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National Security

Top U.S. officials were briefed on an active threat against Pentagon leaders, say five officials

Some officials said the briefings suggested the threat may be potential retaliation for the U.S. military's killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Image: Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, from center, attends Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's (not seen) meeting with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Tehran, Iran on Sept. 18, 2016.Press Office of Iranian Supreme Leader / via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement officials were briefed late last month on a threat against the Pentagon's most senior leaders while they are on American soil, not just traveling overseas, according to five senior U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Some officials said the briefings suggested the threat, which remains active, may be potential retaliation for the U.S. military's assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January, although the information provided did not draw a definitive link.

The briefings have included information that suggests the targets of the threat are U.S. military leaders who were involved in the decision and operation to assassinate Soleimani, officials said. The briefings have also included information about a list, compiled by adversaries, of the names of military leaders who are to be targeted, according to two senior U.S. officials.

Notably, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has been traveling in the Middle East and South Asia this week, but the trip was shrouded in even more secrecy than usual, suggesting a possible security concern. Reporters traveling with Esper were not allowed to report his visits to Bahrain or Israel until after he left each country, even though he spent two nights in Bahrain.

Image: Mark Esper
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks during a press conference at the Pentagon on March 4, 2020.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images file

The briefings of FBI, CIA and military officials on the threat took place after an incident on the evening of Sept. 22 involving a senior leader at the Defense Department, officials said.

The Defense Department leader left the Pentagon that evening in a government-owned black SUV driven by a member of his security detail, when an unknown vehicle immediately began to follow them, officials said. The driver, identified as an Iranian national, was in a vehicle with Virginia license plates and trailed closely behind the official SUV for five to seven miles, at times driving aggressively, according to officials who described a report on the incident that was created by the Pentagon.

The Pentagon and the FBI disagree about whether it was a serious attempt to target a senior Defense Department leader, officials said, with the Pentagon raising more concern. The FBI investigated the incident and determined it was not part of any larger threat to senior military leaders or connected directly back to Iran, officials said.

U.S. officials could not account for the disparity between the Pentagon's view of the matter and the FBI's.

NBC News is withholding the name of the senior leader at the request of the Defense Department, which cited security concerns. Three officials briefed on the incident named the leader, while others declined to do so.

One senior administration official said the incident was "concerning."

The security detail for the Defense Department leader who was followed last month when leaving the Pentagon eventually lost the trailing vehicle and changed routes, officials said. The Pentagon subsequently issued a Be on the Lookout alert, called a BOLO, and shared the information with federal law enforcement, officials said.

They said the alert included photos of the driver and the vehicle, as well as the vehicle's license plate. Briefings that officials received on the incident included information about the driver's Facebook and Instagram accounts, showing that he has friends in Iran and Afghanistan, two officials said.

Officials would not say whether the man was questioned or taken into custody.

“The Department of Defense takes seriously the safety of all of our personnel,” said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman. “We will not discuss intelligence regarding potential threats to senior leaders nor the range of force protection measures we have in place to address these threats.”

Hoffman also said that for international travel by Defense Department officials, "security measures [are decided] on a case-by-case basis in coordination with appropriate U.S. and host nation law enforcement officials to protect our hosts, traveling officials, their support staff and accompanying media. We are constantly evaluating the threat environment.”

The CIA and FBI declined to comment.

The White House declined to comment, including on whether President Donald Trump was briefed on the incident.

Three senior congressional aides said that the so-called Gang of Eight — the leaders of the Congressional caucuses and the intelligence committees — had not been briefed on the Sept. 22 incident.

Top Pentagon leaders have 24-hour security and usually travel in official vehicle convoys. Two officials said the driver of the vehicle with Virginia plates may not have known who was in the official SUV when it left the Pentagon the evening of Sept. 22. They said the car could have followed the vehicles simply because whomever was in the SUV was likely a military leader.