US 'Got it Right' on Soleimani Strike, But Evidence Is Classified: Pompeo

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks about Iran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks about Iran on Jan. 7, 2020, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

U.S. officials "could see clearly" that the late Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani was planning attacks to kill Americans, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday, but he declined to give any specifics about the "imminent" attack.

Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds force, was killed Jan. 3 in a drone strike authorized by President Donald Trump.

At a State Department news conference, Pompeo sought to shore up the administration's position that an Iranian attack was "imminent," but stressed that details on what prompted the deadly strike at Baghdad's International Airport last Thursday are classified.

"There's been much made about this question of intelligence and imminence," Pompeo said. "Any time a president makes a decision of this magnitude, there are multitude pieces of information that come before him.

"It's the right decision. We got it right; the Department of Defense did excellent work," he said, adding that it was an "entirely legal decision."

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Pompeo said it is normal practice to have lawyers consult on the legality of the use of military force before a president gives the authorization, but he could not confirm whether Trump had that advice before ordering the strike on Soleimani.

However, Pompeo said, "I'm confident that was the case here."

He rejected claims by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that Soleimani had arrived in Baghdad on a "peace mission" and that his killing violated international law.

Pompeo asked: "Does anybody here believe that?"

He called Zarif a "propagandist" and said his assertions were "fundamentally false."

Zarif told CNN that Trump needs to "wake up and apologize" for killing Soleimani to avoid conflict.

In Iran, three official days of mourning for Soleimani that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets to denounce the U.S. were ending, possibly clearing the way for the "revenge" promised by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

At the State Department, Pompeo also noted Iran's announcement that it will no longer be bound by restrictions on the enrichment of uranium set in place with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) under President Barack Obama.

"On our watch, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," he said.

Pompeo echoed Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley in stating that any U.S. response to Iran's threats of retaliation for Soleimani's death will be conducted according to the laws of armed conflict and international norms, including the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

Future actions by the U.S. will "always be conducted inside international laws," he said. Those remarks followed Trump's threats via Twitter this week to hit Iranian cultural sites in what could be considered a war crime under agreements signed by the U.S.

Esper and Milley will head to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to brief the full Senate in closed session to parse the word "imminent" in an effort to head off congressional attempts to limit Trump's war-making authorities.

At an off-camera Pentagon briefing Monday, both Esper and Milley sought to back up the administration's claims that an attack by Iran or its proxies on U.S. forces and diplomats was "imminent" and justified the killing of Soleimani.

Esper acknowledged the threats of revenge from Tehran. "We remain prepared for any contingency with regard to Iran," he said.

"Our message to Iran is that the ball is in their court" on what happens next, he added, but held out hope for a negotiated settlement to avoid a conflict.

"We are open to sitting down with them and discussing issues so that we could have a more normal relationship with that country," Esper said.

Milley gave a sketchy outline of what prompted Trump's order to kill Soleimani while withholding specifics.

He said the intelligence was influenced by Soleimani's track record as an implacable foe of the U.S. presence in the region and his history as the instigator behind attacks by Iranian proxies that have killed hundreds of U.S. troops since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"We know his history. Importantly, we knew his future," Milley said. "I'm not going to go into the details of that, and I know that a lot of people are out there -- I've seen words like, 'Oh, the intel was razor thin.'

"Very, very few people saw that intelligence. He [Esper] and I saw that intelligence. And I will be happy, when the appropriate time comes, in front of the proper committees and anybody else," to defend the administration's action, Milley said.

"I'll stand by the intelligence" justifying an attack on Soleimani, he added, saying the intelligence "was compelling, it was imminent, and it was very, very clear in scale, scope."

"Did it exactly say who, what, when, where? No. But he was planning, coordinating and synchronizing significant combat operations against U.S. military forces in the region and it was imminent," Milley said.

Despite the assertions of Milley and top leaders on the validity of the intelligence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and others who have been briefed on the classified evidence provided to Congress thus far have dismissed the administration's claims.

Pelosi said Monday that she will schedule a debate and a vote later this week on a war powers resolution to limit Trump's ability to take action against Iran.

The classified information given Congress thus far "raises more questions than it answers," she said in a statement.

In addition, "This initiation of hostilities was taken without an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iran, without the consultation of the Congress and without the articulation of a clear and legitimate strategy to either the Congress or the public," Pelosi said.

The current AUMF was enacted shortly after the 9/11 attacks on Sept. 18, 2001, and authorizes "the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States."

A section of the AUMF states that the president is "authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons," with the purpose of preventing future attacks.

In October 2002, Congress approved another AUMF "to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq" in the buildup that led to the 2003 invasion.

In remarks to White House reporters last Friday, National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien sought to tie the strike against Soleimani to the 2002 AUMF on Iraq.

"It was a fully authorized action under the 2002 AUMF [for Iraq] and was consistent with [Trump's] constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief to defend our nation and our forces against attacks like those that Soleimani has directed in the past and was plotting now," he said.

Under the Constitution, Congress has the express power to declare war, while Article II, Section II, gives the president power as commander in chief over any military operations approved by Congress.

The debate has continued since the Constitution was enacted on the intersect between Congress' power to declare war and the president's duty to conduct it in emergencies requiring immediate action.

The argument pushed by Democrats now is that Congress would have to pass another AUMF to authorize military action against Iran.

In response to the Vietnam War, Congress in 1973 passed the War Powers Resolution over the veto of then-President Richard Nixon as a check against a commander in chief's ability to direct the use of military force.

The resolution required the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action, and forbade the military from remaining in an area of conflict for more than 60 days without passage by Congress of an AUMF.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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