Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States drone strike that killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was necessary because the military leader had an “imminent” attack against Americans in the works. But subsequent reporting cast doubt on Pompeo’s words and showed that evidence for such a move was, at best, “razor thin.”
On Tuesday, Pompeo appeared to abandon his claim that Soleimani was about to launch an upcoming attack, according to a report by The Washington Post. Instead, the secretary of state seemingly said that the general was killed in retaliation for past attacks that he had planned.
“We know what happened at the end of last year in December, ultimately leading to the death of an American,” Pompeo said, as quoted by Vox.com.
The death of that still-unidentified American contractor in a rocket attack by an Iraqi militia backed by Iran and Soleimani was what led to the attack, Pompeo said. He told reporters to look at that incident if they are “looking for imminence,” despite how the word “imminent” refers to events in the future, not the past.
An “imminent” attack, according to national security expert Heather Hurlburt of the New America think tank, is commonly understood to mean “that the threat was unfolding right now and there’s no time to do anything other than to kill the person.”
REPORTER: Can you be specific about the imminent threat that Soleimani posed?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 7, 2020
POMPEO: "We know what happened at the end of last year & ultimately led to the death of an American. If you are looking for immanence, look no further than the days that led up to the strike." pic.twitter.com/yhqyNToZxd
Even though Pompeo appeared to shift the Donald Trump administration’s rationale for the assassination of Soleimani, other officials on Tuesday stuck by the claim of an “imminent” attack — although appearing to loosely define the word to encompass a lengthy period of time.
“I think it was only a matter of days, certainly no more than weeks,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, as quoted by The Washington Post.
On Monday, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark A. Milley claimed that intelligence indicating an “imminent” attack was “compelling.”
But even shortly after the drone strike on Friday, South Carolina Senator and Trump golf partner Lindsey Graham said that he had been “briefed” on the upcoming strike against the Iranian general on Tuesday when he was with the president at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. This was hours after Pompeo first hinted that Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack.
Graham’s comments also appear to indicate that urgency to stop an upcoming attack was lacking, prior to the drone strike ordered by Trump on Thursday.
Virginia Rep. Don Beyer also noted that Pompeo appeared to have completely given up on his allegations regarding the attack’s imminence, making it an essential one instead.
“The Administration appears to be completely abandoning their previous claim that the killing was ordered to prevent specific attacks about which they had intelligence,” Beyer wrote on his Twitter account, following Pompeo’s press conference.