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‘Jesus, Do We Have To Explain Why We Do These Things?’

State department officials lash out when pressed for details and justification for drone strikes that killed Soleimani.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) departs with members of his staff. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

If anyone out there has any doubt of Washington’s arrogance—and the particular mendacity of the Trump administration in the wake of the drone attacks in Iraq that killed Iranian Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani— take a minute to read through Friday’s State Department briefing to reporters, here.

My colleague Daniel Larison has described the president’s behavior on Twitter yesterday, threatening attacks on 52 Iranian targets if Tehran retaliates for the assassination of its most popular general. “He cares first and foremost about not appearing ‘weak,’ and that makes him more likely to overreact to every incident,” Larison writes. “The president isn’t interested in avoiding war as much as he is interested in not being pilloried by hawks for not being ‘tough.’”

Well, the state department officials who briefed reporters Jan 3 rolled into that room with such defensiveness you would think they expected to see only Iranian faces in the room. More so, their incredulousness that reporters would want to have “details” and demand “answers” about a military strike that ultimately was coordinated in the name of each and every American, borders on sheer insolence. They are working for us, no?

Right out of the gate, at the slightest suggestion that after Americans were brought to war in 2003 on a trove of bad intelligence, they may want proof of Soleimani was plotting “imminent attacks” against U.S. interests, we had this exchange:

QUESTION: Can – so can you be more specific on what these – what the intelligence said about the planned attacks? And I know you’ve gotten this before, and you will continue to get it since what happened in 2003 happened, which is —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: You’re not going to make the Iraq comparison.

QUESTION: I’m just going to say that —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It’s been – this is like the three —

QUESTION: — the U.S. – the administration —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: This is like four administration —

QUESTION: The – it’s like the Ford administration?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, no. I’m saying there’s been so many presidential terms —

QUESTION: Well —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: — in between then and now. It’s just – it’s a failed analogy.

QUESTION: I’m not asking you the analogy. It’s – the question is —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: You just made the analogy.

QUESTION: — the administration – the administration then said “believe us,” so why should we now believe you when you say “believe us”? What was this intelligence? Can you be a bit more specific?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: You’re saying because another administration made one claim, why should we believe in a different administration this claim? It just – it doesn’t make any sense. It’s entirely separate.

QUESTION: Let’s limit it to this —

MODERATOR: Ah, ah, ah, that’s not what we’re doing today. Matt, you can finish.

This was the first question of the day, mind you. When asked about specific threats, they won’t say, other to claim the threats were against “American diplomats, American military personnel, and American – facilities that house Americans” in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria. When asked if allies had been notified of these attacks, or what is meant by  “imminent threats,” officials said they couldn’t elaborate because that would be revealing “sources and methods.” When asked why there had been no information about the dead American contractor in the Dec.27 militia strike on the Iraqi base that touched this all off, one of the three state department officials said, “I haven’t asked, and I don’t know.” 

Their real imperiousness comes when a reporter presses officials to explain their repeated suggestions that the Jan. 3 strike against Soleimani was at once well-deserved after Iran’s “violent and expansionist foreign policy,” a response to the breach of the U.S. embassy last week, and a preemptive action to stop Soleimani’s planned attacks, for which we still have no detailed information.

QUESTION: The decision to take him out wasn’t necessarily a way of removing this – [Senior State Department Official One], the threat that you were talking about in these different countries and these different facilities – but it’s a way to mitigate it in the future? I’m just —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: It slows it down. It makes it less —

QUESTION: Since we don’t know what the threat is – okay, that’s what I was —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: It slows it down. It makes it less likely. It’s shooting down Yamamoto in 1942. Jesus, do we have to explain why we do these things? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Ouch.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Go look that up.

QUESTION: Yes, you do.

Most tellingly, the officials pushed back hard not only against the suggestion that this was an “assassination” of a government official, but that Iran is a legitimate country at all, protected by any international norms or laws:

We are, again, denying them the fiction that this is some Westphalian country that has, like, a conventional defense ministry and a standard president and a foreign minister. It’s a regime with clerical and revolutionary oversight that seeks to dominate the Middle East and beyond. You’ve heard me say this is a kleptocratic theocracy. And you look at the people of Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, are all rejecting the Iranian model at the same time.

So if the U.S. does not recognize your form of government—does this include the Communist Party of China?—you are fair game?

In its reporting this weekend, The Daily Beast found that the President was talking about a “big” response to events on the ground in Iraq with his inner circle at Mar-a-Lago five days before Soleimani’s killing. 

Those Mar-a-Lago guests received more warning about Thursday’s attack than Senate staff did, and about as much clarity. A classified briefing on Friday, the first the administration gave to the Hill, featured broad claims about what the Iranians were planning and little evidence of planning to bring about the “de-escalation” the administration says it wants.  

According to three sources either in the room or told about the discussion, briefers from the State Department, Pentagon, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence claimed that killing Soleimani was designed to block Iranian plans to kill “hundreds” or even thousands of Americans in the Mideast. That would be a massive escalation from the recent attack patterns of Iran and its regional proxies, who tend to kill Americans in small numbers at a time. 

After this display, it is clear that the “trust us” argument is going to prevail until lawmakers start demanding more, including legal justification for the strikes. There was no hint of an answer, of course, in the state department briefing:

QUESTION: The Secretary talked about this as being wholly legal. I wonder if you can just explain the legal justification of the killing.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: You’re going to have to talk to the lawyers.

No one expects satisfaction from these briefings but getting slapped around as the rest of the country is wondering if we are on the brink of war is the height of audacity, even for a government that has proven over the last 18 years that it cares nothing about whether the American people believe them or not.

about the author

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor, has been writing for TAC since 2007, focusing on national security, foreign policy, civil liberties and domestic politics. She served for 15 years as a Washington bureau reporter for FoxNews.com, and at WTOP News in Washington from 2013-2017 as a writer, digital editor and social media strategist. She has also worked as a beat reporter at Bridge News financial wire (now part of Reuters) and Homeland Security Today, and as a regular contributor at Antiwar.com. A native Nutmegger, she got her start in Connecticut newspapers, but now resides with her family in Arlington, Va.

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