This piece originally appeared on Informed Comment.
The Trump administration’s claims that it assassinated Gen. Qassem Soleimani because he posed an imminent threat to American lives and was coming to Baghdad to launch an immediate attack on the U.S. embassy there have fallen apart. Commentators are suggesting that the “imminent threat” argument is the equivalent for the Trump administration of the “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) claim of the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War.
Trump himself and figures in his administration such as Defense Secretary Mark Esper have repeatedly failed to provide any evidence of the imminence of any threat.
It is easy to demonize Soleimani in the U.S., since he certainly was an enemy of U.S. interests in the Middle East for much of his career. But he does not appear to have killed or had killed any Americans at all in the past decade, and from 2015 because of the UN Security Council nuclear deal with Iran, Soleimani was not an adversary of the US in recent years. In fact, he was often a de facto ally and the US Air Force gave him air support at Tikrit and elsewhere in the campaign against ISIL (ISIS, Daesh). In fact, for a while there Soleimani was fighting ISIL and al-Qaeda-linked militias in Syria in tacit alliance with the Kurds supported by the United States at a time when Israel allied with an al-Qaeda affiliate in the Golan Heights.
Moreover, the entire narrative of the Trump administration was undermined by Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdelmahdi, who told Parliament on Jan. 5 when he asked its members to kick out the US military, that he had personally invited Soleimani to Baghdad as part of a back-channel set of negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran aimed at cooling down tensions between the two. Soleimani did not sneak into Iraq on a covert mission. He flew on a commercial jet and went through passport control with his diplomatic passport.
While an attempt was made to invade the U.S. embassy on the Wednesday before Soleimani’s arrival, that was done by members of the Iraqi militia, the Kata’ib Hizbullah, who were angry that on December 30, the Trump administration bombed its bases in northern Iraq and killed some two dozen of its fighters. Trump blamed Kata’ib Hizbullah for a rocket attack on a base at Kirkuk that killed an American contractor. It is murky in open, unclassified sources whether Kata’ib Hizbullah actually fired those rockets. Nor is there any evidence in open sources that Soleimani ordered the Iraqi militia to so act. U.S. intelligence may have signals intelligence to that effect, but since Soleimani is dead, they should share that at least with the Gang of Eight in Congress if they have it. For all we know, a foreign government hostile to the Iraqi Shiite militias and to Iran passed this allegation over to Trump as a false flag to manipulate him, and he swallowed the bait. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Israelis would all have a motivation to behave this way and their close military and intelligence ties with Washington would make them credible if they wanted to run such a scam on the naive and gullible Trump.
Suspicions were raised when Trump refused to come beforehand to Congress for authorization to take dramatic action against Iran, an action that could easily have sparked a war. The “gang of eight” in Congress who are usually informed of such momentous plans. They would have included Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Senate, Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in the House of Representatives, and the ranking and minority leaders of the intelligence committees of the Senate and the House. Was it because the “intelligence” was so “razor thin” (as one leak put it) that no one would have bought it?
Then, as The Week pointed out, the New York Times reported that while CIA Director Gina Haspel had not taken a policy position on killing Soleimani, she had assessed for the administration that removing him would improve U.S. security while not incurring unbearable risks of reprisals from a weak Iran. Haspel had supported the torture of al-Qaeda prisoners and is known for being ruthless, so you’d expect an assessment like that from her. It isn’t, however, an argument that Soleimani posed an imminent threat, just that he was an able adversary whose removal from the board would benefit the US side in its attempt to strangle Iran.
Then there was the fiasco of the post-operation briefing of Congress by the Trump Pentagon on the killing of Soleimani, which actually enraged Republican Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who says he supports President Trump.
Lee called the briefing the worst he had seen in nine years in Congress and said it was “insulting” and “demeaning.” He and his colleagues were given no significant intelligence and were just told to salute and go along. He accused the executive of acting like a king and disregarding the prerogative of Congress to declare war.
Sunday, Rep. Justin Amash (I-Michigan), a Republican until Trumpism forced him out of the party, tweeted that “The administration didn’t present evidence to Congress regarding even one embassy. The four embassies claim seems to be totally made up. And they have never presented evidence of imminence—a necessary condition to act without congressional approval—with respect to any of this.”
Amash was reacting to an interview given on Sunday by Esper in which he admitted that he had not seen specific intelligence showing that Soleimani was imminently going to attack four U.S. embassies. This admission contradicted what Trump had just alleged, since Esper would certainly have seen the intelligence underpinning Trump’s allegation if it existed (which it obviously does not).
One of the ways the Bush administration pushed the supposed WMD threat from Iraq was that the third man in the Pentagon at the time, Doug Feith, set up and headed an ad hoc committee inside the Pentagon, the Office of Special Plans. Its task was to comb through raw intelligence and cherry-pick it for evidence of Iraqi nuclear, biological or chemical weapons programs. Feith even had people brief Congress off of these cherry-picked reports, undermining the CIA, in a way that was by statute actually illegal.
All kinds of wild reports come into the U.S. government, including UFO sightings. These are “raw intelligence” and are worthless in and of themselves. The people making the allegations might be drunks, or unbalanced, or working for a foreign government or for a set of conspirators. (Feith picked up raw “intelligence” from all four of these sorts of sources).
Only once highly trained, seasoned analysts comb through the raw intelligence and weed out what seems wacky or unfounded or uncorroborated do you start actually to have what you might call an intelligence assessment.
I think it is highly likely that the “intelligence” on which Trump, Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made their decision to off Soleimani was raw and cherry-picked, the product of the Trump equivalent of the Office of Special Plans.
It appears that Soleimani was actually coming to Iraq on a mission of negotiating less conflict with Saudi Arabia.
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the proprietor of the Informed Comment e-zine. He has written extensively on modern Islamic movements in…