Defense Secretary Saw No Evidence of US Embassy Threat by Iran

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper delivers a speech during a press conference with French Defense Minister Florence Parly in Paris on Sept. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

(CN) – Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday that he did not see evidence of four American embassies being threatened by Iran, contradicting President Trump’s justification last week for ordering a drone attack that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani.

Esper, who appeared on Sunday morning talks shows, said he did not view hard evidence of the embassies being targeted.

“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “What I’m saying is I share the president’s view that probably, my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”

The killing of Soleimani escalated already high tensions between Iran and the U.S. After President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iranian nuclear deal and imposed new sanctions, Iran stepped up attacks in the Middle East.

Those included the shooting down of a U.S. Navy drone over the Strait of Hormuz in April 2019 and a missile and drone attack in September 2019 that hit a Saudi Arabian oil facility which took out 5.7 million barrels of daily oil production.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien also appeared on the Sunday morning circuit. On “Fox News Sunday,” O’Brien defended the attack but did not confirm the president’s specific assertion that four embassies were threatened.

“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”

“What the president said is consistent with what we’ve been saying. We had very strong intelligence that they were looking to kill and maim Americans in American facilities in the region,” O’Brien said.

The lack of clarity about the strike has roused criticism from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized the Trump administration on Sunday, saying it was not “straight with Congress” about the killing.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Pelosi said she told the White House that congressional leaders should have been informed of the strike beforehand. She was told, “We had to keep it close.”

“You had to ‘keep it close’?” Pelosi said. “What you’re saying is you don’t trust the Congress of the United States with sources and methods and timing? That’s wrong. That is wrong.”

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, upon leaving a briefing on the strike Wednesday, called it the worst briefing he attended since taking office.

“When something like this happens, when events are unfolding quickly, events that will have a profound impact on national security and military strategy, Congress does need to know about it, in part so we can evaluate the scope of our authority to act or choose not to act,” Lee said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We didn’t get that. And that was disappointing.”

When asked about a specific threat to four U.S. embassies, Lee said that was not included in the briefing.

“I didn’t hear anything about that,” he said. “Several of my colleagues have said the same. So, that was news to me, and it is certainly not something that I recall being raised in the classified briefing.”

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