Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on Sunday defended last week’s killing of a top Iranian general and pushed back against reports that some senior Trump administration officials had privately voiced concerns before the strike that it could have deadly repercussions across the already volatile Middle East.
Senior Democratic leaders said the president’s seemingly impulsive decision-making had raised the possibility of a conflagration with Iran, which has vowed vengeance for the drone strike that destroyed a convoy carrying senior Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani outside Baghdad’s airport.
“We do not need this president either bumbling or impulsively getting us into a major war,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Pompeo said there was “no skepticism” among the president’s closest advisors about the accuracy of intelligence underlying the decision to kill Suleimani, even as Democrats sharply questioned administration claims that Suleimani, the head of Iran’s powerful Quds Force, had in fact posed an imminent threat to American personnel and interests.
“The intelligence assessment made clear that no action — allowing Suleimani to continue his plotting and his planning, his terror campaign — created more risk than taking the action that we took last week,” Pompeo said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Citing operational sensitivity, Pompeo refused to provide any details to support the administration’s contention that the strike, which killed Suleimani and several associates on Friday outside Baghdad’s airport, was intended to stave off an urgent threat.
“This was a bad guy. We took him from the battlefield. We saw that he was plotting further plans to take down Americans, in some cases many Americans,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Pompeo also defended President Trump’s overnight threat on Twitter to attack dozens of sites important to Iran and “the Iranian culture” if the Islamic Republic retaliates for Suleimani’s death. But in multiple interviews, he did not address the fact that targeting cultural sites is illegal under the Geneva Convention.
“We’ll act lawfully,” Pompeo said on ABC. “We’ll behave inside the system. We always have, and we always will.”
Despite the administration’s talk of de-escalation, the secretary appeared to amplify the president’s remarks with a warning that could be construed as threatening other sitting Iranian government officials if Iran retaliates for the killing of Suleimani.
“We’re going to respond against the actual decision-makers: the people who are causing this threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo said on CNN.
Senior Democratic lawmakers readily acknowledged that Suleimani was a malign force in the region, but said they were not convinced the administration had justified the rare decision to kill an official of a foreign government.
The administration late Saturday delivered to Congress a formal notification of the drone strike that killed Suleimani, fulfilling a legal requirement to do so. But Democrats continued to vehemently protest Trump’s failure to consult with congressional leaders in advance of the attack, and the secrecy surrounding the administration’s reasons for taking so drastic a step.
“I accept the notion that there was a real threat,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” But he said “the question of how imminent is something that I need more information on.”