Soleimani af­ter­math shows Trump’s cred­i­bil­ity prob­lem

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PHILIP RUCKER, JOHN HUD­SON, SHANE HAR­RIS AND JOSH DAWSEY

The the­ory was born last Thurs­day in the Roo­sevelt Room of the White House, where Pres­i­dent Trump stood be­fore men in hard hats and or­ange con­struc­tion vests for an en­vi­ron­men­tal an­nounce­ment and of­fered a fresh ra­tio­nale for his con­tro­ver­sial or­der to kill a top Ira­nian gen­eral.

“They were look­ing to blow up our em­bassy,” Trump said, re­fer­ring to the heav­ily se­cured Bagh­dad fa­cil­ity that had be­come a mag­net for pro­test­ers. Later that night, at a rau­cous

cam­paign rally in Ohio, Trump added to his story. The Ira­ni­ans, he claimed, were plan­ning to at­tack not only the U.S. Em­bassy in Iraq but also an undis­closed num­ber of em­bassies in other coun­tries.

And then Trump fleshed out his claim even fur­ther. “I can re­veal I be­lieve it prob­a­bly would’ve been four em­bassies,” he said in an in­ter­view Fri­day with Fox News Chan­nel.

Based on what is known so far, Trump’s state­ment was at best an un­founded the­ory and at worst a false­hood. At each turn in the com­man­der in chief ’s rapidly evolv­ing nar­ra­tive of why he au­tho­rized the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed Ira­nian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the ma­chin­ery of gov­ern­ment scram­bled to adapt and re­spond.

The re­sult is a cred­i­bil­ity cri­sis for an ad­min­is­tra­tion that has long strug­gled to com­mu­ni­cate fac­tual in­for­ma­tion to the pub­lic. At a per­ilous mo­ment for the na­tion’s se­cu­rity, with the United States at the brink of war with Iran, Trump is un­able to rely on trust­wor­thi­ness to jus­tify his de­ci­sion to take out Soleimani, both be­cause of his lengthy record of ex­ag­ger­a­tions and lies and be­cause of his ever-shift­ing ra­tio­nales.

In a rare pub­lic break with the pres­i­dent, De­fense Sec­re­tary Mark T. Esper ac­knowl­edged Sun­day on CBS’S “Face the Na­tion” that he had not re­viewed any such ev­i­dence of a plot to at­tack four U.S. em­bassies, as Trump had sug­gested. Though he did not di­rectly con­tra­dict Trump, Esper’s as­sess­ment was at odds with that of the pres­i­dent.

In­side the Pen­tagon and else­where in the gov­ern­ment, there was skep­ti­cism about the pres­i­dent’s claim, as well as about Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo’s state­ment that the threat from

Soleimani was “im­mi­nent” and that hun­dreds of Amer­i­can lives were at risk. One se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said the re­marks from both men were un­nec­es­sary dis­trac­tions from what many of­fi­cials be­lieved was a de­fen­si­ble pol­icy de­ci­sion.

Al­most im­me­di­ately, other U.S. of­fi­cials said pri­vately that Pom­peo was over­stat­ing the in­tel­li­gence, por­tray­ing it as spe­cific enough to say when the strike was go­ing to hap­pen.

U.S. of­fi­cials, some of whom spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to de­scribe sen­si­tive in­tel­li­gence, have said Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials be­lieved that Soleimani in­tended to es­ca­late hos­til­i­ties toward U.S. in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East, to in­clude pos­si­ble at­tacks on diplo­matic and mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties.

This “stream” of in­tel­li­gence, how­ever, was not so spe­cific that it let of­fi­cials know when and where Soleimani in­tended to strike, of­fi­cials said.

De­spite Trump’s claim that the U.S. Em­bassy in Bagh­dad was one of four fa­cil­i­ties un­der threat of at­tack, some em­bassy of­fi­cials there said they did not re­ceive an alert com­men­su­rate to the threat Trump de­scribed, said peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion, who were not au­tho­rized to com­ment pub­licly.

When of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton or in a diplo­matic out­post re­ceive spe­cific, credible in­for­ma­tion about threats to an em­bassy, warn­ings are typ­i­cally sent to the U.S. per­son­nel in the post to be vig­i­lant and take pre­cau­tions.

“If they had knowl­edge of an im­mi­nent threat, then you would’ve ex­pected them to no­tify peo­ple,” said Ron­ald Neu­mann, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Academy of Diplo­macy and a re­tired ca­reer For­eign Ser­vice of­fi­cer.

Af­ter the killing of Soleimani and Iran’s pub­lic vows to take vengeance, U.S. per­son­nel in the re­gion were on edge and ask­ing col­leagues about in­for­ma­tion re­lated to emerg­ing threats. Some who never re­ceived any in­for­ma­tion about such spe­cific threats were an­gered and con­fused when Trump later claimed that the Bagh­dad em­bassy would have been at­tacked, when they had re­ceived no such in­for­ma­tion, said the peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion.

Pom­peo pushed back Mon­day against the charge that a no­ti­fi­ca­tion was not sent, but he did not spec­ify when or how it was trans­mit­ted.

“They were not only no­ti­fied, but we took ex­ten­sive ac­tion to do ev­ery­thing we could that they were safe and se­cure,” Pom­peo said on Fox News.

A State Depart­ment spokesman said Wash­ing­ton sent out a “world­wide se­cu­rity warn­ing to ev­ery em­bassy alert­ing them of po­ten­tial es­ca­la­tion with Iran,” but he did not say when that alert was sent.

The spokesman said that af­ter the U.S. mil­i­tary killed two dozen mem­bers of an Ira­nian-backed mili­tia in Iraq and Syria on Dec. 29, “ev­ery” re­gional se­cu­rity of­fi­cer “and em­bassy in the re­gion knew of the po­ten­tial es­ca­la­tion threat that could be im­posed on them.”

But there is no in­di­ca­tion that em­bassy em­ploy­ees were warned of a credible threat, and the State Depart­ment did not re­spond to ques­tions about whether the em­bassy in Bagh­dad took other mea­sures that are typ­i­cal when a spe­cific threat is un­cov­ered.

With the ques­tion of im­mi­nence dog­ging the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pub­lic de­fense of the Soleimani strike, other se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have shifted to vouch­ing for the qual­ity of the in­tel­li­gence, rather than what it said about tim­ing or par­tic­u­lar tar­gets. None of them has backed up Trump’s claim that four em­bassies were be­ing tar­geted.

Even if ev­i­dence of Trump’s claim ex­ists, there was no in­ter­a­gency process or de­ci­sion made to re­lease such in­for­ma­tion or for the pres­i­dent to say what he said, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to can­didly dis­cuss sen­si­tive mat­ters.

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam P. Barr was the lat­est to weigh in on the in­tel­li­gence Mon­day, and he por­trayed it as alarm­ing but gen­eral in na­ture.

“I’m not go­ing to get into the spe­cific in­tel­li­gence. I be­lieve there was in­tel­li­gence of im­mi­nent at­tack,” Barr said, not­ing that he was con­sulted be­fore the strike. “But I do be­lieve that this con­cept of im­mi­nence is some­thing of a red her­ring. I think when you’re deal­ing with a sit­u­a­tion where you al­ready have at­tacks un­der­way, you have a cam­paign that in­volves re­peated at­tacks on Amer­i­can tar­gets, I don’t think there’s a re­quire­ment, frankly, for, you know, know­ing the ex­act time and place of the next at­tack.”

Trump tweeted Mon­day that “the fu­ture at­tack” by Soleimani was im­mi­nent — “but it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter be­cause of his hor­ri­ble past!”

Esper and na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Robert C. O’brien have de­scribed the in­tel­li­gence about Soleimani’s plot­ting as “ex­quis­ite,” a term of art that im­plies spe­cific knowl­edge about the gen­eral’s in­ten­tions. The term is of­ten used to de­scribe satel­lites and other tech­ni­cal col­lec­tion meth­ods de­signed to in­ter­cept a tar­get’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions or track his move­ments.

Esper said this in­tel­li­gence was shared with only a hand­ful of law­mak­ers, known as the Gang of Eight, who are rou­tinely privy to highly clas­si­fied and sen­si­tive in­tel­li­gence that is not shared with all mem­bers of Congress.

O’brien, ap­pear­ing on NBC’S “Meet the Press,” broad­ened the aper­ture of the threat be­yond em­bassies.

“The in­tel­li­gence showed that they were look­ing at U.S. fa­cil­i­ties through­out the re­gion and that they wanted to in­flict ca­su­al­ties on Amer­i­can sol­diers, sailors, airmen, Marines, as well as diplo­mats,” he said.

O’brien spoke of the in­tel­li­gence as a “stream” that had to be re­stricted to a small num­ber of peo­ple. “I’d love to have the in­tel­li­gence out there now,” he said. “. . . But the pres­i­dent’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of that in­tel­li­gence is very con­sis­tent with it.”

Sub­tly, the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser was ac­knowl­edg­ing what other U.S. of­fi­cials have pri­vately said about Trump’s state­ments: The pres­i­dent is giv­ing his opin­ion about the in­tel­li­gence, which doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily match that of the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity or in­di­vid­ual an­a­lysts in the gov­ern­ment.

A former se­nior White House of­fi­cial of­fered an­other pos­si­bil­ity: that one of Trump’s ad­vis­ers spec­u­lated about pos­si­ble at­tacks on em­bassies in a briefing with the pres­i­dent.

“I don’t be­lieve he would have sim­ply, out of thin air, came up with that un­less he was ac­tu­ally told some­thing like that,” said the former of­fi­cial. “I’m sure some­one told him that that was a pos­si­bil­ity, and that stuck in his head.”

Added John Mclaugh­lin, a former act­ing CIA di­rec­tor, “It’s not in­con­sis­tent with [ Trump’s] record of mak­ing some­thing up when he doesn’t have the specifics.”

Opin­ions aside, some law­mak­ers have said that what lim­ited in­for­ma­tion the ad­min­is­tra­tion has shared has not made the case for a mil­i­tary strike.

“There was no dis­cus­sion in the Gang of Eight brief­ings that these are the four em­bassies that are be­ing tar­geted, and we have ex­quis­ite in­tel­li­gence that shows these are the spe­cific tar­gets,” House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Adam B. Schiff (D- Calif.) said on “Face the Na­tion.” There­fore,

Schiff sug­gested, “when you hear the pres­i­dent out there on Fox, he is fudg­ing the in­tel­li­gence.”

Of­fi­cials have also spent re­cent days try­ing to tem­per ex­pec­ta­tions now that Soleimani is dead. Killing the Ira­nian gen­eral, some said, may have dis­rupted his cur­rent plot­ting, but it didn’t elim­i­nate the threat.

When CIA Di­rec­tor Gina Haspel was asked to weigh in on a po­ten­tial strike on Soleimani, she did not ex­pressly ad­vo­cate for it. Rather, Haspel said the risk of not act­ing was greater than the risk of act­ing, of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with her re­marks have said.

At the root of Trump’s claim about four em­bassies is his ob­ses­sion with avoid­ing a re­peat of the deadly 2011 at­tack on a diplo­matic compound in Beng­hazi, Libya, as he watched pro­test­ers swarm the U.S. Em­bassy in Bagh­dad late last month.

Trump has asked about em­bassy se­cu­rity on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, has been de­ter­mined to make sure no em­bassy is com­pro­mised and has wanted the mil­i­tary to take out any­one who broached one.

“This was the anti-beng­hazi,” Trump crowed be­fore his rally crowd in Toledo last week. “We did it ex­actly the op­po­site of Beng­hazi, where they got there so late. All they saw when they got there days later were burn­ing em­bers from days be­fore. It’s all they saw. We got there very early. We saw what was hap­pen­ing. I saw what was hap­pen­ing. I said what’s that all about? And that was go­ing to be an­other Beng­hazi had they bro­ken through the fi­nal pan­els of glass.”

Trump’s Beng­hazi as­ser­tion, how­ever, was false. Se­cu­rity forces ar­rived at the fa­cil­ity just hours, not days, af­ter the at­tack.

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