Intelligence information bent to justify war in the Middle East is eerily familiar ground to Rep. Ruben Gallego. The Arizona Democrat served as a Marine infantryman in Iraq in 2005, after the George W. Bush administration’s most criticized reason for invasion — stockpiled weapons of mass destruction — vanished in the desert.
Now Gallego, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has called for restraint among lawmakers and the White House in dealing with what he has said is intelligence manipulated into exaggerating the threat that Iran poses to the United States and its allies.
Gallego said he received a classified briefing Friday.
“What I saw was a lot of misinterpretation and wanting conflict coming from the administration and intelligence community,” Gallego told The Washington Post by phone Saturday. “Intel doesn’t show existential threats. Even what it shows, it doesn’t show threats to U.S. interests.”
Gallego said the two main drivers of what he described as a false narrative are national security adviser John Bolton and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Both men have been lobbying for a military escalation against Iran, in media appearances and behind closed doors. Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, appeared on cable news discussing “multiple and credible sources of increased threats” from Iran.
“I get the same intel as Cotton,” Gallego wrote Saturday on Twitter. “He is greatly exaggerating the situation to spur us to war. Don’t fall for it.”
A spokesman for Cotton, who is himself a veteran of Iraq as well as Afghanistan, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the National Security Council did not immediately respond to a similar request.
Gallego said both committees get similar, if not the same, briefings from military and State Department officials.
President Trump has reportedly grown frustrated with Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for what appears to be an escalation beyond his own preference for diplomatic talks and harsh sanctions. And during the presidential campaign, he promised to keep the United States out of costly foreign wars.
Gallego said the temperature has lowered in recent days after skepticism with the American public and in Congress over the credibility of a threat from Iran. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), frequent Trump defender, said this week that he felt lawmakers had not been “well-informed” or thoroughly briefed on Iran.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) told the Atlantic, “We may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict with Iran — and without any endgame in mind.”
Gallego voiced similar concerns about miscalculations or willful misrepresentations of intelligence to justify military strikes against Iran.
This month, a U.S. aircraft carrier deployment was expedited and bombers were dispatched to the region in response to reports of increased activity by Iranian military forces and proxy groups. Citing news reports and nonclassified intelligence, Gallego said small Iranian vessels carrying missiles had escalated tensions and caused military forces to go on higher alert.
Iran could have loaded those missiles to move them out of fear of U.S. military action, rather than in preparation for an offensive strike, said Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security.
Deciding that Iran’s actions are offensive in nature could be a sign of confirmation bias, Gallego said.
He warned of other intelligence-fueled miscalculations in a complex situation such as the one in Iran, when U.S. actions can affect decisions by Iranian military forces and Iran’s militant proxies in Syria and Iraq.
“Deterrence is important to contain bad actors like Iran. But there has to be a fine line between deterrence and escalation,” Gallego said. “We can’t automatically go to war because a 17-year-old fires an AK-47 at U.S. interests.”