Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday defended President Donald Trump’s order to assassinate Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, but admitted he “didn’t see” any specific evidence backing up the president’s claim that Soleimani had been planning imminent attacks on multiple U.S. embassies.
During an interview Friday with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Trump fired back at critics who opposed his decision to take out Soleimani, claiming the Iranian military leader was readying assaults on four U.S. embassies, including in Baghdad. He did not cite any specific intelligence during the interview.
Asked about Trump’s assertion on Sunday, Esper told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “exquisite intelligence” shared with the “Gang of Eight” ― a group of top congressional leaders typically briefed on highly sensitive intelligence matters ― referenced “an attack” on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Pressed by host Margaret Brennan about a specific piece of intelligence that might have indicated threats to multiple embassies, Esper said Trump had merely said he “believed” that there “probably and could have been” attacks on additional embassies.
“Are you saying there wasn’t one?” Brennan asked.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Esper responded. “What I’m saying is that I share the president’s view that probably ― my expectation was that they were going to go after our embassies.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper also grilled Esper about Trump’s claim about the four embassies on Sunday’s “State of the Union,” but the defense secretary said he wouldn’t discuss “intelligence matters here on the show.”
“There was evidence that part of the attack would have been against the United States Embassy ... in Baghdad,” Esper said, prompting Tapper to ask about the other three embassies mentioned by Trump.
“I’m not going to discuss intelligence,” Esper said. “What the president said was he believed it probably could have been. He didn’t cite intelligence.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers say Trump administration officials failed to provide during a classified Senate briefing earlier this week adequate proof that Iran was planning imminent attacks on Americans ahead of Soleimani’s assassination by drone on Jan. 3.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on Wednesday called the meeting “probably the worst briefing, at least on a military issue” he’s attended in his nine years in the Senate. He said officials told lawmakers not to publicly debate the merits of the Soleimani strike.
“I find that absolutely insane,” Lee told reporters. “I think it’s unacceptable.”
Esper on Sunday said the Gang of Eight found the intelligence “persuasive” and had urged administration officials not to share it with other lawmakers.
But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the Gang of Eight, told “Face the Nation” later Sunday that Esper’s intelligence assessment was “just plain wrong.”
“There was no discussion in the Gang of Eight briefing that, ‘These are the four embassies that are being targeted and we have exquisite intelligence that shows these are the specific targets,’” Schiff said.
He said he didn’t “recall” administration officials discussing the potential bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
″The briefing was much more along the lines, frankly, of something that Secretary Pompeo admitted the other day,” Schiff continued, “when he said that, ‘We don’t know precisely where and we don’t know precisely when.’”
National security adviser Robert O’Brien, who, like Esper, cited “exquisite intelligence,” said Sunday that he had seen evidence that Iran was “looking at U.S. facilities throughout the region and that they wanted to inflict casualties.”
“The threat was imminent,” O’Brien told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He did not share specific evidence showing Iran had planned attacks against four U.S. embassies.
“I’d love to have the intelligence out there now,” he continued. “Unfortunately, if we declassified it, we could end up losing that stream of intelligence that will allow us to protect Americans going forward, and so we can’t. But the president’s interpretation of that intelligence is very consistent with it.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who echoed Lee’s frustration with the U.S. military action against Iran, said minutes later during an interview with “Meet the Press” that claims about “exquisite intelligence” seemed “inconsistent.”
“We’ve heard contradictory information,” Paul said. “We’ve heard from [Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] that they don’t know where or when but it was ‘imminent.’ That to me does seem inconsistent.”
This story has been updated to include Schiff’s comments.