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“Probably the worst briefing I’ve seen”: Inside the disastrous congressional Iran meeting

At one point, the CIA director told lawmakers to read an intelligence report instead of just briefing them.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to the media after attending a briefing with administration officials about the situation with Iran on January 8, 2020, in Washington, DC. 
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Democratic lawmakers with questions about the rationale behind the Trump administration’s decision to kill Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani didn’t get the answers they wanted at the time of his death.

The administration promised all of their concerns would be addressed during Senate and House briefings on secret Iranian intelligence. Those briefings concluded Wednesday afternoon — and most Democrats (and some Republicans) are pissed.

Under questioning from House Democrats about US intelligence relating to whether Soleimani posed an imminent threat to Americans, as the Trump administration has repeatedly claimed without offering public evidence, CIA Director Gina Haspel didn’t answer directly.

“Read the report,” she said, referencing a document with intelligence relating to the Soleimani conversation. After audible sighs from lawmakers and requests for her to brief the information during Wednesday’s session, she responded matter-of-factly, “Well, it’s a lengthy report.”

That moment encapsulates why many lawmakers from both parties are frustrated with how top Trump Cabinet officials — including Haspel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper — have handled communication about Soleimani’s death. They argue the administration failed to give them an adequate briefing as US-Iran tensions roil, and that it continues to do so.

Wednesday’s briefings showed little sign that lawmakers’ complaints will be addressed. In one case, according to a House Democratic aide, briefers were even “shushing” lawmakers who asked tough questions.

The briefings to the House and Senate were so poor that even Republicans have criticized the Trump officials’ performance.

This was “probably the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the US Senate,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) told reporters after the Senate session. Lee and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) both said they will now support a war powers resolution led by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) to restrict the president’s ability to go to war with Iran, something many Republican leaders — like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — have come out against.

Lee even said that one of the briefers’ response to how the administration would request an authorization for the use of military force was, “I’m sure we could think of something.”

(It is worth noting, though, that Lee and Paul were two of the four Republican senators who voted with Democrats to curtail Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran last summer.)

And it wasn’t just traditional critics of Trump’s national security policy who were angered by the sessions: The responses from lawmakers in the briefing room have been unanimously poor. Democrats offered some of the sharpest critiques.

“It seemed like they didn’t have a lot of information they could give us,” said a senior Democratic House member who, like four others, spoke to me on the condition of anonymity to describe a classified briefing. “They don’t have any” underlying facts to establish an imminent threat, the lawmaker said. “The information we got was no more detailed or revealing than what we’ve read in the news or seen on the TV.”

“They gave us no time, place, or method”

According to multiple people in the room, Trump’s national security team gave lawmakers aiming to understand the administration’s Iran policy and intelligence next to nothing.

“They were evasive and the answers were unsatisfactory,” a senior Democratic lawmaker told me.

There was really only one point on which the administration gave specific detail, another senior Democratic Congress member told me. (Well, sort of.)

“They did give us a window on the ‘imminent’ threat, but the window was so large that it doesn’t necessarily constitute ‘imminent,’” the lawmaker said, adding that the stated time frame around what the administration has described as an imminent threat was “days” rather than “weeks.”

“They gave us no time, place, or method” when describing the Soleimani threat, the Congress member continued. “Instead, we got a historical overview of decades-long malign activities from Iran. It begs the question: Was the attack on Soleimani more in retribution for what he’s done, or what he was planning?”

Others said the meeting in the House devolved into pettiness. In one instance, according to a House Democratic aide, a Democratic lawmaker asked a difficult question, prompting the briefers to turn to a Republican for an easier question while ignoring the one just asked. In another moment, a Democratic Congress member asked a multi-part question that briefers failed to answer fully. When the lawmaker tried to follow up, “they got shushed.”

What’s more, the defense and military officials were asked multiple direct questions about the legal justification for Trump to order a strike on Soleimani. Both Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chair, looked uncomfortable, a Democratic aide said, and turned to their legal team because they apparently didn’t have the answers themselves. “There were no justifications,” the Democratic aide said. “It was totally insufficient.”

The Senate briefing, based on both Republican and Democratic public responses, also didn’t go well. “The president has not supplied convincing evidence that his strike stopped an imminent attack on US forces. Nothing we’ve seen has changed my mind,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), who has proposed a bill to withhold funding for an Iran war unless Trump seeks congressional authorization, said on the Senate floor after the briefing.

Paul referenced claims by O’Brien, Trump’s top national security aide in the White House, who has said the 2002 authorization for war with Iraq supported the legal rationale for killing Soleimani — an Iranian — in Baghdad. “That is absurd, that is an insult,” he said.

And according to a Democratic Senate aide, the briefers didn’t touch on anything that would provide evidence of an “imminent” attack. “There was no way they could know for sure,” the aide said after speaking with their boss on what happened inside the room. “There was nothing specific they could point to.”

After Iran’s weak strike on two US military targets in Iraq Tuesday night, and Trump’s Wednesday speech declaring Tehran aimed to deescalate tensions, it seems that neither country is currently on the path to war. Still, even behind closed doors, the administration can’t satisfactorily answer why it nearly went to war with Iran in the first place — and that, on its own, is deeply worrying.

Li Zhou contributed to this report.