- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2020

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday said Iran “probably and could have been” planning to target the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and three other diplomatic facilities abroad in the days leading to the American strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The Pentagon chief’s comments come amid growing frustration over vague comments from President Trump and top administration officials about the rationale behind the strike on Soleimani — a move that brought the U.S. and Iran to the bring of all-out war last week. Lawmakers of both parties say the administration has yet to provide definitive, specific information about the threats posed by Soleimani and the Iran-backed militias he controlled.

Mr. Trump on Friday said the threat “probably” involved coordinated attacks on four U.S. embassies. Mr. Esper stood behind that assessment but also offered qualifiers, conceding that there was no hard evidence specifically related to looming threats to four embassies.

“Well, what the president said was he believed that it probably and could have been attacks against additional embassies. I shared that view,” Mr. Esper told CBS’ “Face the Nation” program. “I know other members of 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.”

Pressed on whether the U.S. had intelligence on an imminent threat to four embassies, Mr. Esper said the administration believed that was a likely scenario but admitted there wasn’t firm evidence.

“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” he said. “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.”

A number of Democrats and a handful of prominent Republicans have publicly blasted the administration’s foggy explanations for the Soleimani strike.

Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said he and other lawmakers were not given specific information about a threat to four embassies during a closed-door briefing with administration officials last week.

“I don’t recall being told, ‘Look, there were four embassies,’” Mr. Lee said. “I’m worried. As a United States senator and as a voter and citizen, I’ve learned not to simply take the federal government’s word at face value.”

“We’ve been lied to about a lot of things,” he continued. “It’s not to say the government is always lying or the people who run it are inherently evil. It’s just that they’re human.”

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