Updated: January 10, 2019
MediaFile has updated this article to include new developments after an intelligence briefing given to lawmakers earlier this week.
After escalating violence from Iranian-backed militias in recent days, President Donald Trump retaliated with a military option last week that two of his immediate predecessors passed on and ordered the killing of Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s top military commander.
In an address at his Mar-a-Lago resort, Trump said that Suleimani was plotting “imminent and sinister attacks” on American embassies, consulates and military personnel in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. However, recent reporting by The New York Times and The Washington Post has called into question the Trump administration’s claim that Iranian attacks were imminent, and has shed light on how the strike against Suleimani had been long advocated for by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
On Saturday, the Times reported that Trump had initially decided against targeting Suleimani on December 28, but after Iranian-backed militias attacked the American Embassy in Baghdad, Trump had changed his mind. Senior Pentagon officials were “stunned” by the decision, the Times reported, as some in the administration disputed the significance of the new intelligence.
When asked by reporters how imminent the attacks against U.S. persons and assets were, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the intelligence was “clear and unambiguous” and pointed to threats within “days” or “weeks.”
1. I’ve had a chance to check in with sources, including two US officials who had intelligence briefings after the strike on Suleimani. Here is what I’ve learned. According to them, the evidence suggesting there was to be an imminent attack on American targets is “razor thin”.
— Rukmini Callimachi (@rcallimachi) January 4, 2020
Days earlier, however, Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi expanded on the Times’ reporting in an extensive Twitter thread, quoting two U.S. officials saying that the chances of an “imminent attack” taking place were “razor thin.”
Callimachi added that a top official described the reading of the intelligence that informed the decision to kill Suleimani as an “illogical leap.” Rather, the intelligence, mainly Suleimani’s travels, simply showed “business as usual” for the General and little evidence for concern.
She also quoted an official who described the planning of the strike as “chaotic” and said the strike was implemented in such haste that the U.S. was initially unsure who else was travelling with Suleimani at the time. Officials later confirmed the strike had also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi commander who led the Popular Mobilization Forces.
On Sunday, The Washington Post highlighted another inconsistency with the White House’s justification for the strike, reporting that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been pushing Trump to target Suleimani for months, which underscored his “fixation on Iran that spans 10 years of government service from Congress to the CIA to the State Department.”
In the days since these reports, pressure has built on the White House to share its intelligence on the allegedly imminent attacks with lawmakers and the public, but administration officials have refused to spell out details.
After a contentious briefing with lawmakers on Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), standing next to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky), excoriated the administration for “probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.”
“What I found so distressing about the briefing is one of the messages we received from the briefers was, ‘Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of the appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran,’ and that if you do ‘You will be emboldening Iran,’” Lee said. Later, Lee announced his support for a House resolution passed yesterday that aims to limit Trump’s war powers.
In addition to Lee and Paul, Congressional Democrats were also unimpressed with the intelligence briefing. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) both disputed that there was any evidence of an imminent attack against the U.S.
Ultimately, reports that the intelligence in question was scarce were inadvertently bolstered by Pompeo himself, who admitted in an interview on Thursday that at the time of the strike against Suleimani, U.S. officials were unaware of any specific planned attacks.
“There were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassim Suleimani,” Pompeo said. “We don’t know precisely when, and we don’t know precisely where.”
"There were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qasem Soleimani," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says. "We don't know precisely when, and we don't know precisely where."
That last part seems significant.
— David Gura (@davidgura) January 10, 2020