DOD chief Esper says he ‘didn’t see’ evidence of an Iranian plot to attack four embassies
By JOSEPH MARKS, JULIET EILPERIN AND DREW HARWELL | The Washington Post | Published: January 12, 2020
Top Trump administration officials struggled Sunday morning to defend an airstrike that killed a senior Iranian general, acknowledging that they could not confirm President Donald Trump’s assertion Friday that Iranians planned to attack four embassies.
On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he “didn’t see” evidence of an Iranian plan to attack four U.S. embassies. But he said he “share(s) the president’s view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”
On Friday, Trump said that senior Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike, had been planning attacks on four U.S. embassies, a claim made to justify the decision.
That assertion was at odds with intelligence assessments from senior officials in Trump’s administration. On Friday, a senior administration official and a senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information, told The Washington Post they were aware only of vague intelligence about a plot against the embassy in Baghdad and that the information did not suggest a fully formed plot. Neither official said there were threats against multiple embassies.
On CNN’s State of the Union Sunday, Esper defended the strike on Soleimani, saying it “disrupted attacks” and “reset terms with Iran.”
White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien also defended the strike, saying the Iranian regime is “having a very bad week” and that the U.S. would continue a “maximum pressure campaign” against the regime on ABC’s “This Week.”
He also said the president has shown “incredible restraint” in the face of regular provocation from Iran and also has been “modest in his dealings” with other countries.
But O’Brien did not confirm Trump’s claim that the White House had received intelligence that Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was planning “imminent” attacks against four U.S. embassies.
“What the president said is consistent with what we’ve been saying. We had very strong intelligence that they were looking to kill and maim Americans in American facilities in the region,” O’Brien said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Even with America’s “exquisite intelligence,” it is difficult “to know exactly what the targets are,” O’Brien said. He added that it was fair to anticipate a future Iranian attack “would have hit embassies in at least four countries.”
Pressed on why the White House has not revealed more details on the alleged threat they say precipitated the Iranian strike, O’Brien said, “I would love to release the intelligence,” but “those same streams and channels” are important to protecting Americans.
Top Democrats also have pushed back on Esper’s claim that the Gang of Eight — the bipartisan congressional group that traditionally is read in on classified intelligence and military matters — was given information on the threat to attack the embassy in Baghdad. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the Gang of Eight, contradicted Esper’s assertion on “Face the Nation” about the briefing to Congress, saying it lacked “specificity” about a potential embassy threat. Schiff said he and several members of the Gang of Eight were dissatisfied with the evidence laid out as a basis for the strike.
Trump and Esper are “fudging” the details, Schiff added, and “overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows.” When it comes to information that could lead to a potential war in Iran, he said, “that’s a dangerous thing to do.”
Trump’s claim about threats against embassies was also not part of a Senate briefing earlier this week, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“That was news to me,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t something I recall being raised in the classified briefing.”
Lee also savaged the Trump administration for failing to justify the strike sufficiently. Earlier, he called the briefing the “worst” he’s received in nine years in the Senate.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., also speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” criticized the administration for failing to disclose more specific intelligence during the closed-door briefing.
“We got less detailed information there than President Trump shared with (Fox News host) Laura Ingraham,” Coons said.
Killing Soleimani did eliminate “one of our worst enemies in the Middle East … But the larger question is, did it make us safer?” Coons said.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on NBC’s “Meet the Press” said administration officials were “dismissive of Congress” throughout the briefing.
He also criticized the administration for relying on a George W. Bush-era authorization for military force to justify the attack.
“We need to have a full-throated debate in Congress,” he said. “I want to have that debate and bring our kids home.”
Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., said on “Meet the Press” that Trump’s actions “strengthened the hard-line wing of the Iranian government.”
“This is a moment when heightened congressional scrutiny of the president is important no matter who the president is,” said Bennett, who’s also a long-shot contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.