US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper believed Iran would target US embassies but he was not shown specific evidence of such pending violence prior to the American assassination of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani earlier this month, he said on Sunday.
Esper made this statement to a number of US media outlets, including CBS and CNN, appearing to contradict US President Donald Trump’s claim Friday that the US had targeted Soleimani, in part to avert planned attacks against four of its embassies.
During conversation before the Soleimani assassination Trump “didn't cite a specific piece of evidence. What he said was he believed,” Esper told CBS.
“I didn't see one, with regard to four embassies. What I'm saying is that I shared the president's view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies,” Esper told Face the Nation.
On CNN Esper strongly defended the assassination earlier this month noting that there was broad evidence of the danger Soleimani posed.
“The US is safer today than we were just a few short weeks ago. Why? because we eliminated the world’s foremost terrorist, Qassem Soleimani, who had the blood of hundreds of American serviceman on his hands. Secondly, we restored deterrence with Iran and we did so without American casualties. Third, we reassured our friends and allies in the region that the US would stand up and defend our interests,” Esper said.
Aside from the topic of a pending attack on four US embassies, Esper said, “there was intelligence that there was an intent to target the US embassy in Baghdad.”
Esper told CNN that as a result of the threat, he had deployed thousands of additional paratroopers to the region.
“The important thing is this. Soleimani orchestrated, resourced and directed attacks escalating up to the December one that killed an American. He [Soleimani] orchestrated he siege on the US embassy in Baghdad and he was planning this much broader plot in multiple countries that would be bigger in scale and that likely would have taken us to open hostilities with Iran,” Esper said.
“A very very senior intelligence community official said to us that the risk of inaction was greater than the risk of action, to me that is very compelling,” Esper said.
CNN’s Jake Tapper’s pressed Esper and said belief is not the same thing as evidence, adding that, “you can believe that Soleimani would have attacked the Eiffel Tower but that is not necessarily based in evidence.”
Esper repeated that with regard to a specific threat to four embassies, “what the President said was he believed it probably could have been, he didn’t cite intelligence.”