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Defense Secretary Mark Esper On 'Nested' Communications And Iran-Backed Militias

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the last two weeks, the U.S. and Iran have come closer to war than they've been in decades. At the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is navigating the military through this crisis. Our co-host Ari Shapiro just interviewed the defense secretary at his Pentagon office.

Hey there, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: All right. You're just back from that conversation. What stood out to you?

SHAPIRO: Well, we asked him about all the big stories of the day - the Saudi cadets kicked off American military bases, the administration's conflicting stories about intelligence indicating an imminent attack by Qassem Soleimani. As you'll remember, the president said there were plans to attack four U.S. embassies. On Sunday, Esper said he hadn't seen that intelligence, so I asked him this.

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

MARK ESPER: I don't think so. I think they're 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...

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

ESPER: What I mean is that the information builds upon itself or is contained within a broader subset of things.

SHAPIRO: But, Audie, the answer that stood out to me the most was one that he actually gave us twice - once during our 20-minute sit-down, and then again after we left his office and his press secretary called us back because he wanted to clarify.

CORNISH: Clarify what?

SHAPIRO: One of the most consequential decisions the U.S. has to make right now is what to do about militias in Iraq that have Iran's backing and they are attacking military bases in Iraq. Even today, those militias have been firing rockets at Balad Air Base near Baghdad. So the question is, what's the U.S. going to do about this? Last week, the White House national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, told our colleague Steve Inskeep that Iran will be held accountable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT O'BRIEN: We've made it very clear that when Iranian proxies that are directed by Iran attack Americans, that we're going to hold the Iranians responsible.

SHAPIRO: So I asked Defense Secretary Mark Esper, what does holding the Iranians responsible mean? Does it mean attacking Iran?

CORNISH: How did he answer?

SHAPIRO: Well, on our first go round, he answered it by saying that 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 mentions Article II of the Constitution, which establishes presidential power.

ESPER: The proxies in Iraq are are available targets for us under the AUMF and under the commander in chief's authority for Article II. And we are prepared, and we'll 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: So we finish the interview. We pack up our gear, and his press secretary comes and finds us and says, the defense secretary needs to clarify his answer. So we go back into his office a second time, and I ask the question again. 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.

CORNISH: Ari, give us the context for this distinction he's trying to make.

SHAPIRO: This back-and-forth, I think, really captures the difficult needle that Esper is trying to thread in this moment. You can tell that on the one hand, he does not want to give Iran a green light to support militias that are attacking Americans and their allies. And on the other hand, he does not want to sound belligerent, like he is threatening an attack on Iranian soil.

CORNISH: I know we're going to hear more of that interview with the defense secretary tomorrow.

Ari, thanks for updating with us.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.