Defense Chief: No Hard Evidence of Embassy Threats

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday that he "didn't see" specific evidence that Iran was readying to attack four U.S. embassies, as President Donald Trump claimed last week, though Esper said he shared Trump's view that such an attack was "probably" in the works.

"What the president said was he believed that it probably and could've been attacks against additional embassies," Esper told CBS's "Face the Nation." "I shared that view, I know other members of the national security team shared that view, that's why I deployed thousands of American paratroopers to the Middle East to reinforce our embassy in Baghdad and other sites throughout the region."

After telling reporters that Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike this month, sought to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Trump told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in a Friday interview: "I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies" Soleimani was plotting against.

Esper said the president made no citation of "a specific piece of evidence," adding that Trump was just making clear what he believed to be the case.

"I didn't see one with regard to four embassies," Esper said of a specific piece of evidence leading to Trump's conclusion. "What I'm saying is I shared the president's view ... my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies."

Speaking with CNN's "State of the Union," Esper said intelligence showed "there was an intent to target the U.S. embassy in Baghdad."

"What the president said with regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well," he added. "He said that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region. I believe that as well, as did other national security team members."

National security adviser Robert O’Brien on Sunday echoed Esper's comments, telling NBC's "Meet the Press" that the U.S. "had exquisite intelligence" that Iran looking to attack U.S. facilities throughout the region.

"The president’s interpretation of that intelligence is very consistent with it," he added. "So I think this has been a Washington thing—when we tell the American people there was exquisite intelligence and there was going to be an attack on Americans, we had to stop that."

The comments came as the Trump administration continues to face questions over what the "imminent" threat Soleimani posed prior to Trump ordering a military airstrike against him outside of Baghdad's airport.

The Defense Department said Soleimani, the leader of Iran's Quds Forces, approved attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and orchestrated attacks on U.S.-led coalition bases in Iraq. Soleimani's death came days after protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

But in the days since Soleimani's killing, the Trump administration has remained tight-lipped about the "imminent" threat they claimed Soleimani posed, particularly on if Soleimani was acting out of step in comparison with his years of similar planning as a leader in Iran's proxy wars and other covert operations, which have led to U.S. deaths. Prior administrations opted against killing the top Iranian official.

Democratic and even some Republican members of Congress have fumed that the administration has refused to provide them with the backing of their assessment, even in classified briefings. Vice President Mike Pence told NBC News last week the administration could not provide Congress with some of the "most compelling" intelligence behind its decision to because doing so "could compromise" sources and methods.

Last week, the House approved a war powers resolution aimed at limiting Trump's military actions against Iran.

Iran retaliated for Soleimani's death by launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. forces last week. The Iranian government said its military was also responsible for mistakenly shooting down a commercial airliner as it attacked the bases in Iraq, killing all 176 people on board the Ukrainian Airlines Flight.

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