Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Sunday that he did not see any specific evidence that showed Iran planned to attack four U.S. embassies as President Donald Trump had claimed. The Pentagon chief later appeared to try to row back what he had said, insisting he shared the same assessment as the commander in chief but refused to detail whether there was any actual intelligence that would back up the claim.
“I didn’t see one, with regard to four embassies,” Esper said on CBS’ Face the Nation. “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. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”
Esper added that the United States had information there would be an attack “within a matter of days that would be broad in scale, in other words more than one country, and that it would be bigger than previous attacks, likely going to take us into open hostilities with Iran.”
The Defense secretary then appeared to try to clean up some of his statements on CNN, assuring that just like Trump he believed Iran was planning an attack on four U.S. embassies. “There was intelligence that there was an attempt to target the US Embassy in Baghdad.
What the President said with regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well. He said that he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region,” Esper said on State of the Union. When he was asked to elaborate on what made them reach that conclusion, Esper refused: “I’m not going to discuss intelligence matters here on this show.”
Esper wasn’t the only administration official to try to tone down suggestions that there was specific evidence of an imminent threat to four U.S. embassies. Speaking on Fox News Sunday, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the president’s claim was “consistent with the intelligence” but also suggested there was nothing that pointed to that directly. “Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies—you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”
The back-and-forth is only bound to increase the skepticism regarding the White House claims that there was compelling intelligence to believe U.S. troops faced an imminent threat. Although many administration officials have tried to avoid getting into specifics, Trump said on Fox News on Friday that there were planned attacks on four embassies. Several lawmakers have said that neither Esper nor Secretary of Satate Mike Pompeo mentioned the four embassies in a briefing last week. “Let’s be clear - if there was evidence of imminent attacks on four embassies, the Administration would have said so at our Wednesday briefing,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, wrote on Twitter. “They didn’t.”