NYT reporter: Sources tell me the intelligence suggesting Soleimani was planning an imminent attack is “razor thin”


It’s ironic that political considerations suddenly now require Trump and the GOP to place their faith in the good judgment of the intelligence community after deriding them as deep-state liars for the past two years. Say what you will about Tucker Carlson, at least he’s consistent in receiving government assurances about the necessity of military action with skepticism.

Rukmini Callimachi is a Times reporter who specializes in covering ISIS and Al Qaeda but her sources are whispering to her about Soleimani this weekend.

Is this really “razor thin”?

Supposedly Trump came around to the “far out option” after the assault on the American embassy in Baghdad.

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It sounds from her description like U.S. intelligence had reason to believe Soleimani was planning something major and simply deduced that the targets would be American interests based on the slow spiral of escalation between the two countries over the past six months. That seems like a … not unreasonable inference, especially coming so soon after the provocation at the embassy. Counterfactual: If the U.S. had had this same intelligence, had taken no action against Soleimani, and then a bunch of American troops and diplomats were killed in coordinated Iranian operations across Iraq, how much political trouble would Trump now be in for having stood by and done nothing to disrupt those attacks?

More trouble than he’s in over impeachment, I’m thinking.

It’s absurd to analyze Soleimani’s killing from the standpoint of whether there was an “imminent threat” because he’s been an imminent threat to the United States for decades. No one disputes that he had it coming or that his hands were stained with blood from a thousand previous terror operations. We’re playing this game about intelligence and imminence because the White House evidently felt obliged for political reasons to portray the airstrike on him as a purely defensive operation which Trump had little choice but to undertake. If they turned around and admitted that he got pasted as a lifetime achievement award, because taking him out would badly disrupt big-picture Iranian terrorism (in the short-term), it’d be easier to cast the U.S. as the “aggressor.” And it would make it harder for Trump to defend his actions if/when Americans end up dying in the Iranian reprisals to come. If he had to take Soleimani out then the ensuing carnage isn’t really his fault. If he chose to take Soleimani out, well, that’s a little more debatable.

Besides, this Reuters story makes it sound like Soleimani did have his eye on escalation with the U.S. as recently as October:

Two weeks before the October meeting, Soleimani ordered Iranian Revolutionary Guards to move more sophisticated weapons – such as Katyusha rockets and shoulder-fired missiles that could bring down helicopters – to Iraq through two border crossings, the militia commanders and Iraqi security sources told Reuters.

At the Baghdad villa, Soleimani told the assembled commanders to form a new militia group of low-profile paramilitaries – unknown to the United States – who could carry out rocket attacks on Americans housed at Iraqi military bases. He ordered Kataib Hezbollah – a force founded by Muhandis and trained in Iran – to direct the new plan, said the militia sources briefed on the meetings.

Before the attacks, the U.S. intelligence community had reason to believe that Soleimani was involved in “late stage” planning to strike Americans in multiple countries, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, U.S. officials told Reuters Friday on condition of anonymity. One senior U.S. official said Soleimani had supplied advanced weaponry to Kataib Hezbollah.

“National security experts and even other officials at the Pentagon said they were unaware of anything drastically new about Iranian behavior in recent weeks,” the Times noted in a story today, but an American interpreter was killed in a militia rocket attack on a U.S. base in Kirkuk on December 27. Clearly Soleimani’s plan in October wasn’t just talk. How long was Trump supposed to wait until that threat was appropriately large and “imminent”?

It’s not just political hacks in the White House who are defending the strike either. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sounds like he was fully onboard with the decision to target Soleimani, insisting that the “size, scale, and scope” of the recent threat justified preemptive action. Another counterfactual for Trump’s critics on this, then: Is there anything Soleimani could have done to warrant targeting him, at any point? The criticism that an attack wasn’t imminent feels disingenuous since (a) Soleimani wasn’t an operative, therefore killing him wouldn’t necessarily have disrupted an imminent attack, and (b) the argument against targeting him has never had to do with imminence, it’s had to do with prudence. He was a sufficiently big fish that killing him would risk all-out war with Iran and guarantee significant retaliation of some sort. If you think those risks were too great to justify killing him, then you believe he shouldn’t have been killed, period. The timing has nothing to do with it.

Callimachi ends her long Twitter thread on this suspiciously:

It’s not at all hard to decouple this from the impeachment saga. I did it at length in this post yesterday, but the nutshell version is that Trump just isn’t facing major political risk from the impeachment process such that he’d need a distraction on the colossal order of liquidating Iran’s terrorist-in-chief. Everyone understands that acquittal by the Senate is assured; impeachment polling has been flat for Democrats at best, with some polls showing opposition to removal rising as the process has played out; it so happens that Trump’s job approval today in the RCP average is tied for the highest level he’s seen since the early days of his presidency — and that number is based on surveys taken before the news about Soleimani broke. Trump simply didn’t need to “wag the dog” here. If anything, he seems to be weirdly looking forward to his Senate trial: It’ll be the biggest television show in America for weeks on end and it’ll be his first real chance to mount a formal public defense. The potential risk to his presidency from killing Soleimani is waaaaaaaay greater than the risk posed by impeachment. The fact that Callimachi doesn’t recognize that makes me wonder if her sources are telling her what she wants to hear.

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