Foreign Relations senators demand Iran briefing

Senators from both parties on the Foreign Relations Committee called Wednesday for an immediate briefing on the Trump administration's Iran policies and plans after the State Department announced it is pulling diplomatic personnel from Iraq amid rising tensions. 

“There are only two reasons for ordering their departure: We have credible intelligence that our people are at risk, or in preparation for military action in Iran,” the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate to vote on blocking Trump's Saudi arms deal as soon as this week There is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties MORE (N.J.), said at the top of a hearing on arms control agreements. “The Trump administration has not provided any information to this committee on the intelligence behind their decisions or what they plan to do in Iraq or Iran, and I have repeatedly reminded the administration of its responsibilities to this committee.

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“Mr. Chairman, I hope you’ll join me in asking the administration to immediately provide this committee with a briefing on the decision to order the departure of the embassy staff, the intelligence on what Iran may be planning to do and any plans to go to war with Iran,” Menendez continued, addressing Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischTrump's UN pick faces Senate grilling Trump's UN pick faces Senate grilling UN nominee Kelly Craft to face confirmation hearing Wednesday MORE (R-Idaho).

Later in the hearing, Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRomney jokes about his multiple houses while arguing against tying lawmaker pay to budget Romney jokes about his multiple houses while arguing against tying lawmaker pay to budget Republicans more interested in a primary challenge to Trump than Democrats were for Obama in 2012 MORE (R-Utah) backed Menendez’s call.

“I agree with the ranking member about the need for a classified briefing on the matters in Iraq and hope that the entire committee, or perhaps just the chair and ranking member, would be able to have that kind of briefing,” Romney said.

Risch replied to Romney that he has gotten a briefing and is working to arrange one for the full Senate.

“This is a very critical issue, there’s no question about that,” Risch said.

“Thank you, that gives me a heartened feeling,” Romney replied.

The State Department announced Wednesday morning that it is ordering the departure of non-emergency personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil.

The order comes after the Trump administration has warned of unspecified threats to U.S. personnel from Iran. In response to those alleged threats, the military sped up the deployment of a carrier strike group the region and deployed a bomber task force, Patriot missile battery and amphibious transport dock.

On Tuesday morning, a British general who is the deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria told Pentagon reporters there was no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in those countries.

“There's been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” British Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika said at a Pentagon briefing.

Hours later, however, U.S. Central Command (Centcom) issued an unusual statement refuting Ghika’s comments.

“Recent comments from OIR's Deputy Commander run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region,” Centcom spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said in a statement. “U.S. Central Command, in coordination with Operation Inherent Resolve, has increased the force posture level for all service members assigned to OIR in Iraq and Syria.”

In his comments Wednesday, Menendez acknowledged a full Senate briefing is “rumored” for next week, but said that is not sufficient.

“That is no substitute for directly briefing the committee today when there is clearly actionable intelligence available, nor is that timeline itself acceptable,” he said.

Menendez also stressed that Congress has not authorized military action against Iran.

“If it were contemplating military action with Congress, it must come to Congress to seek approval,” Menendez said of the administration.

Menendez later added that while he “appreciate[s]” that Risch has been briefed, Democrats remain in the dark.

“I just hope that when it comes to something of such consequence, potential consequential significance, that we can be briefed, so we can understand what we’re dealing with,” he said.

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Overnight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Chris Murphy may oppose bipartisan health bill unless it addresses ObamaCare 'sabotage' MORE (D-Conn.), saying he shared Menendez’s “grave concern,” asked hearing witness Andrea Thompson, under secretary of State for arms control and international security, about details of the department’s announcement on personnel in Iraq. She said she did not have any because it is not part of her portfolio.

Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenKey endorsements: A who's who in early states Key endorsements: A who's who in early states Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill after Mnuchin announces delay MORE (D-N.H.) later asked Thomson whether she had been briefed at all on the announcement, to which she replied she had not.

“I think it’s important and a critical enough issue given the potential threat of war, that everybody on this committee and everybody in Congress should be briefed about that,” Shaheen said.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate to vote Thursday to block Trump's Saudi arms deal Senate to vote Thursday to block Trump's Saudi arms deal Overnight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran MORE (R-Ky.), meanwhile, pressed hearing witness David Trachtenberg, under secretary of Defense for policy, on whether the administration has the authority to wage war with Iran without congressional authorization.

Trachtenberg replied that only Congress has the authority to declare war. 

“So the answer is the president can’t do it,” Paul said, “and that would be the answer I hope we would get from the policy person.”