Former CIA Chief Tells Wolf Blitzer Qassem Soleimani Was Never on Direct Target List

Friday on CNN Live, former head of the CIA Leon Panetta told host Wolf Blitzer that Qassem Soleimani was never on the direct target list which would have singled him out for termination.

Soleimani was the head of Iran's Quds Force, a division of the Revolutionary Guard, before being killed Thursday in a drone strike authorized by President Donald Trump in Baghdad, Iraq.

"We never had Soleimani on that target list," Panetta said. "We had the names of terrorists like [Osama] bin-Laden and obviously [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and other terrorist leaders. But Soleimani was never on that list."

Panetta explained that Soleimani was not on the list because it was difficult to narrow down who should be on it.

"I think the reason was that he was a general in Iran who, along with the leadership of Iran and other generals that were involved in Iran, all were involved in planning what Iran was doing," Panetta said. "It was difficult to say that we ought to pick one general to go after and try to execute in some way when you're dealing with the entire country as a threat to the United States. ... What the United States needed to focus on was the threat from Iran, not just one particular individual."

While Panetta did not specifically say that President Trump was correct in ordering Soleimani's termination, he was clear that no one "should mourn the death of General Soleimani."

"He was a bad actor and he did kill thousands of innocent people and U.S. forces as well, hundreds of our men and women in uniform," Panetta said.

qassem soleimani
The termination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani could cause retaliatory attacks on U.S. military bases by Iran's proxy forces, according to former CIA chief Leon Panetta. Mehdi Ghasemi / ISNA / AFP/Getty

"But the real question is whether or not this action has given us less of a chance of going to war or increased the chances of war," Panetta continued. "I think right now we are closer to war with Iran than we've been in the last 40 years. That is a danger that we have to pay attention to that was not dealt with with one act."

Blitzer asked Panetta if he accepted U.S. intelligence reports that Soleimani was planning attacks against U.S. military and diplomatic personnel.

"There's no question in my mind that Soleimani played a role in planning further attacks," Panetta said. "That's what he did as the head of the Quds Force. But whether or not he himself would have conducted that attack I think is subject to question."

"He would have had his proxies conducting that attack," Panetta continued. "Simply going after him does not necessarily mean that the United States is not going to be attacked either by Iran or by other proxy forces, and that's the bottom line. We have got to focus on the fact we are still subject to possible attack from Iran as a consequence of what happened."

Panetta said he had no doubt that Iran would respond with force against the U.S. as retaliation for the killing of Soleimani.

"We are now caught in a punch and counterpunch world," Panetta said. "It's a cycle in which the United States is hitting Iran and Iran is now hitting the United States. And it's very likely that as a result of what happened to Soleimani that the Iranians are going to plan without question an attack on either U.S. forces or U.S bases either through their proxies or through Iran directly."

"We have a lot of troops stationed in the Middle East," Panetta concluded. "We have a lot of targets that the Iranians could go after. There's not much question in my mind that we are going to see Iran conduct some kind of act against the United States as a sign of responding to what happened with Soleimani."

"It's gonna happen," Panetta concluded.