Media Mention

Carrie Cordero: Congress has to figure out whether Trump’s four embassy claim is real

January 13, 2020

Note: this piece was originally published by CNN, and was written by Checks & Balances member Carrie Cordero. 

The targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, carried with it significant potential to serve as a catalyst for a broader overt and covert military conflict with Iran. Now, Congress and the American public need an honest explanation for the reasons behind the President’s order authorizing the military action against Soleimani, particularly in light of Trump’s claim that four embassies were targeted for terrorist attacks at Soleimani’s direction.

It’s time for the intelligence committees to call the intelligence chiefs to testify under oath.

The intelligence committees of Congress were designed for this moment.

In just the first two weeks after the attack, Iran has launched a counterattack at a US and allied forces base in Iraq, at least 56 Iranians were killed in stampedes during funeral processions for Soleimani and 176 souls from at least seven different countries were killed when an Iranian missile struck a Ukrainian passenger jet during the tense days after the Soleimani strike.

The instability is ongoing: According to the Iranian government, millions turned out on Iran’s streets before Soleimani was buried, while thousands have emerged this past weekend to protest the regime’s initial denials of responsibility for the downing of the passenger plane.

The American and Iranian publics would both be wise to settle in for a long period of instability and volatility as downstream effects from these events continue.

The current questions surrounding the justification to order the strike against Soleimani presents an opportunity to restore some regular order to Congress: The intelligence committees have a job to do.

Created expressly for the purpose of providing a venue in Congress to receive and appropriately handle classified information, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) are the proper government channels through which the intelligence basis for the strike should be provided to Congress. And these are the committees that can facilitate, in a way that is transparent but also protects secrets that need to stay secret, a better-informed public.

To date, the administration has presented a confused and conflicting picture of the intelligence information supporting the decision by the President to authorize the strike. The intelligence basis of the decision has become less clear with each passing day.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in public comments, has wavered on the extent to which Soleimani-planned operations against US interests were imminent. Republican Sen. Mike Lee emerged from an all-Senate briefing that was supposed to provide more information about the justification for the strike, and said it was the “worst briefing” he had ever received on a military issue as a member of Congress. And both Secretary Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence claimed that “sources and methods” were the reason that more information could not be provided to Congress. But the intelligence committees provide exactly the appropriate venue for Congress to exercise its independent responsibilities as a co-equal branch of government when the matters involve classified information, even extending to sensitive sources and methods.

SSCI and HPSCI should promptly call to testify the intelligence community leadership that produced the intelligence to the President supporting the strike. These would include, presumably, the acting director of national intelligence, the CIA director and whichever of the intelligence element chiefs were the primary producers of intelligence supporting the strike, for example, the heads of the National Security Agency (NSA) or the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

There should be both an open hearing to enable the chiefs to publicly clarify the top level points that have confused the public dialogue: why Soleimani was in Iraq, whether he was planning attacks against US personnel in the country and approximately when those were expected to take place, and whether there were attacks planned against four specific American embassies.

The open hearing would likely be accompanied by a closed hearing to enable sensitive classified information to be conveyed to the bipartisan members of the committees. Importantly, the director of national intelligence has sufficient declassification authority to determine what information can be declassified in open hearing for the public interest while appropriately protecting sources and methods.

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