President Donald Trump’s reputation for bending truth for political ends and conflicting administration rationales for taking out Iran’s top general are stirring a new debate over intelligence with troubling echoes in recent history.
Administration officials are tying themselves in knots to avoid contradicting Trump’s statement that Qasem Soleimani was planning attacks on four US embassies and that the President was therefore justified in ordering his killing.
Lawmakers say the hugely significant claim was not included in briefings on Capitol Hill last week by the administration to explain the Soleimani strike amid a fast widening controversy over whether its risks were justified. Given the serious nature of Trump’s claim, arguments that intelligence surrounding the attack is too sensitive to be released is unlikely to quell the controversy.
Discord over the rationale for the Soleimani attack is awakening history’s ghosts of US foreign interventions that went bad after questionable rationales for war – for instance in Iraq – as well as contemporary questions about this administration’s attitude toward trust and truth.
Few politicians in Washington doubt the Iranian military chief posed a threat to the US and had American blood on his hands. But the growing controversy is still deepening criticism of Trump’s decision to eliminate Iran’s second-most senior leader and debate about whether the possible consequences of escalation with Iran justify the risk.
It’s also a fresh sign of disarray in the administration’s national security leadership that was borne out by repeated contradictions and confusion during the clash over the details of Iran’s reprisals and in the aftermath.
From the White House’s point of view, the controversy risks further fogging an already imprecise narrative about the Iran showdown, exacerbating anger among some Capitol Hill Republicans and highlighting Trump’s temperament in an election year.
New uproar over Trump’s view of his expansive authority as commander-in-chief and refusal to act transparently comes as Washington is about to turn its focus back to an impeachment caused by those very character traits.
And less than two decades after wrongly interpreted intelligence led the United States into a war with Iraq that cost thousands of American lives and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, it poses the question of whether the United States is being drawn into a conflict with Iran on a similar premise.
The latest controversy over the Soleimani attack began after Trump told Laura Ingraham on Fox News on Friday night that “I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies.”
The Trump administration had previously said that Soleimani was planning “imminent” attacks on US targets before he was killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad, but could not say when and where they might occur.
Two top members of Trump’s war cabinet, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and national security adviser Robert O’Brien struggled to navigate the President’s remark in a flurry of Sunday talk show appearances.
Trump’s comment raised the question of whether he was revealing new intelligence that would significantly strengthen the rationale for Soleimani’s death and suggest Tehran was preparing a massive attack on the US.
Or was he indulging his habit of dispensing misinformation and fabrications and misrepresenting intelligence to justify the most significant and potentially inflammatory national security decision of his presidency?
The struggles of O’Brien and Esper on Sunday suggest the latter.
On CBS “Face the Nation” the Pentagon chief was asked whether there was intelligence to support Trump’s claim.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Esper said. “What I’m saying is, I share the President’s view that probably – my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies.”
But in a later Sunday interview with CNN’s “State of the Union,” Esper said he would not talk about intelligence, possibly in an attempt to avoid coming across as seriously at odds with the President on the question of Soleimani.
On “Fox News Sunday” O’Brien also struggled to reconcile Trump’s words with intelligence made available to members of Congress.
He said the President’s comment was “consistent with the intelligence to assume that they would have hit embassies in at least four countries.”
“We knew that there were threats to American facilities – now whether they were bases, embassies, you know, it’s always hard until the attack happens,” O’Brien said.
On Thursday, officials said when asked about a previous claim by the President that Iran was looking to blow up the US embassy in Baghdad, that he was referring to the storming of the compound that had already occurred.
But later on, a senior defense official told reporters that there had been a plot to attack the embassy involving explosives in one of the multiple plans Soleimani was allegedly working on.
Administration ‘exaggerating’ intelligence
Democrats are seizing on the confusion and conflicting statements to accuse the President of misleading Americans.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday he could not recall any mention of purported attacks being planned on four US embassies during a briefing for the select “Gang of Eight” congressional leaders last week.
“The brief was much more along the lines, frankly, of something that Secretary (Mike) Pompeo admitted the other day when he said that we don’t know precisely where and we don’t know precisely when,” Schiff said.
“I think what they are doing is they are overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows. And when you’re talking about justifying acts that might bring us into warfare with Iran, that’s a dangerous thing to do.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day” Monday that the administration has not offered “a shred of information that there was an imminent threat.”
“And that’s important, John, because imminent threats justify the use of force in a way that ‘probably’ or ‘could have’ does not,” the Connecticut Democrat said.
And Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said on “State of the Union” that he and colleagues could not recall information about possible attacks on four US embassies being included in an expanded briefing for all members of Congress. And he defended his stark criticism of Trump that is unusual from a party that has stuck with the turbulent President through almost everything.
“We were lied to about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We were lied to for a couple of decades about what was happening in Afghanistan. We have been lied to about a lot of things,” Lee told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“It’s not to say that the government is always lying or that the people who run it are inherently evil. It’s just that they’re human. And these things do happen. And so that’s important to ask these questions, to make sure that we know the details.”
CNN’s Devan Cole contributed to this report.