Written by Thomas Gibbons-Neff (Nicholas Fandos and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.)
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday that he never saw any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four U.S. embassies as President Donald Trump had claimed last week as a justification for the strike on an Iranian general that sent the United States and Iran to the brink of war.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Esper said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” But he added, “I share 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.”
The muddled message Sunday by Esper and other administration officials only added to the public debate regarding the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and whether there was appropriate justification for the killing. The administration has offered shifting rationales for the strike, first indicating that it was a response to an “imminent” threat and then backing away from that idea before sporadically reclaiming it.
As critics in Congress, including some Republicans, expressed dismay, administration officials have in recent days often avoided offering specifics about what prompted the airstrike. But Trump said Friday that part of the reason was that Iran was planning attacks on four U.S. embassies.
Esper sounded more supportive of Trump’s claim in another interview Sunday, on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been, targeting the embassies in the region.”
But appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, had also played down Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four U.S. embassies in the region.
“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities. Now, whether they were bases, embassies — you know, it’s always hard until the attack happens.
“But we had very strong intelligence,” he added.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah and one of the administration’s most outspoken Republican critics in the aftermath of the strike, said on CNN on Sunday that he was “worried” about the quality of the information that national security officials were sharing with Congress and had not “been able to yet ascertain specific details of the imminence of the attack.”
“I believe that the briefers and the president believed that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack — I don’t doubt that — but it is frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it,” he said.
Asked specifically whether administration officials had briefed Congress on Iranian threats to four U.S. embassies, as they have subsequently claimed, Lee said he did not believe so.
“I didn’t hear anything about that,” he said. “Several of my colleagues have said the same. So that was news to me, and it is certainly not something that I recall being raised in the classified briefing.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi struck a similar tone, telling ABC’s “This Week” that “I don’t think the administration has been straight with the Congress of the United States” about the reasons for killing Soleimani.
On “Face the Nation,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, accused the president and his top national security aides of “fudging” the intelligence around the Iranian threat.
“Frankly, I think what they are doing is overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows,” Schiff said.
He also disputed that Congress had been told about specific threats to U.S. embassies or other targets.
“There was no discussion in the Gang of Eight briefings that these are four embassies that were being targeted and we have exquisite intelligence that shows these are the specific targets,” he said, referring to the group of congressional leaders and Republican and Democratic leaders of the intelligence committees. “I don’t recall, frankly, there being a specific discussion about bombing the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.”
He added, “In the view of the briefers, there was plotting — there was an effort to escalate being planned — but they didn’t have specificity.”
The strike on Soleimani, who was responsible for the killing and maiming of hundreds of U.S. troops at the height of the Iraq War, prompted retaliatory strikes last week. The Iranian military launched 16 ballistic missiles at bases in Iraq where Americans are stationed, bringing both countries to the brink of war.
When the Iranian retaliatory strikes did not kill or injure anyone, both sides pulled back. But hours after the strikes, a Ukrainian airliner was shot down over Tehran, Iran’s capital, by Iranian air defenses, killing all 176 aboard. Iranian officials said the downing of the plane was “unintentional” and the result of heightened tensions in the region.
The Trump administration has also tried to keep up pressure on Iran. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures” that new sanctions the administration had announced last week against Iran would target industries beyond its oil sector to pressure its government.
“This is all really about cutting off money, oil sales, other revenue that would be funding their terrorist activities and their nuclear weapons development,” Mnuchin said. “We don’t want to target the people of Iran.”
Despite the new measures, questions remain about the Trump administration’s ability to further ramp up sanctions on Iran after having already used such tools so aggressively.
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