Pompeo sidesteps questions about ‘imminent’ threat posed by Iran’s Soleimani

Deirdre Shesgreen and David Jackson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to elaborate Tuesday on his assertion that an "imminent" threat justified the Trump administration's decision to kill an Iranian general last week as questions about the intelligence mounted on Capitol Hill and fears spread about a wider conflict in the region.

In a news conference at the State Department, Pompeo seemed to downplay that earlier assertion when pressed to specify how imminent the threat was from Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Pompeo focused instead on Soleimani's history of attacks on Americans.

"There's been much made about this question of intelligence and imminence," Pompeo said. "You need to look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against us," he said, referring to a rocket attack by Iranian-backed militias on a Iraqi base in Kirkuk Dec. 27 that killed an American contractor.

The secretary of state's comments come amid questions and criticism from leading Democrats in Congress over President Donald Trump's surprise decision to target Soleimani.

“I’m certainly not satisfied that the intelligence supports the conclusion that the killing of Soleimani was going to either prevent attacks on the United States or reduce the risk to American lives,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told The Washington Post in an interview published Monday. “If anything, that risk is going to go up, not down.”

Trump ordered the drone strike that killed Soleimani last week after a series of escalating confrontations with Iran and its proxy forces in the region.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks about Iran, Tuesday Jan. 7, 2020, at the State Department in Washington.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks about Iran, Tuesday Jan. 7, 2020, at the State Department in Washington.

Pompeo's remarks seemed to be part of a stepped-up effort by the Trump administration to justify the attacks amid an outpouring of anger in Iran and Iraq over Soleimani's killing. Trump, Pentagon chief Mike Esper and National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, all defended the Soleimani strike on Tuesday while declining to specify the intelligence behind the decision.

"It was strong evidence and strong intelligence, and unfortunately we're not going to be able to get into sources and methods at this time, but I can tell you it ... was very strong," O'Brien said.

In the Oval Office, Trump told reporters that Soleimani's past "was horrible” and he wasn’t even supposed to be outside of Iran. "We saved a lot of lives by terminating his life," Trump said.

Iranian leaders have vowed to retaliate against the United States, and the heightened tensions have stoked fears of another Middle East war.

Trump administration officials are holding a closed-door briefing for congressional leaders on the Soleimani attack Tuesday afternoon; they will do the same on Wednesday for all members of the House and Senate.

"We must demand clear intelligence and put the administration’s feet to the fire because historical context is not the basis for targeting Soleimani," Sen. Robert Menendez, top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday during a round of interviews with cable news networks.

Menendez noted that previous presidents decided against targeting Soleimani because of the risk of igniting a broader war with Iran.

Pompeo said Trump based his decision on "multiple pieces of information," and he recited Soleimani's support for proxy forces in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq that have resulted in the death of Americans.

"What we could clearly see were continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead potentially to the death of many more Americans," Pompeo said. "It was the right decision."

On Tuesday, Iranians flooded the streets of Tehran to mourn Soleimani, with more than 1 million people crowding main thoroughfares and side streets. The crush of mourners caused a stampede that killed at least 56 people, according to Iranian state TV.

In Iraq, political leaders have called the U.S. strike a political assassination and a violation of the country's sovereignty. The Iraqi Parliament voted on Sunday to expel American troops from the country.

Iraq’s prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, suggested Sunday that Soleimani was in Baghdad to meet with him about efforts to reduce tensions with Saudi Arabia, an initiative Mahdi said Trump had encouraged before Soleimani's killing. Pompeo dismissed that claim as Iranian propaganda.

"It’s fundamentally false. He was not there on a diplomatic mission trying to resolve a problem," Pompeo said.

Pompeo also lashed out Tuesday at Iranian leaders when asked if the U.S. would target Iranian cultural sites, something Trump has threatened even though it's a potential war crime.

"Let me tell you who's done damage to the Persian culture. It's not the United States of America. It's the ayatollah," Pompeo said, referring to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"Every action we take will be consistent with the international rule of law," Pompeo said, arguing his comments were not in conflict with Trump's threat.

More: Trump backs off threat to attack Iranian cultural sites as tensions rise in aftermath of Soleimani death

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Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pompeo sidesteps questions on ‘imminent’ threat from Iran's Soleimani