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Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin Discusses Tensions With Iran And Pentagon Shakeup


We'll turn now to one member of Congress keeping an eye on rising tensions with Iran - Elissa Slotkin. She's a Democrat from Michigan. She was a CIA analyst in Iraq, and she served in the Defense Department under both President Obama and President Bush. Welcome.

ELISSA SLOTKIN: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Start with Iran. Do you believe the Trump administration is laying the groundwork for war?

SLOTKIN: You know, I think it's really hard to understand what they're doing. You have different members of the administration saying different things on different days. The president says he does not want war but then tweets, you know, a couple weekends ago that he essentially wants to wipe them off the map. Secretary Pompeo says he doesn't want war, but he has a 12-point plan. So, you know, it's hard to understand what their goals are. It's hard for us, so you can imagine how hard it is for the Iranians.

KELLY: How great a threat do you believe Iran currently poses to the national security of the United States?

SLOTKIN: Well, I think certainly to our embassies, particularly in Baghdad, our troops that are stationed in the region. They participate in, you know, significant amounts of terrorism and malign activities from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon. I mean, they are not positive actors in the region, that is for sure. That doesn't mean that the United States is looking to get into a long-term war with Iran, right? There is a difference. And what worries me is that this kind of cycle of escalation requires a very, very deft hand. And this administration has not given me evidence that they are capable of that. That's what worries me.

KELLY: And what would have to happen - what would the Trump administration have to do to persuade you that military action was warranted, was necessary to counter this threat?

SLOTKIN: Well, first of all, I think it's important to recognize that if the administration wants to get into a medium to long-term war with Iran, they need to come back to the U.S. Congress and request authorization for military force. They do not currently have that authority. You know, we always retain the right to self-defense. That is important. If we are being attacked, if our forces are being attacked, we have the right to defend ourselves. That is different than getting into a medium to long-term war, another large war in the Middle East. Some of the intelligence that's out there is compelling, and it would get the attention of any president, any administration, including Republican and Democratic administrations that I've worked for. That doesn't mean that we have a strategy, a plan and a deft hand in dealing with it.

KELLY: I mentioned you worked for the CIA in Iraq. Given how wrong the intelligence was in the run-up to war in Iraq, does the U.S. now have a responsibility to its allies but also to just the American public to be more transparent about what it knows and how it knows it?

SLOTKIN: Absolutely. Anyone of my generation, you know, what has absolutely shaped our experience is 9/11 and the aftermath of that and how we went to war and how we are still in war. That has shaped us to such an extent that when I look at any future conflict, I have a much more skeptical eye towards the intelligence, the goals, the strategies, how we're going to get out of that conflict, and that's appropriate given the amount of blood and treasure that we have spent in the Middle East in the past two decades.

KELLY: The backdrop to all of this is a Defense Department that has been without a permanent leader for months now. How does that affect this moment?

SLOTKIN: Well, in a standard administration, Democrat or Republican, you'd have a robust interagency process. You know, you'd have a situation room meeting probably pretty regularly with the president, his national security adviser, his senior Cabinet members, and you'd be able to debate, to discuss, to come up with a real plan. I'm just not sure that's even happening anymore. There's no real evidence that a normal interagency process is happening. So I don't know what the process is within the White House to think through these issues.

KELLY: Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin - she sits on the House Armed Services and on the Homeland Security Committees. Congresswoman, thank you.

SLOTKIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.