Defense

Foreign Relations Democrats ‘deeply frustrated’ after Iran briefing

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said a classified briefing Tuesday on U.S. policy toward Iran revealed no new information to clarify the Trump administration’s justification for the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Most of the criticism came from committee Democrats, but Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also said he didn’t “think there was anything presented today that was new.” Paul previously fumed that a full Senate briefing on Iran was “less than satisfying.”

The Foreign Relations Committee was briefed behind closed doors Tuesday by the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook; principal deputy assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs Joey Hood; and the department’s acting legal adviser, Marik String.

Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) commended Hook in particular for providing “an engaging articulation of their strategy” toward Iran, but said he remains “deeply frustrated” at the administration’s inability to answer Congress’s questions.

“It was a generally deliberate, respectful conversation, but several members were deeply frustrated at clear refusal to provide any meaningful answers,” Coon said, tracing the shape of a zero with his hand when asked if there was any clarification on the justification for the Soleimani strike. “This was an exercise in physically showing up but not actually engaging in any meaningful” discussion. 

The briefing comes as U.S.-Iran tensions simmer following a spike earlier this month that brought the two sides to the brink of war.

The tensions reached a boiling point after the early January strike in Iraq that killed Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Quds Force.

Iran retaliated with a missile strike on Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops. The missile strike did not kill anyone, but the Pentagon conceded last week that 34 U.S. troops suffered traumatic brain injuries.

President Trump and his deputies have offered shifting explanations for why he ordered the strike that killed Soleimani, from citing his past attacks on American forces to claiming without evidence he was plotting imminent attacks on U.S. embassies.

Following the tit-for-tat and frustration at the administration’s explanations, the House passed a war powers resolution largely on party lines aimed at restricting Trump’s ability to wage war on Iran.

A similar war powers resolution from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has secured enough Republican support to pass the Senate, but it has been stalled while the Senate conducts Trump’s impeachment trial.

“I think we’ve been lucky with regard to Iran in the sense that there hasn’t been a response that lost American lives,” Paul said Tuesday when arguing for the war powers resolution and repealing the existing authorizations for the use of military force.

“Had there initially been a response with American lives [lost] we could be at war now. There was a danger of war and still exists a danger of war that comes just from killing one person … One person died at the very beginning of World War I, and 21 million people died as a consequence,” he added, referencing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that sparked World War I.

Asked if new information was presented Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said he already knew “a lot of the stuff” that was discussed, but suggested that’s only because he is also on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) called the briefing a “good discussion.” He said he did think there was new information, but acknowledged “there may be some people who disagree with that.”

Democrats on the committee, though, complained there was nothing new, adding there was no reason the briefing should have been classified.

While some senators asked questions about classified matters, the answers contained no classified information, Coons said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said the briefing covered “nothing that you can’t read in the newspaper,” calling it “absurdity.”

“I think there’s a lot of frustration that the administration really had so many changing explanations for their activity, said there was important classified information to back up their strategy. While we were there, we didn’t hear it,” Merkley said, adding there was “not a reason at all” for the briefing to be classified.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) similarly said she didn’t think the briefing needed to be classified, saying there were “a number of us who urged that we think about what needs to be classified and what doesn’t.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also said there was “very little that was in that meeting that could not have been in open session.”

Tags Chris Coons Christopher Coons Cory Booker Cory Gardner Donald Trump Jeanne Shaheen Jeff Merkley Jim Risch Rand Paul Tim Kaine

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