President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team is full of war hawks and weapons industry shills. Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton speak with US Army veteran Danny Sjursen, who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan before becoming an anti-imperialist activist and journalist, about what a Biden-Harris administration foreign policy would look like. Sjursen, who previously taught at the United States Military Academy, also discusses how warmongering members of the West Point Mafia dominate the US government and military-industrial complex.
Administration officials argue that the general was plotting imminent attacks, but Democrats said that the intelligence they have seen was too vague.
WASHINGTON — Under increasing pressure to defend the killing of a top Iranian general in Iraq, senior Trump administration officials offered new justifications but little detail on Tuesday, citing threats to the American Embassy in Baghdad and intelligence suggesting other imminent attacks that helped prompt the strike.
Democrats stepped up their criticism of intelligence that the administration provided immediately after the drone strike last week that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The administration’s formal notification to Congress, which remains classified, provided no information on future threats or the imminent attack, officials who have read it said.
Several said it was improperly classified, and Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, called it “vague and unacceptably unspecific.” Lawmakers pressed for more answers on Tuesday at a briefing by the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, and other intelligence officials.
Iranian forces or their proxies were days from attacking American personnel when President Trump decided to strike General Suleimani, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. Mr. Esper added that General Suleimani had traveled to Baghdad to coordinate attacks following up on a two-day siege of the United States Embassy there last week by pro-Iranian demonstrators. He declined to elaborate but called the intelligence “exquisite.”
Mr. Trump was more forceful but no more specific. General Suleimani “was planning a very big attack and a very bad attack for us and other people,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “And we stopped him.”
Their defense of the killing came as Tehran launched its initial response, firing a dozen ballistic missiles early Wednesday from Iranian territory targeting American forces in Iraq’s Anbar Province and Kurdish region. A Pentagon official confirmed that the missiles were launched at bases hosting American forces, but provided no initial damage assessment.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered a direct and proportional response to the Suleimani killing, not the kind of covert action through proxy forces that Tehran has traditionally employed. American officials in recent weeks warned about the threat from short-range ballistic missiles that Iran had smuggled into Iraq.
As the threats from Tehran increased, several NATO allies conducting training for Iraqi troops — including Canada, Germany and Croatia — decided at least temporarily to remove some troops from Iraq. Canada, which leads the NATO training mission, announced it was withdrawing its 500 troops and sending them to Kuwait.
Fueled by what they have called weak and inadequate briefings from the administration, Democrats grew increasingly vocal in their skepticism, arguing the administration has a high burden to meet to show that the strike was justified.
Some drew comparisons to the flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the recent revelations about the failures of the war in Afghanistan.
“Between no weapons of mass destruction, no clear and present danger, the Afghanistan papers — there’s plenty to be skeptical about,” Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a brief interview. “The burden is on the administration to prove the truthfulness and veracity of how they made their decision.”
Ms. Haspel has spoken with multiple lawmakers in recent days, some of whom have urged her to be more forthcoming about the intelligence behind the killing. Ms. Haspel, in turn, has emphasized that she had serious concerns about the threat posed by General Suleimani if the administration held off on targeting him.
Before the drone strike that killed the general, the pro-Iranian protesters had attacked barricades outside the American Embassy in Baghdad, and American officials feared the attacks could resume and the situation could easily grow more dangerous, threatening the diplomats and military personnel who work at the compound.
General Suleimani had arrived in Baghdad to pressure the Iraqi government to kick out American forces after attacks by the United States on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia group with ties to Iran, according to American officials.
One official noted that General Suleimani was traveling with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi who helps lead the Iranian-backed militias and who was coordinating the attacks on the American Embassy. Mr. al-Muhandis was also killed in the strike.
Additionally, the classified document sent to Capitol Hill only recounts the attacks that Iran and its proxies have carried out in recent months and weeks rather than outlining new threats, according to three American officials.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. demanded that Mr. Trump give a “sober-minded explanation” of the strike, its consequences and the intelligence that prompted it.
“All we’ve heard from this administration are shifting explanations, evasive answers, repeated assertions of an imminent threat without the necessary evidence to support that conclusion,” Mr. Biden, a front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said in remarks from Pier 59 in New York. If there was a threat, he added, “we’re owed an explanation and the facts to back it up.”
Iranian-supported militias have increasingly directed attacks at Iraqi bases with American forces over the past two months, officials have said. Since May, intelligence and military officials have warned that Iran has been preparing for attacks against Americans in the Middle East.
The reports have prompted the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. to relocate officers out of the American Embassy in Baghdad in recent days and weeks, though some C.I.A. officers were relocated earlier, according to officials briefed on the matter. Some went to other parts of Iraq, and officials emphasized that the moves had not diminished intelligence collection on Iranian activity in the country.
“We’re all going to want to hear why they thought targeting Suleimani was the best option, what were the other targets on the table, did they know about the collateral damage?” he said.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who has long vocally opposed the lengthy deployments of American forces overseas, has emerged as one of the few Republicans willing to criticize the decision. He questioned the administration’s claim of an imminent attack, citing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s repeated criticism of General Suleimani.
“I’ve always been surprised at how presidents in general, including President Obama, stretch the idea of what imminence is,” Mr. Paul said. “I can tell you the secretary of state’s been talking about for over a year all the things Suleimani has done. I think they found this as an opportune time to take him out.”Mr. Pompeo has led the administration’s defense of the strike and said on Tuesday that the intelligence was presented to Mr. Trump in broad detail before he ordered the strike.
“It was the right decision,” Mr. Pompeo said.
And Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, said that General Suleimani was plotting attacks on “diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines” at multiple facilities.
Mr. O’Brien said the intelligence would most likely remain classified to avoid putting sources of intelligence and collection methods at risk. But, he added, “I can tell you that the evidence was strong.”
With the exception of Mr. Paul, most Republicans on Capitol Hill have coalesced around the administration.
“We had very clear, very solid information from the intelligence community that indeed there were going to be imminent attacks that could involve hundreds of people, could involve even thousands of people,” Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters late last week, calling the intelligence “rock solid.”
The House was set this week to consider measures to curtail the president’s war-making powers on Iran by invoking the War Powers Resolution. A similar measure could come to a vote on the Senate floor as early as next week. And the Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee announced a hearing set for next Tuesday on the Trump administration’s Iran policy.
Can’t anybody here play this game?
The Trump administration, if you haven’t noticed, is undergoing one of its frequent paroxysms of incompetence.
On the border, the administration holds hundreds of migrant children in deplorable conditions: filthy, frightened and hungry. The president ordered and then called off a massive immigration raid, and, in the middle of the chaos, the administration’s top border security official resigned Tuesday.
Overseas, the administration is stumbling toward war with Iran, ordering and then canceling an attack. Iran on Tuesday said the White House is “afflicted by mental retardation,” and Trump responded by threatening Iran with “obliteration.”
Here in Washington, Trump just appointed a new press secretary for the third time and a White House communications director for the seventh time. He refuses to say whether he has confidence in his FBI director, his third, and he’s publicly feuding with the Federal Reserve chairman he appointed over whether Trump can fire him. Meantime, Trump is defying a Trump-appointed watchdog who called for the firing of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway for illegal political activities, and he’s brushing off the latest credible accusation of sexual misconduct by saying the accuser is “not my type.” And Trump’s protocol chief is quitting on the eve of the Group of 20 summit, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday, amid allegations that he carried a whip in the office.
The chaos takes on many forms, but most of it stems from a single cause: Trump’s determination to run the country like “The Apprentice.”
The common thread to the mayhem and bungling is Trump’s insistence on staffing his government with officials serving in temporary, “acting” roles at the pleasure of the president and without the stature or protection of Senate confirmation. This allows Trump to demand absolute subservience from appointees. Because he can replace them at will, they don’t contradict him. But this tentative status also means they lack authority within their agencies and the stature to stand up to Trump when he’s wrong.
It’s no mere coincidence that the border debacle is the work of Trump’s Homeland Security Department, where every major border- and immigration-related agency is led by an “acting” official. Trump’s acting commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, John Sanders, just resigned after only two months on the job. The Post’s Nick Miroff and Josh Dawsey report that he will be replaced by the current acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Mark Morgan (who got the job after praising Trump’s policies on Fox News). Morgan, in turn, has only been on the job for a couple of months since Trump fired yet another acting director of ICE. Trump had also ousted his DHS secretary and his head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and he has tabbed an “immigration czar” who has not yet accepted the job.
It’s no mere coincidence, either, that the Iran debacle is occurring at a time when the Pentagon has been leaderless since Jim Mattis resigned as defense secretary in December. Patrick Shanahan had been the longest-serving “acting” defense secretary in history until last week, when Trump named another acting secretary, Mark Esper. Both men were reportedly with Trump when he ordered the Iran attack, which he later canceled after learning about possible casualties. It’s hard to imagine Trump ordering up a military attack on Mattis’s watch without first getting a casualty estimate.
And it’s no mere coincidence that the man at the fulcrum of chaotic White House decision-making, chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, also serves in “acting” status. Politico’s Nancy Cook reports that Trump is tiring of Mulvaney (he had the nerve to cough during a Trump TV interview), though he might not yet replace him with a fourth chief of staff, because he likes Mulvaney’s “hands-off approach” to Trump’s “whims and decision-making style.” If he weren’t “hands-off,” he’d be fired.
Trump is unabashed in his preference for this “Apprentice”-style, “you’re fired” leadership. It’s a theme of a new book about Trump’s Cabinet, “The Best People,” by Yahoo News national correspondent Alexander Nazaryan. Of his fondness for acting officials, Trump told Nazaryan: “It gives me a lot of leeway. It gives me great flexibility. I do like it. It’s such a big deal to get people approved nowadays. . . . We have actings, and we’re seeing how we like them.”
In other words, the administration is run by people on perpetual tryout, perpetual probation, unable to make long-term plans or to command the respect of those they (nominally) lead. The Federal Aviation Administration, which botched its handling of the Boeing 737 Max crashes, has been led by acting officials. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which bungled the recall of Fisher-Price’s Rock ’n Play bassinet, has been run by an acting chairwoman. (She announced last week she will step down at the end of her term in October.)
Now, Trump’s “actings” are causing babies to go hungry, and they may soon bumble us into war with Iran. But that’s okay, because Trump likes the “flexibility.”