WASHINGTON — Planned attacks against American military, diplomatic and financial targets in Lebanon and Syria comprised the imminent threat cited by U.S. officials as the reason President Donald Trump ordered the killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, multiple U.S. officials said Friday.
“When we start seeing extensive and very solid intelligence that [Soleimani] is plotting imminent attacks against the United States, the president as commander in chief has a duty to take decisive action,” said a senior State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity. “If we had not taken this action, and hundreds of Americans were dead, you would be asking me why didn’t you take out Soleimani when you have the chance.”
A senior U.S. defense official said the U.S. alerted the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat team to prepare to deploy to protect U.S. diplomatic facilities in Lebanon should they come under attack. Despite the fact the entire brigade was put on alert, the official said the most likely deployment would be a rifle company or a battalion, somewhere between 130 to 750 total troops.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Targets in Syria that were under imminent threat included military outposts the U.S. maintains in the eastern part of the country, current and former officials said. In Lebanon, Soleimani was allegedly planning attacks on diplomatic and financial targets, they said.
“He was actively plotting in the region to take actions — big action as he described it — that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview on CNN. A U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani Thursday in Baghdad stopped an “imminent attack” against Americans that Soleimani was actively working to implement, Pompeo said.
A senior U.S. official said recently Soleimani traveled to Syria, Lebanon and then to Iraq Thursday, and U.S. intelligence officials believe he was approving final plans for attacks in each location.
A senior Congressional aide briefed on the intelligence, however, said lawmakers saw nothing explicitly linking Soleimani to an imminent attack. What they saw, this source said, was exactly the sort of planning and coordination he has been doing for years. The aide said no one doubts he posed a threat to U.S> interests, but the case for acting this week was not made.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “I have real questions and want to get a full briefing from the intelligence community about the decision on this time and place.”
Administration officials were expected to brief lawmakers on the operation. So far the administration has declined to provide details publicly of the intelligence assessment that prompted the strike against Soleimani.
Members of Congress have expressed concern about retaliation from Iran, which its leadership has said it will take. Democrats in particular have expressed concern that Trump’s authorization of a strike against Soleimani will escalate to a full-blown war with Iran, and they’ve demanded details of the “imminent” threat.
The National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ken Dilanian contributed.