It has been nearly a week since the killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, and the justification for the strike is still clear as mud.
And now, in the past 24 hours, it has become even more opaque.
Coming out of a private briefing on the subject Wednesday, Republican Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.) decried the lack of information. Lee called it “probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue,” and said the administration had “not really” done anything to establish the imminence of the attacks.
Paul added: “I didn’t learn anything in the hearing that I hadn’t seen in a newspaper already. None of it was overwhelming that X was going to happen.”
Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), in contrast, called it “one of the best briefings I’ve had since I’ve been here in the United States Congress.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called it “a compelling briefing” and said it was unthinkable that anyone wouldn’t support the strike based on the information presented.
It’s important to note that the libertarian-minded Lee and Paul are big proponents of congressional authorization for military action, so it’s perhaps not surprising that they would be some of the more difficult gets for the administration on this subject. But that’s still two Republican senators who say a GOP administration just hasn’t provided the goods — or anything close.
With that as the backdrop Thursday, President Trump and Vice President Pence piled on the uncertainty. Appearing on the “Today” show, Pence said the Trump administration did not share some of the most important information because of its sensitivity.
“Some of the most compelling evidence that Qasem Soleimani was preparing an imminent attack against American forces and American personnel also represents some of the most sensitive intelligence that we have,” Pence told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. “It could compromise those sources and methods.”
Pence added on Fox News that “we’re simply not able to share with every member of the House and Senate the intelligence that supported the president’s decision to take out Qasem Soleimani,” but “I can assure your viewers that there was — there was a threat of an imminent attack.”
So to recap: The White House is now saying that the information provided to lawmakers indeed may not have been as compelling as it could have been, but that Congress and the American people just need to trust that it’s there.
And then, to top it all off, Trump came out around noon on Thursday and disclosed one of Soleimani’s alleged plots: to blow up a U.S. embassy.
“We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy,” Trump said. “We also did it for other reasons that were very obvious.”
Trump has the ability to declassify anything he wants to, but it was a curious sudden disclosure for an administration that had for six days resisted saying much of anything. It’s also difficult to believe that lawmakers who were told about a potential embassy attack in any real detail would say it was a nothingburger — no matter their political leanings.
As The Post’s Shane Harris noted, the idea that such information can’t be shared with Congress is also difficult to swallow. Even if an administration doesn’t share all the information widely with Congress for fear of leaks, it generally shares highly classified information with a smaller group of high-ranking lawmakers who are experienced in intelligence matters.
Be skeptical: The executive routinely shares highly-classified information with lawmakers, particularly Gang of 8, who are notified about covert actions. Officials have also been talking for days about intelligence (in more than general terms, btw) that led to Soleimani's death. https://t.co/Pl5XSt28en— Shane Harris (@shaneharris) January 9, 2020
At the same time, the White House has already frozen out Democratic members of the “Gang of Eight” by not informing them of the attack in advance, as is normal practice. And Trump has sent signals that perhaps he doesn’t intend to be terribly forthcoming with the Democrats in the group, retweeting a claim from conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza that sharing such information with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) would be akin to sharing it with the Iranians.
Looming over all of it are the circumstances in which the strike was launched. Trump’s advisers reportedly delivered the president options to deal with an escalating situation with Iran, and killing Soleimani was the most extreme one. Such an option is generally used to push the president toward a more moderate course of action. Trump, though, chose the extreme one.
If the attacks were so imminent and the strike so necessary, why was that labeled the extreme option? Given that Trump’s unwieldy actions and declarations often force those around him to struggle to justify them after the fact, it’s not illogical to suspect a similar effort afoot here. That would sure explain the lack of transparency — even with Congress — and the conflicting signals.
Soleimani has indeed been estimated to have been behind the killing of hundreds of Americans, so the idea that he might be planning more such operations — especially at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran — is certainly logical. That appears to be why the administration is emphasizing what he has already done. But this was sold as something that was imminent, and there are plenty of indications that the information as we understand it might not be overly specific. Milley’s comments certainly indicated as much, and Lee and Paul say that basically no new information has been shared with them to back up that claim.
It’s difficult to believe there isn’t more that could be shared here — at least with a limited group of lawmakers — that could calm fears about the United States using yet another pretext for military action in the Middle East, as it did in Iraq. But for now, the Trump administration is doing a great job of seeding doubts. In the hours ahead, a big question will be whether top administration officials confirm and expand upon his embassy claim.
U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read
Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.
What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.
Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.
How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.
What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.