On Sunday’s broadcast of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper says he “didn’t see” any evidence of President Donald Trump’s claim that Iran was planning an “imminent” attack on four U.S. embassies.
Partial transcript as follows:
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about that attempt to breach the perimeter and the embassy, but also broadly, the threat that the U.S. was tracking that has been described as imminent time and again by the administration. The president said last week that there was an attempt to blow up the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Here’s specifically what he said on Fox News.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies, but Baghdad certainly would have been the lead. But I think it would have been four embassy, could have been military bases, could have been a lot of other things, too. But it was imminent. And then all of a sudden he was gone.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BRENNAN: Why couldn’t you share that specific threat with senators in a classified briefing?
ESPER: Well, that information- there was a reference in this- in this exquisite intelligence to an attack on the United States embassy in Baghdad. That information was shared with the Gang of Eight. All that exceptional intelligence shared with the Gang of Eight, not the broader membership of the Congress.
BRENNAN: A specific threat against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to blow it up–
ESPER: Well, I was–
BRENNAN: –was shared with the Gang of Eight?
ESPER: I was not in that meeting with the Gang of Eight. But I will tell you, I spoke to one of the briefers. What the briefer said to me coming out of that meeting was his assessment that most, if not all the members, thought that the intelligence was persuasive and that they- and that the Gang of Eight did not think that it should be released to the broader members of Congress.
BRENNAN: But, broadly, can you clarify though, was the specific threat that the president shared with Fox News about four U.S. embassies being under threat, also shared with Congress? Why was there a difference?
ESPER: Well, what the president said was he believed that it probably and could have been attacks against additional embassies. I shared that view. 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.
BRENNAN: Probably and could have been. That is- that sounds more like an assessment than a specific, tangible threat with a- a decisive piece of intelligence.
ESPER: Well, the president didn’t say there was a tangible- he didn’t cite a specific piece of evidence. What he said is he probably- he believed, could have been—
BRENNAN: Are you saying there wasn’t one?
ESPER: I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies. 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.
BRENNAN: The description had been that this was a imminent threat to U.S. personnel and facilities in the region. Is that a more accurate description than what the president provided?
ESPER: Well, what I’ve said publicly, I’ve- I’ve said many times, is that we had information that 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, likely going to take us into open hostilities with Iran.
BRENNAN: Is that threat gone?
ESPER: That was orchestrated by Qassem- Qassem Soleimani. He was the one- was- has led the attacks against America for 20 years now, so we had every expectation to believe that this would happen. In fact, a very, very senior person from the intelligence community said the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action. That was compelling for me.
BRENNAN: Is that threat gone?
ESPER: That threat has been disrupted. I think what we have to find out now is continue to work to make sure that that threat is completely eliminated.
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