Pompeo defends strike on Iranian general but resists giving intel on 'imminent' attack

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a press conference Tuesday morning but wouldn’t answer the question on many Americans’ minds: What was the intelligence showing an “imminent” threat that justified killing a top Iranian general.

Speaking to reporters at the State Department, Pompeo was asked to elaborate on the information that led President Trump to order the attack on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani at a Baghdad airport last week. Pompeo offered no evidence beyond citing the death of an American contractor, reportedly by Iranian-backed militias, on Dec. 27. The U.S. already responded to that attack with airstrikes on militia bases in Iraq and Syria, which in turn led to the storming of the U.S. Embassy compound in the Iraqi capital on Dec. 31.

“We know what happened at the end of last year in December ultimately leading to the death of an American,” said Pompeo. “If you’re looking for imminence, you needn’t look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani. Then you had in addition to that what we could clearly see was continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead potentially to the death of many more Americans. It was the right decision, we got it right.”

The White House said Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” with Trump stating that he ordered the strike “to stop a war,” not start one.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the U.S. State Department January 07, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The New York Times reported that one intelligence official said that Soleimani’s travel to Baghdad was “business as usual.” Along with the Times story, the Associated Press also reported that Trump was given multiple options for responses to Iranian provocations and chose the most extreme option, the targeted killing of Soleimani. The questions about intelligence specifics has led to comparisons to the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when President George W. Bush’s administration pushed faulty evidence to justify the war.

Pompeo insisted to reporters Tuesday that he had answered the question multiple times in a series of interviews on Sunday. But he dodged the question.

“Are we talking about days? Are we talking about weeks?” asked CNN’s Jake Tapper, pressing Pompeo on his definition of “imminent.” 

“If you’re an American in the region, days and weeks, this is not something that’s relevant,” Pompeo responded, adding, “You have to prepare. You have to be ready.”

Senate Democrats have said they haven’t seen intelligence to justify the attack. A congressional briefing is scheduled for Wednesday.

“My staff was briefed by a number of people representing a variety of agencies in the United States government, and they came away with no feeling that there was evidence of an imminent attack,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said Friday.

“Nothing that came out of the briefing changed my view that this was an unnecessary escalation of the situation in Iraq and Iran,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “While I can’t tell you what was said, I can tell you, I have no additional information to support the administration’s claim that this was an imminent attack on Americans.”

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Politische Schwergewichte: Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel begrüßt US-Außenminister Mike Pompeo (M.) und UN-Generalsekretär Antonio Guterres bei der Libyen-Konferenz.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the Libya summit in Berlin, Germany, January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a meeting with CIA Director nominee Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., in his Capitol office on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

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Mike Pompeo (L) is sworn in as CIA Director by Vice President Mike Pence (R) as wife Susan Pompeo (2nd L) looks on at Eisenhower Executive Office Building January 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. Pompeo was confirmed for the position by the Senate this evening.

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UNITED STATES - JUNE 28: Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., right, chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi, conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center, June 28, 2016, to announce the Committee's report on the 2012 attacks in Libya that killed four Americans. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., also appears. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director nominee for President-elect Donald Trump, swears in to a Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Pompeo is seeking to reassure senators that he can shift from an outspoken policymaker to an objective spy chief if confirmed.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a meeting with CIA Director nominee Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., in his Capitol office on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) arrives to testify before a Senate Intelligence hearing on his nomination of to be become director of the CIA at Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017.

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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (R) finishes swearing in Mike Pompeo, flanked by his wife Susan Pompeo, to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the vice president's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017.

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Mike Pompeo gets a hug from supporter Jennifer O'Connor after arriving at the Sedgwick County Republican headquarters at Market Centre in Wichita, Kansas, on Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

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Adam Schiff (D-CA) left, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) center, and moderator Chuck Todd, right, appear on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015.

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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for the director of the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) attends his confirmation hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mr. Pompeo is a former Army officer who graduated first in his class from West Point.

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Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) listens as Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) speaks during his confirmation hearing to be the director of the CIA before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mr. Pompeo is a former Army officer who graduated first in his class from West Point.

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Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., speaks during the news conference before a group of House Republican freshmen walked to the Senate to deliver a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday, March 30, 2011. The letter called on the Senate to pass a long term continuing resolution with spending cuts.

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US Congressman Mike Pompeo (C), R-Kansas, sits in the dark after a power failure with US Senator Pat Roberts (L), a former Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and former US Senator Bob Dole (R), R-Kansas, as he prepares to testify before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 12, 2017, on his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Trump administration.

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Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., center, nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is introduced by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., right, and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., during Pompeo's Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building, January 12, 2017. The hearing was moved from Hart Building due to a peer outage.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Incoming Trump administration cabinet secretary nominees including Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson (L-R), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director nominee Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis arrive for meetings at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 13, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Mike Pompeo (2nd L), flanked by his wife Susan Pompeo (2nd R) and their son Nick Pompeo (R), signs his affidavit of appointment after being sworn in as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (L) in Pence's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

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The death of Soleimani, who was beloved by many in Iran, has increased tensions between the United States and Iran. In the aftermath of his killing, Iran vowed “severe revenge,” and the State Department instructed Americans to leave Iraq as well as Pakistan and Iran. The Pentagon on Friday announced it was deploying 3,500 additional U.S. troops to the Middle East to help protect American assets.

Following Soleimani’s death, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the attacks his killing allegedly prevented “might still happen.”

The strike on Iraqi soil also angered that country’s parliament, which voted unanimously to pass a nonbinding resolution ending the deployment of approximately 5,000 U.S. troops based in the country. On Monday, the Pentagon sent a letter to Iraqi leadership announcing they would remove the troops, only to later walk back the contents of the message, calling it a draft that shouldn’t have been sent and a “mistake.”

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