Esper said he 'didn't see' intelligence backing up Trump claim Iran was preparing to attack 4 embassies

"I didn't see one with regard to four embassies," Esper said of evidence leading to Trump's conclusion. "What I'm saying is I shared the president's view."

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By Allan Smith

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday that he "didn't see" specific evidence that Iran was readying to attack four U.S. embassies, as President Donald Trump claimed last week, though Esper said he shared Trump's view that such an attack was "probably" in the works.

"What the president said was he believed that it probably and could've been attacks against additional embassies," Esper told CBS's "Face the Nation." "I shared that view, I know other members of the 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."

After telling reporters that Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike this month, sought to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Trump told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in a Friday interview: "I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies" Soleimani was plotting against.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper.Tom Brenner / Reuters file

Esper said the president made no citation of "a specific piece of evidence," adding that Trump was just making clear what he believed to be the case.

"I didn't see one with regard to four embassies," Esper said of a specific piece of evidence leading to Trump's conclusion. "What I'm saying is I shared the president's view ... my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies."

Speaking with CNN's "State of the Union," Esper said intelligence showed "there was an intent to target the U.S. embassy in Baghdad."

"What the president said with regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well," he added. "He said that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region. I believe that as well, as did other national security team members."

National security adviser Robert O’Brien echoed Esper's comments, telling NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday the U.S. "had exquisite intelligence" Iran was looking to attack U.S. facilities throughout the region.

"The president’s interpretation of that intelligence is very consistent with it," he added. "So I think this has been a Washington thing — when we tell the American people there was exquisite intelligence and there was going to be an attack on Americans, we had to stop that."

The comments came as the Trump administration continues to face questions over what the "imminent" threat Soleimani posed prior to Trump ordering a military airstrike against him outside of Baghdad's airport.

The Defense Department said Soleimani, the leader of Iran's Quds Forces, approved attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and orchestrated attacks on U.S.-led coalition bases in Iraq. Soleimani's death came days after protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

But in the days since Soleimani's killing, the Trump administration has remained tight-lipped about the "imminent" threat they claimed Soleimani posed, particularly on if Soleimani was acting out of step in comparison with his years of similar planning as a leader in Iran's proxy wars and other covert operations, which have led to U.S. deaths. Prior administrations opted against killing the top Iranian official.

Democratic and even some Republican members of Congress have fumed that the administration has refused to provide them with the backing of their assessment, even in classified briefings. Vice President Mike Pence told NBC News last week the administration could not provide Congress with some of the "most compelling" intelligence behind its decision to because doing so "could compromise" sources and methods.

"I don't think the administration has been straight with the Congress of the United States," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, lamenting the administration's refusal to share intelligence with congressional leaders in advance of killing Soleimani.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who been vocally critical of the administration's messaging on Iran, told "State of the Union" that he is "worried" about the lack of specifics as "a United States senator, and as a voter and citizen."

"I have learned not to simply take the federal government's word at face value," he said. "Look, we were lied to about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We were lied to for a couple of decades about what was happening in Afghanistan. We've been lied to about a lot of things. That's not to say the government is always lying or the people who run it are inherently evil."

Lee added he believes the administration believes "they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack," though it's "frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it."

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., another Republican who was displeased with the lack of information provided to Congress, told "Meet the Press" that the administration's claim an attack was imminent but "that they don't know where or when" doesn't add up.

"That, to me, seems inconsistent," he said.

Last week, the House approved a war powers resolution aimed at limiting Trump's military actions against Iran.

Iran retaliated for Soleimani's death by launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. forces last week. The Iranian government said its military was also responsible for shooting down a commercial airliner as it attacked the bases in Iraq, killing all 176 people on board the Ukrainian Airlines Flight.

Ben Kamisar contributed.