The White House is struggling to contain the domestic political fallout from Wednesday’s closed-door briefing on the U.S. military’s decision to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led the briefing, backed up by CIA Director Gina Haspel and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, according to the New York Times.
Latest: Some of the “most compelling” intelligence must be kept from lawmakers because discussing it “could compromise sources and methods,” Vice President Mike Pence said this morning to NBC News “Today” show.
That was essentially what SecDef Esper said publicly as well on Wednesday, telling reporters (Associated Press), “Most members of Congress do not have access to the intelligence that I think was the most compelling. That’s just simply the nature of the intelligence, and it’s restricted to the Gang of Eight.”
Happening today: House lawmakers are scheduled to vote on a war powers resolution (PDF) aimed at curbing the president’s power to declare war without Congressional consent. That news came just hours after the Pompeo/Haspel/Esper briefing on the Hill. Writes Politico of that House bill: “The 5-page resolution, led by Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), would halt U.S. military actions against Iran without specific congressional approval. In a nod to the caucus’s moderates, it does not directly criticize Trump or his top officials.”
President Trump’s reax, via Twitter this morning: “Hope that all House Republicans will vote against Crazy Nancy Pelosi’s War Powers Resolution. Also, remember her “speed & rush” in getting the Impeachment Hoax voted on & done. Well, she never sent the Articles to the Senate. Just another Democrat fraud. Presidential Harassment!”
Immediately after Wednesday’s classified briefing, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, called it “probably the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.” Lee also complained (Politico) “one of the messages we received from the briefers was, ‘Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of the appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran. If you do, you will be emboldening Iran.’”
Briefers cited no imminent attack, unnamed lawmakers told AP: “the classified notification Trump sent Congress…did not describe any imminent, planned attacks or contain any new information.” Instead, “the letter gave an historic account of past attacks that have been reported publicly.”
Yet publicly, most Republicans “emerged from the briefing expressing confidence that the strike on Soleimani was justified and necessary,” even as some GOP lawmakers, asking for anonymity, confirmed that no specific attack was cited, according to Politico.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., shared Lee’s assessment, describing the briefing to CNN as “an insult to the Constitution,” adding, “Nobody in their right mind — with a straight face, with an ounce of honesty — can argue when Congress voted to go after Saddam Hussein in 2002 that [they] authorized military force against an Iranian general 18 years later.”
“There was no specific information given to us of a specific attack” from Iran that called for the killing of Soleimani, Paul told CNN Wednesday evening. “I didn’t learn anything in the hearing that I hadn’t seen in a newspaper already.” For those reasons, both Paul and Lee said they would support a War Powers resolution (PDF) sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., which would limit President Donald Trump’s ability to use military force in Iran.
Kaine took to Fox News to make his case for that War Powers bill, writing on Wednesday, “Let me be clear: This would not prevent the United States from defending itself from imminent attack, nor would it prevent us from authorizing military action against Iran. It would merely require that war against Iran cannot occur until there are [sic] a public debate and congressional vote in favor of it. We owe it to our troops to have that debate.”
Here’s why Lee and Paul’s support are “potentially significant,” according to the NYTs: “a War Powers Resolution needs only 51 votes to pass. Republicans control 53 votes in the Senate and Democrats 47.”
FWIW: Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida disagreed with Sens. Lee and Paul, tweeting this morning, “Any Senator who left the briefing on #Iran & claims #Soleimani wasn’t planning a near term attack on Americans is calling the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Milley a liar. Because Gen. Milley stated clearly & firmly that Soleimani was about to kill Americans.”
Said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: “I was really disappointed in [Democratic lawmakers’] behavior in [the classified briefing] because it was clear to me that this guy [Soleimani] was up to no good in the moment.” FWIW, Graham also told Fox on Wednesday that Trump’s remarks earlier in the day (here) were “on par with [President] Reagan’s ‘Tear down this wall’ speech.”
Big-picture take: Questions of war are reshaping the 2020 U.S. presidential race, AP reports this morning: “over the span of a few days, the yearslong focus on the Republican president’s performance on the economy, health care and immigration has been overtaken by an urgent debate over foreign policy and war.” More here.
From Defense One
Here’s What We Know About the Missiles Iran Likely Fired Into Iraq Last Night // Marcus Weisgerber: To begin with, they’re getting more accurate.
US, Iran Back Away From Conflict—For Now // Katie Bo Williams: The crisis appears to be cooling, at least for now, as U.S. lawmakers — and presumably the president — return their focus to the looming impeachment trial in the Senate.
How Quickly Could Iran Get a Nuclear Bomb? // Corey Hinderstein: A former National Nuclear Security Administration coordinator explains breakout time — and why it’s getting shorter.
Iran Is Getting Ready to Blow Up A Fake Aircraft Carrier, Again // Patrick Tucker: To test weapons, try out tactics, and intimidate adversaries, Iranian forces may attack its barge-borne “carrier” as soon as March.
Don’t Let Iran Tensions Stop the Battle Against ISIS // Mona Yacoubian: My recent journey through northern Iraq revealed how fragile the region remains, and how extremism could once again take root.
DHS Starts Collecting DNA From Some Detainees at US Border // Frank Konkel, Nextgov: Agencies will send samples to the FBI’s databases for indefinite storage.
The WH can now use $3.6 billion in U.S. military construction money to build a wall on America’s border with Mexico. That news came Wednesday evening out of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which Reuters reports “granted a stay pending the Trump administration’s appeal of a Dec. 10 decision by a federal judge that barred the funding transfer.”
For what it’s worth, “The $3.6 billion amounts to a third of the approximately $10 billion that Trump has obtained for border wall construction during his presidency, a total that comes from congressional appropriations and redirected Defense Department and Treasury Department funds.”
Recall that “Last February, Trump declared a national emergency to free up funding for a border wall,” USA Today writes. “The administration announced the reallocation plan in September and drew bipartisan criticism in Congress.”
BTW, “The three-judge appeals court panel split along ideological lines,” Politico reports, “with two Republican appointees voting to temporarily set aside the injunction and the sole Democratic appointee dissenting.”
Said the WH in a statement this morning: “This is a victory for the rule of law. We are committed to keeping our borders secure, and we will finish the wall.”
New guidance systems likely steered the Iranian missiles that struck the Iraqi bases on Tuesday, Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber reports.
Here’s satellite imagery of the damage to Iraqi bases, from Planet Labs via The Drive.
The Chinese and Pakistani navies are exercising together in the Indian Ocean. The sixth Sea Guardians exercises aim to “enhance the capabilities of the two navies to jointly cope with maritime terrorism and crime,” according to China’s military officials and have “nothing to do with the regional situation and is not target[ing] at any third party.”
“This was likely an attempt to reassure India that the drills were unrelated to the tension between rivals India and Pakistan,” writes Defense News, and yet “India will certainly have noted that Sea Guardians included warlike air defense systems, anti-missile technology, anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and live-fire and joint marine training drills.” More, here.
A U.S. Navy carrier is about to break a decades-old deployment record. The Abraham Lincoln left Norfolk, Va., on April 1; operated in the Mediterranean, the Arabian Sea, and the Pacific Ocean; and put in at Pearl Harbor on Wednesday. That’s less than “a week shy of the post-Vietnam War carrier deployment record of 290 days,” by USNI News’ count. A bit more, here.
We’re about a month away from the unveiling of the White House’s 2021 defense budget proposal. Last year’s budget deal capped it around $740 billion, which in real terms is a percentage point or two less than the $738 billion 2020 Pentagon budget recently signed into law. That cap “will force the services to make trade-offs between force structure, readiness, and modernization that they haven’t yet been confronted within the Trump administration,” said Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Breaking Defense)
And finally today: Former Trump WH officials allege POTUS45 is undermining the Pentagon’s credibility. Named and unnamed former members of the Trump administration, along with some GOP lawmakers, reportedly said as much to Politico this week: “In the past three months, Trump has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria without notice, outraging their Kurdish partners. He’s bucked the military brass by granting clemency to troops accused or convicted of war crimes. He’s threatened to seize oil from Syria, and most recently warned he might illegally bomb cultural sites in Iran before being forced to backtrack. In all those instances, top military leaders have had to cover for the president, in some cases dodging direct responses to Trump’s comments and in others pretending Trump didn’t say what he said.” More, here.