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Defense chief 'didn't see' specific evidence of Iran attack plans

Defense Secretary Mark Esper defended President Trump's decision

Defense Secretary Mark Esper defended President Trump's decision to kill an Iranian general. Credit: AP / Manuel Balce Ceneta

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday he "didn't see" specific evidence supporting President Donald Trump's claim that the Iranians were preparing to strike four U.S. embassies — used as justification for the strike that killed an Iranian general — but he said he shared the president's view that the Iranians would "probably" strike the embassies.

"I didn't see one with regard to four embassies," Esper acknowledged on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday. But he said he shares "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."

On Friday, Trump elaborated on the threat in a Fox News interview, saying, "I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies."

Administration officials took to the Sunday morning talk shows Sunday amid growing criticism that the United States did not adequately explain the imminent threat behind the Jan. 3 airstrike in Iraq that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which brought the United States and Iran to the edge of war.

Esper said on CBS that Trump "believed that" the threat "probably and could have been attacks against additional embassies. I shared that view."

Esper said Trump "didn't cite a specific piece of evidence" in his reasoning to the public.

"We are safer today than we were just a few weeks ago. Why? Because we took out the world's foremost terrorist leader, Qassem Soleimani, who had the blood of hundreds of American dead service members on his hands," Esper said. 

Esper said threats have been "disrupted" and that the U.S. government must "continue to work to make sure that that threat is completely eliminated."

Esper said in a separate interview on CNN's "State of the Union" that Trump "said that he believed, that they probably, that they could've been targeting the embassies in the region." 

National security adviser Robert O’Brien told ABC’s “This Week” that the administration had “very good intelligence” regarding Soleimani, but did not plan on releasing it to protect intelligence sources.

“I’d love to release the intelligence,” O’Brien said. “The reason we don’t ... is because that same intelligence, those same streams and channels are what allow us to protect Americans going forward."

O’Brien, when pressed by host George Stephanopoulos on why the U.S. embassies Trump claims were targeted by Soleimani were not evacuated or notified of such a threat, said, “We're not going to cut and run every time somebody threatens us.”

"We're not going to have another Benghazi," O’Brien said. "We're not going to have another Tehran embassy takeover where our diplomats are taken hostage."

Esper said that the Gang of Eight — a group of congressmembers briefed on sensitive security matters — was privy to "exquisite intelligence to an attack on the United States embassy in Baghdad. That information was shared with the Gang of Eight. All that exceptional intelligence shared with the Gang of Eight, not the broader membership of the Congress."

But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, rebutted that claim, in an interview on CBS' "Face The Nation." "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."

He said President Trump was "fudging the intelligence" and administration officials "are overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows."

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said on CNN: "I have not yet been able to ascertain really specific details as to the imminence of the attack."

He continued, "And I believe that the briefers and the president believe that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack. I don't doubt that. It's just frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” defended a measure approved last week by the U.S. House aimed at curbing Trump’s war-making powers in regards to Iran, arguing that Trump and his national security team have not been transparent about the intelligence behind killing Soleimani.

“I don’t think the administration has been straight with the Congress of the United States,” Pelosi told host Stephanopoulos when asked if she believed the administration has been forthright with the American people about Trump’s order to kill Soleimani.

Pelosi said she was “fully aware of the danger of Soleimani,” the mastermind of numerous attacks on U.S. troops overseas, but said “what we want to do is not escalate a war.” Trump’s predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, previously passed on the option to take out Soleimani for fears the move would generate a war with Iran.

She said when she told top military leaders they should have briefed the top eight leaders, she was told by officials “we had to keep it close.”

“What you’re saying is you don’t trust the Congress of the United States with sources and methods and timing ... that is wrong,” Pelosi said.

With Laura Figueroa

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