Esper shares view embassies were targets
Defense secretary says he hasn’t seen evidence
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday he had not seen specific 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 justification 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 specific 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 specific 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 inflict 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.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper leaves a briefing.