A banner bearing the likeness of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani is carried during a funeral procession in Tehran, Iran. Picture: Arash Khamooshi/The New York Times
A banner bearing the likeness of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani is carried during a funeral procession in Tehran, Iran. Picture: Arash Khamooshi/The New York Times

Democrats press for details on threats cited by Trump as reason for killing Soleimani

By Alissa J. Rubin, Farnaz Fassihi, Eric Schmitt and Vivian Yee Time of article published Jan 8, 2020

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Washington — Under increasing pressure to defend the killing of a top Iranian general in Iraq, senior Trump administration officials offered new justifications but little detail Tuesday, citing threats to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and intelligence suggesting other imminent attacks that helped prompt the strike.

Democrats stepped up their criticism of intelligence that the administration provided immediately after the drone strike last week that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The administration’s formal notification to Congress, which remains classified, provided no information on future threats or the imminent attack, officials who have read it said.

Several said it was improperly classified, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called it “vague and unacceptably unspecific.” Lawmakers pressed for more answers Tuesday at an intelligence briefing by administration officials.

Iranian forces or their proxies were days from attacking U.S. personnel when President Donald Trump decided to strike Soleimani, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon, adding that Soleimani had traveled to Baghdad to coordinate attacks following up on a two-day siege of the U.S. Embassy there last week by pro-Iranian demonstrators. He declined to elaborate but called the intelligence “exquisite.”

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the threats against American personnel were days away from being carried out when President Donald Trump decided to strike Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani. File picture: Eric Thayer/The New York Times

Trump was more forceful but no more specific. Soleimani “was planning a very big attack and a very bad attack for us and other people,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “And we stopped him.”

Their defense of the killing came as Tehran launched its initial response, firing a dozen ballistic missiles early Wednesday from Iranian territory targeting U.S. forces in Iraq’s Anbar province and Kurdish region. A Pentagon official confirmed the missiles were launched at bases hosting U.S. forces but provided no initial damage assessment.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered a direct and proportional response to the Soleimani killing, not the kind of covert action through proxy forces that Tehran has traditionally employed. U.S. officials in recent weeks warned about the threat from short-range ballistic missiles that Iran had smuggled into Iraq.

As the threats from Tehran increased, several NATO allies conducting training for Iraqi troops — including Canada, Germany and Croatia — decided at least temporarily to remove some troops from Iraq. Canada, which leads the NATO training mission, announced it was withdrawing its 500 troops and sending them to Kuwait.

Fueled by what they have called weak and inadequate briefings from the administration, Democrats grew increasingly vocal in their skepticism, arguing the administration has a high burden to meet to show that the strike was justified.

Some drew comparisons to the flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the recent revelations about the failures of the war in Afghanistan.

“Between no weapons of mass destruction, no clear and present danger, the Afghanistan papers — there’s plenty to be skeptical about,” Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a brief interview. “The burden is on the administration to prove the truthfulness and veracity of how they made their decision.”

CIA Director Gina Haspel has spoken with multiple lawmakers in recent days, some of whom have urged her to be more forthcoming about the intelligence behind the killing. Haspel, in turn, has emphasized that she had serious concerns about the threat posed by Soleimani if the administration held off on targeting him.

Before the drone strike that killed Soleimani, the pro-Iranian protesters had attacked barricades outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and U.S. officials feared the attacks could resume and the situation could easily grow more dangerous, threatening the diplomats and military personnel who work at the compound.

Soleimani had arrived in Baghdad to pressure the Iraqi government to kick out U.S. forces after attacks by the United States on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia group with ties to Iran, according to U.S. officials.

One official noted that Soleimani was traveling with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi who helps lead the Iranian-backed militias and who was coordinating the attacks on the U.S. Embassy. Al-Muhandis was also killed in the strike.

Additionally, the classified document sent to Capitol Hill only recounts the attacks Iran and its proxies have carried out in recent months and weeks rather than outlining new threats, according to three U.S. officials.

Former Vice President Joe Biden demanded a “sober-minded explanation” from Trump of the strike, its consequences and the intelligence that prompted it.

“All we’ve heard from this administration are shifting explanations, evasive answers, repeated assertions of an imminent threat without the necessary evidence to support that conclusion,” Biden, a front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said in remarks from Pier 59 in New York. If there was a threat, he added, “we’re owed an explanation and the facts to back it up.”

Iranian-supported militias have increasingly directed attacks at Iraqi bases with U.S. forces over the past two months, officials have said. Since May, intelligence and military officials have warned that Iran has been preparing for attacks against Americans in the Middle East.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) leaves a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. Picture: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The reports have prompted the CIA and the FBI to relocate officers out of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in recent days and weeks, though some CIA officers were relocated earlier, according to officials briefed on the matter. Some went to other parts of Iraq, and officials emphasized that the moves have not diminished intelligence collection on Iranian activity in the country.

Administration officials, including Haspel, were set to brief the entire House and Senate on Wednesday, although it was not clear how detailed they will be. But expectations “are high,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

“We’re all going to want to hear why they thought targeting Soleimani was the best option, what were the other targets on the table, did they know about the collateral damage?” he said.

Pompeo has led the administration’s defense of the strike and said Tuesday that the intelligence was presented to Trump in broad detail before he ordered the strike.

“It was the right decision,” Pompeo said.

And Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, said that Soleimani was plotting attacks on “diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines” at multiple facilities.

O’Brien said the intelligence would most likely remain classified to avoid putting sources of intelligence and collection methods at risk. But, he added, “I can tell you that the evidence was strong.”

The New York Times

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