Defense secretary ‘didn’t see’ intelligence backing Trump’s claim of Iran plot against U.S. embassies

Protests over plane crash in Iran
People gather at Amirkabir University in Tehran on Jan. 11, 2020, for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of the Ukrainian jetliner crash. Some of the crash victims were former students at the university.
(Ebrahim Noroozi / Associated Press)

The White House faced pointed new questions Sunday about U.S. intelligence underpinning the airstrike that killed a top Iranian general this month, as Defense Secretary Mark Esper acknowledged he had not seen evidence to back up President Trump’s assertion that four American embassies were in jeopardy at the time.

Meanwhile, anti-government demonstrations flared for a second day in Tehran, adding to pressure on Iran’s leaders.

Although both Washington and Tehran have seemingly stepped back from further escalation, the latest unrest in the Iranian capital — spurred by what Iran says was the mistaken downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet — formed an uneasy backdrop to continuing repercussions of the fiery U.S. drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Suleimani on Jan. 3.

In Washington, senior administration officials who fanned out on Sunday’s news talk shows were pressed for clarification of Trump’s assertion, in a Fox News interview last week, that Suleimani had been planning attacks against four U.S. embassies at the time he was killed. The administration has been trying to bolster its case that the general posed an “imminent” threat to Americans.


Esper, interviewed on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” acknowledged that he “didn’t see” any specific intelligence regarding the four embassies. Yet he tried to avoid contradicting Trump, saying, “I share the president’s view” that the diplomatic posts were probably a target.

In a separate interview, Robert C. O’Brien, the national security advisor, sought to parry the question as to whether any intelligence specifically supported Trump’s assertion, without directly addressing the president’s contention.

“We knew there were threats to American facilities,” he said on “Fox News Sunday,” adding: “Now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”

In a separate interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” O’Brien declined to detail imminent threats against any diplomatic installation other than the American Embassy in Baghdad, whose gates were breached on New Year’s Eve by protesters aligned with a pro-Iranian militia.

No other officials have backed up the assertion from Trump, who has a history of fabricating details to embellish his accounts of events. Congressional Democrats said no such intelligence regarding the four supposedly imperiled embassies was relayed to them in briefings last week.

“I’d love to have the intelligence out there,” O’Brien said. “Unfortunately, if we declassify it, we could end up losing that stream of intelligence.”

Both he and Esper, though, pointed to the protests in Tehran as a sign of an increasingly beleaguered Iranian government. On ABC’s “This Week,” O’Brien said Iranian authorities were “having a very bad week” after denying and then acknowledging responsibility for shooting down the Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people aboard, shortly after having fired missiles at military bases in Iraq to retaliate for the United States’ targeted killing of Suleimani.

“This is a regime that’s reeling from maximum pressure, they’re reeling from their incompetence in this situation, and the people of Iran are just fed up with it,” O’Brien said.

The demonstrations mark yet another crisis for Iran’s leaders, who have been blamed for a weakening economy even as they deal with the aftermath of Suleimani’s killing outside the Baghdad airport.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Azadi Square in downtown Tehran on Sunday, blocking roads around the square even as authorities dispatched riot police to forcibly clear them.

There were also reports of demonstrations spreading to other cities, including Shiraz, Ahvaz and Babol. The protesters excoriated the country’s top officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for what many saw as incompetence of the military establishment as well as the delayed acknowledgment of error after three days of denials.

“Our shame … our stupid Supreme Leader!” shouted a group of demonstrators in Azadi Square, in a video posted to social media on Sunday. “Death to the dictator!” and “We don’t want an Islamic Republic!” other videos showed.

Anger has continued — and even grown — despite expressions of contrition from Iranian officials, including Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ airspace unit that was responsible for downing the plane.

“I wish I were dead and such an accident hadn’t happened,” said Hajizadeh at a news conference Saturday. He did not offer his resignation, however.

The anti-government protests come after an initial burst of national unity in Iran over the slaying of Suleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and a key leader who was also seen as a bulwark against the militant group Islamic State.

His killing brought tensions to a fever pitch between Washington and Tehran, leading to jittery Iranian military personnel firing surface-to-air missiles at what they thought, according to officials’ accounts, was a U.S. cruise missile attack. But it actually was Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, carrying mostly Iranians and Iranian Canadians to Canada via the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

In Canada, a memorial vigil Sunday at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, whose staff and students were among the victims, drew dignitaries including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“This is truly a Canadian tragedy — all Canadians are mourning your loss,” the prime minister said in somber remarks to the university community and the country’s large Iranian diaspora.

The students’ alma maters in Iran were among the sites of protests Saturday evening. In Tehran, video posted Sunday showed students at Shahid Beheshti University avoiding treading on an American flag and an Israeli one that had been painted on the floor — suggesting that their anger was directed not at those nations but at the Iranian leadership.

As an officer of a paramilitary force affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard Corps walked over the painted area, the crowd began to shout and called him “dishonorable” — an affront in Iranian culture.

The protests have garnered international scrutiny amid fears of a crackdown by security forces. Trump warned Iran again Sunday against using force to quell the demonstrations.

“To the leaders of Iran - DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching,” Trump tweeted. “More importantly, the USA is watching.”

Other nations have been drawn into the turbulent events surrounding the general’s killing. Britain issued a complaint over the brief detention Saturday night of its ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, which it said was “a flagrant violation of international law.” Iran accused him of taking part in an anti-government protest.

Macaire said he had come to pay respects at what was said to be a vigil for the victims of the doomed Ukrainian flight. He added in a tweet that he had left after five minutes when chanting broke out.

Iran summoned Macaire on Sunday to complain of his attending “an illegal rally,” according to a statement from Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Later in the day, pro-government demonstrators burned U.K. and U.S. flags.

Despite the discontent, it remains unclear whether the protests represent a strong threat to the country’s rulers.

“We are seeing Iran’s population of over 80 million growing increasingly polarized and frustrated based on various issues — some over the economy, others over corruption, lack of political freedoms, Suleimani’s assassination, and mismanagement across most branches of government and military,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The support base for the Islamic Republic is getting smaller and more segments of Iran’s population are questioning the legitimacy of its leaders — but nevertheless the support for the ruling elite remains powerful enough [no matter its shrinking size] to maintain its survival,” she said.

In Washington, congressional Democrats expressed renewed frustration with what they called a pattern of incomplete or outright misleading information from the Trump administration over its decision-making behind the strike.

Several senior lawmakers said they were well aware of the need to avoid disclosing sources and methods for intelligence reports but insisted the White House had not made a compelling case for the general having posed an “imminent” threat to Americans.

“In the classified briefing, we got less detailed information than President Trump shared with Laura Ingraham,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), referring to the Fox News host to whom the president made the claim last week about planned attacks on four embassies.

Coons’ assertion, on “Fox News Sunday,” was echoed by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the head of the House Intelligence Committee.

Schiff, appearing on “Face the Nation,” said there was “no discussion” in briefings last week with the so-called Gang of Eight — the chairs and ranking members of relevant House and Senate committees and the House and Senate leaders — about the four embassies. He accused Trump and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo of “fudging the intelligence” in public comments about the Suleimani strike.

The administration, Schiff said, is “overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows. And when you’re talking about justifying acts that might bring us into warfare with Iran, that’s a dangerous thing to do.”

Iraq fears becoming the venue for more back-and-forth violence between U.S. and Iranian or Iranian-backed forces, and those concerns grew Sunday with a new strike. Eight Katyusha rockets slammed into Balad Air Base, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.

The installation houses Iraq’s squadron of F-16 fighters, given to Baghdad by the U.S. and maintained by a U.S. contractor operating alongside American and other foreign troops, although foreign personnel left Balad this month as a safety precaution.

Four Iraqi servicemen were wounded in the attack, according to a statement from the military. The fusillade was the latest in a series of rocket attacks that have targeted bases as well as diplomatic missions with a U.S. presence. The attacks are widely blamed on Iraqi paramilitary factions with deep links to Tehran, and whose leader, a paramilitary commander known as Abu Mahdi Muhandis, was killed in the same strike as Suleimani.

King reported from Washington, Bulos from Baghdad and Parvini from Los Angeles.