The US defence secretary has revealed he “didn’t see” any specific evidence indicating an imminent threat from Iran before Donald Trump ordered an airstrike which killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani earlier this month.
Mark Esper said on Sunday he had not reviewed evidence indicating Soleimani posed an “imminent threat” to Americans, despite the Pentagon previously saying the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds force was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region”.
He appeared to cast doubt on Mr Trump's claim that the Iranian general had been working on plans to attack four US embassies at the time of his death.
“What the president said was he believed that there probably and could have been attacks against additional embassies,” the defence secretary said in an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation.
He added: “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.”
Mr Esper was referring to comments made by Mr Trump the night before in an interview with Fox News, in which the president said there “probably would’ve been four embassies” targeted in upcoming attacks from Iran, after the administration linked Tehran to a New Year’s Eve attack on the US embassy in Baghdad.
White House officials have also echoed those claims, without providing specific indications as to which embassies or US sites may have been targeted in additional attacks organised by Soleimani.
“I don’t know exactly which minute,“ US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters last week. “We don’t know exactly which day it would’ve been executed.”
“But it was very clear: Qassem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests,” he added. “And those attacks were imminent.”
CBS News host Margaret Brennan responded to Mr Esper by reciting the president’s own words, adding: “Probably and could have been … that sounds more like an assessment than a specific tangible threat with a decisive piece of intelligence.”
Mr Esper said the president never claimed there was a “specific, tangible” threat and noted he “didn’t cite a specific piece of evidence”.
“Are you saying there wasn’t one?” Ms Brennan asked the defence secretary.
On CNN, Mark Esper makes it absolutely clear that the Trump administration is making it up as they go when they claim Soleimani posed an imminent threat to 4 different US embassies pic.twitter.com/Cm16XkOrlo
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar)
Mr Esper replied: “I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies.
“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.”
In another interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, the defence secretary also suggested he had not seen any specific evidence of an imminent threat, adding only that there was "an intent" to target the US embassy in Baghdad.