with you.

KELLY: The president says he asked how many people would be killed in a U.S. strike, and the generals came back and said, about 150. As a general, does that number sound right to you?

PETRAEUS: Well, with the understanding of what it was they were going to hit - I'm told it was a limited set of Iranian radars and air defense missile batteries - that is reasonable. Again, they were going to have done it just before dawn when, presumably, there would be minimal people at the site. But still, as an upper level, I think that that is reasonable.

KELLY: And I want to ask about who these generals might have been. I mean, understanding that you were not in the room advising the president last night, who is likely to have been at the table advising him?

PETRAEUS: Well, certainly, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have been there. It's very possible that the Central Command commander could have been video conferenced in. There would be other members of the chairman's staff, the joint staff who would be there. And then, presumably, from the office of the secretary of defense, there would have been the undersecretary of defense for policy, given that Patrick Shanahan, I assume, is not in the picture, but yet, Army Secretary Mark Esper is not yet in that position. He takes it over, as I understand it, on Monday early afternoon.

KELLY: Yes. You're making the point that all of this tension with Iran is, of course, unfolding as we have no permanent secretary of defense actually running the Defense Department. But among the people who you laid out there who might have been in the room among people who have the president's ear, it seems we have a fairly clear idea of who the hawks advising the president might be - his national security adviser John Bolton, his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. Is it clear to you who might be urging the reverse, who might be urging restraint?

PETRAEUS: Well, I don't know how you want to characterize the military in such a situation, but generally, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the combatant commander - U.S. Central Command commander, in this case - and perhaps some others lay out for the president what the likely outcomes are of different options. They presumably laid out several different options for him. He adopted (ph) strikes in a limited set of radars and air defense batteries and then 150 or so casualties. They'll also talk a bit, as will the intelligence community, about what the likely enemy course of action is and what the most dangerous course of action would be in this case in terms of Iranian retaliation.

KELLY: In terms of Iranian retaliation to a U.S. strike. Go on.

PETRAEUS: Exactly. And again, this can be cautionary.

KELLY: What do you make of events as the president says they unfolded last night - that airstrikes were teed up, they were ready to go and then called off the last possible moment?

PETRAEUS: It's not the first time this has ever happened, and in fact, we've - you know, I've actually literally - in a particular option, I've actually literally said, wave it off - because conditions change. Now, in this case, the condition that changed apparently was his awareness of what the casualties could be. Let's keep in mind that the Obama administration...

KELLY: Was it surprising to you that that came up so late in the conversation?

PETRAEUS: It is, and I wonder if it wasn't touched on earlier, but then in further discussion - by the way, I was going to mention, let's remember that, in the Obama administration, an operation that had all the ships in place and everything else to respond to the Syrian crossing of the red line on chemical weapons use, was called off at a fairly late hour as well after the secretary of state had already gone out and given the speech that everyone read as the prelude to strikes on Syria.

So not unprecedented, not common, but again, if this was intended as such, it could almost be seen as a diabolically clever way to communicate to Iran that, boy, you can really expect something significant. But the president is not really keen to do that unless you force his hand.

KELLY: That is David Petraeus, former head of U.S. Central Command, also former head of the CIA. General Petraeus, thanks for your time.

PETRAEUS: My pleasure, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.