On Friday, Trump said Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, 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 administration officials. 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 only aware of vague intelligence about a plot against the embassy in Baghdad and the information did not suggest a fully formed plan. Neither official said there were threats against multiple embassies.
On CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, Esper defended the strike on Soleimani, saying it “disrupted attacks” and “reset terms with Iran.”
White House national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien also defended the strike, saying on ABC’s “This Week” the Iranian regime is “having a very bad week” and the United States would continue a “maximum pressure campaign” against the regime.
He also said the president has shown “incredible restraint” in the face of regular provocation from Iran and has also 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 the United States’s “exquisite intelligence,” it is difficult “to know exactly what the targets are,” O’Brien said. He added 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 strike, O’Brien said, “I would love to release the intelligence,” but “those same streams and channels” are important to protecting Americans.
Top Democrats have pushed back on Esper’s claim that the Gang of Eight congressional leaders was given information on the threat to attack the embassy in Baghdad. Rep. Adam B. 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 sufficiently justify the strike. He earlier called the briefing the “worst” he’s received in nine years in the Senate.
Sen. Christopher A. 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 Laura Ingraham,” the senator 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.) said administration officials were “dismissive of Congress,” throughout the briefing on NBC’s “Meet the Press."
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 F. Bennet (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.