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 panel approves Trump nominee under investigation Hillicon Valley: Trump threatens Michigan, Nevada over mail-in voting | Officials call for broadband expansion during pandemic | Democrats call for investigation into Uber-Grubhub deal Senate chairman schedules vote on Trump nominee under investigation 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 RischHillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting Senate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation Hillicon Valley: Trump threatens Michigan, Nevada over mail-in voting | Officials call for broadband expansion during pandemic | Democrats call for investigation into Uber-Grubhub deal MORE (R-Idaho).

Later in the hearing, Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy Senate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation Pelosi, Democrats press case for mail-in voting amid Trump attacks 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 MurphySenators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day Congress eyes changes to small business pandemic aid Top Democrat to introduce bill to limit Trump's ability to fire IGs 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 ShaheenThis week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting Open Skies withdrawal throws nuclear treaty into question GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill 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 PaulSunday shows preview: States begin to reopen even as some areas in US see case counts increase Congress headed toward unemployment showdown Doctors push Trump to quickly reopen country in letter organized by conservatives 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.”