Esper shares view em­bassies were tar­gets

De­fense sec­re­tary says he hasn’t seen ev­i­dence

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Wil­liam Cum­mings

De­fense Sec­re­tary Mark Esper said Sun­day he had not seen specific ev­i­dence that Iran planned an im­mi­nent at­tack on four U. S. em­bassies, as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has as­serted, but said he and sev­eral mem­bers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s na­tional se­cu­rity team shared the pres­i­dent’s view that the em­bassies were po­ten­tial tar­gets.

Trump cited the pur­ported plot against the em­bassies in an in­ter­view Fri­day as jus­tification for his de­ci­sion to or­der a lethal drone strike on Ira­nian Gen. Qasem Soleimani ear­lier this month in Bagh­dad, Iraq.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has said Iran’s top gen­eral posed an im­me­di­ate threat to Amer­i­cans and there­fore the pres­i­dent had to act with­out tak­ing the time to con­sult Congress. But some con­gres­sional crit­ics have said they have not seen ev­i­dence to sup­port that claim.

Esper said on CBS News’ “Face the Na­tion” that the ad­min­is­tra­tion acted upon solid in­tel­li­gence in de­cid­ing to kill Soleimani. He said, “There was go­ing to be an at­tack within a mat­ter of days that would be broad in scale – in other words, more than one coun­try – and that it would be big­ger than pre­vi­ous at­tacks.”

Esper said “there was a ref­er­ence in this ex­quis­ite in­tel­li­gence to an at­tack on the United States Em­bassy in Bagh­dad,” which was shared with the bi­par­ti­san con­gres­sional lead­ers known as the Gang of Eight.

When asked if there was a specific piece of ev­i­dence to sup­port Trump’s state­ment that four em­bassies were in dan­ger, Esper said, “I didn’t see one with re­gard to the four em­bassies.”

The Pen­tagon chief said the pres­i­dent never claimed there was “tan­gi­ble” or specific ev­i­dence of a com­ing at­tack on the em­bassies but was dis­cussing what he thought “could” hap­pen.

He shared Trump’s view that the diplo­matic en­claves were “prob­a­bly” tar­gets be­cause “em­bassies are the most prom­i­nent dis­play of Amer­i­can pres­ence in a coun­try.”

Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Robert O’Brien echoed Esper’s com­ments dur­ing an in­ter­view with NBC News, say­ing he saw the in­tel­li­gence.

“We had ex­quis­ite in­tel­li­gence, and the in­tel­li­gence showed that they were look­ing at U. S. fa­cil­i­ties through­out the re­gion,” O’Brien said on “Meet the Press.” “They wanted to inflict ca­su­al­ties on Amer­i­can sol­diers, sailors, airmen, marines, as well as diplo­mats.”

House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Adam Schiff, D- Calif., who was briefed on the in­tel­li­gence as a mem­ber of the Gang of Eight, dis­puted the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the ev­i­dence.

“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,” Schiff said on “Face the Na­tion.”

Esper said most mem­bers of the Gang of Eight thought the in­tel­li­gence was “per­sua­sive” and “did not think that it should be re­leased to the broader mem­bers of Congress.” Schiff dis­agreed.

“We of­ten don’t share the most sen­si­tive sources and meth­ods with all of the mem­bers, but that’s not an ex­cuse for with­hold­ing from the mem­bers the un­der­ly­ing facts. And so if the in­tel­li­gence showed that there were four em­bassies be­ing tar­geted that should have been shared with the mem­bers,” Schiff said. “It wasn’t, be­cause I don’t be­lieve that is what the in­tel­li­gence showed.”

JIM WAT­SON/ AFP VIA GETTY IM­AGES

De­fense Sec­re­tary Mark Esper leaves a briefing.

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