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Defense secretary Mark Esper didn't see specific evidence of Iran plot against 4 US embassies - USA TODAY

William Cummings USA TODAY

Published 5:04 PM EST Jan 12, 2020

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday he had not seen specific evidence that Iran planned an imminent attack on four U.S. embassies, as President Donald Trump has asserted, but said he and several members of the administration's national security team shared the president's view that the embassies were potential targets. 

Trump cited the purported plot against the embassies in an interview Friday as justification for his decision to order a lethal drone strike on Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani earlier this month in Baghdad, Iraq.

The administration has said Iran's top general posed an immediate threat to Americans and therefore the president had to act without taking the time to consult Congress. But some congressional critics have said they have not seen evidence to support that claim. 

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Esper said on CBS News' "Face the Nation" that the administration acted upon solid intelligence in deciding to kill Soleimani. He said, "There was going to be an attack within a matter of days that would be broad in scale – in other words, more than one country – and that it would be bigger than previous attacks." 

Esper said "there was a reference in this exquisite intelligence to an attack on the United States Embassy in Baghdad," which was shared with the bipartisan congressional leaders known as the Gang of Eight. 

When asked if there was a specific piece of evidence to support Trump's statement that four embassies were in danger, Esper said, "I didn't see one with regard to the four embassies."

The Pentagon chief said the president never claimed there was "tangible" or specific evidence of a coming attack on the embassies but was discussing what he thought "could" happen. 

He shared Trump's view that the diplomatic enclaves were "probably" targets because "embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country." 

National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien echoed Esper's comments during an interview with NBC News, saying he saw the intelligence. 

"We had exquisite intelligence, and the intelligence showed that they were looking at U.S. facilities throughout the region," Robert O'Brien said on "Meet the Press." "They wanted to inflict casualties on American soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, as well as diplomats."

O'Brien said "the president was decisive and bold in his action" when he learned Iran might take action against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

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House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who was briefed on the intelligence as a member of the Gang of Eight, disputed the administration's characterization of the evidence.

"They are 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," Schiff said Sunday on "Face the Nation."

Esper said most members of the Gang of Eight thought the intelligence was "persuasive" and "did not think that it should be released to the broader members of Congress." Schiff disagreed.

"We often don't share the most sensitive sources and methods with all of the members, but that's not an excuse for withholding from the members the underlying facts. And so if the intelligence showed that there were four embassies being targeted that should have been shared with the members," Schiff said. "It wasn't, because I don't believe that is what the intelligence showed." 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Sunday on ABC News' "This Week": "I don't think the administration has been straight with the Congress of the United States," in explaining the decision to kill Soleimani, who she said was "a terrible person." 

Pelosi said though she has no illusions that Iran is a bad actor, she did not want to see the situation escalate. And she was angered that Trump had not advised the Gang of Eight before killing Soleimani. 

"What you're saying is you don't trust the Congress of the United States with sources, and methods and timing," Pelosi said. "That is wrong." 

Last week, House Democrats passed a resolution calling on Trump to seek congressional approval before taking military action against Iran. Two libertarian-leaning Republican senators who were frustrated by the administration's handling of the intelligence have said they would vote for the Senate version of the bill, and a third Republican said he would consider it. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy dismissed the resolution as "nonbinding" because as a concurrent resolution it will not go to the president's desk for a signature. 

On Fox News' "Sunday Morning Futures," McCarthy did not discuss the intelligence, but derided Democrats for their unwillingness to back Trump's decision to kill Soleimani. 

"It is his natural instinct to always put America first and keep us safe. The Democrats' instinct is to blame America first," McCarthy said. 

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