Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale
Overnight Defense: Congressional leaders receive classified briefing on Iran | Trump on war: 'I hope not' | Key Republican calls threats credible | Warren plan targets corporate influence at Pentagon
Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: Congressional leaders received a classified briefing on the administration's plans and strategies for Iran on Thursday, but that's unlikely to quiet the worries about the situation.
The congressional leaders emerged tight-lipped amid concerns about new tensions escalating to war.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters only that she "asked for a classified briefing for all members, but we've been asking for that for two weeks."
The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), meanwhile, said that while sensitive information needs to be safeguarded, "more members need to hear the story."
But on questions such whether they were satisfied with the briefing or whether alleged threats from Iran are credible, Pelosi, Warner and the briefing's other attendees either declined to comment or did not respond to reporters at all.
Who was at the briefing: Thursday's briefing was given to the so-called Gang of Eight:
Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calf.), House Intelligence ranking member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Warner.
Plans for next week: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Okla.) said Thursday the full Senate is scheduled to be briefed on the issue Tuesday.
A spokesman for Pelosi later confirmed the House will also get an all-members briefing Tuesday afternoon.
The background: On Wednesday, the State Department ordered the departure of non-emergency employees from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil, with visa services suspended at both locations.
Details on the decision were murky and officials have not elaborated on the nature of the threat that prompted the evacuation.
That occurred following the administration's decision to deploy more military assets to the Middle East, citing unspecified threats to U.S. personnel from Iran and its proxy forces.
Who else has been demanding info: Top members of a Senate panel with oversight of the State Department are requesting Pompeo also brief senators on the decision to pull nonemergency personnel from Iraq.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, said in the letter to Pompeo that they read about the State Department's decision "with great concern."
"We ask that you provide a briefing to the Senate as soon as possible on the details of the ordered departure, the specific threat reporting that led to this decision and any potential security requirements that may be necessary for addressing the department's concerns," they wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Hill.
TRUMP ADDRESSES WAR FEARS: Asked Thursday about whether the United States is going to war with Iran, President Trump said "I hope not."
The New York Times reported on Thursday that Trump told acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan explicitly that he does not want to go to war with Iran.
Pelosi's warning: The House speaker also sounded a warning to those in the Trump administration taking aggressive military steps toward confronting Iran: You can't go to war without Congress.
"The responsibility in the Constitution is for Congress to declare war," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol. "So I hope that the president's advisers recognize they have no authorization to go forward in any way."
Pelosi specifically argued the current authorization for use of military force (AUMF), which was passed to fight terrorists in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, would not extend to a confrontation with Iran.
"They cannot call the authorization, AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force that was passed in 2001, as any authorization to go forward in the Middle East now," she said.
KEY REPUBLICAN 'CONVINCED' IRAN THREATS ARE CREDIBLE: The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee says he is "convinced" there is cause for concern around Iran's activities following a pair of briefings on the Gulf nation.
"I am convinced that the information and warnings that we have collected are of greater concern than the normal Iranian harassment activity that we've seen in the Persian Gulf and the surrounding area," Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters Thursday.
"I don't think it's business as usual. It is cause for greater concern. ... and a great part of that concern relates to Americans being targeted.
More on the briefings: Thornberry said the briefings he attended - one by U.S. Central Command officials and the other from Joint Chiefs of Staff officials, meetings open to all members of the committee - have left him confident the administration is making the right moves.
"There had to be a strong signal sent to Iran that we would defend ourselves if we are attacked," he said. "I hope everybody can rally around that. Showing that we are willing to stand up and defend Americans was an important thing to do."
He added that the number of planes and ships that the U.S. sends to the region is a decision "best left to the military. But the hope for me and pretty much everyone is that Iran decides it's not worth attacking us ... and that can be a deterrent."
Concern over rhetoric? Asked whether he was concerned that recent comments by President Trump and national security adviser John Bolton may escalate tensions with Iran unnecessarily, Thornberry said his sense is that "Iran is not hanging on every word that's tweeted or said by Bolton or anybody else."
"What they do watch is what we do. So I do think showing that we are willing to stand up and defend Americans was an important thing to do and hopefully deter any sort of attacks from happening."
He added: "If we're attacked, I expect our military forces will be in a position to respond. I hope that's not what happens. ... It shouldn't happen. I hope that the tensions start to diminish."
WARREN PLAN TARGETS CORRUPTION AT PENTAGON: Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced a plan Thursday she says would drastically reduce the influence of corporate lobbyists at the Pentagon.
Warren's plan, called the Department of Defense Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act, would ban defense contractors from hiring Pentagon officials and general and flag officers for four years after they leave the Department of Defense (DoD) and force corporations to identify the former DoD officials who work for them.
The policy also prohibits a former employee or executive of a defense contractor who joins the government from working on anything that could "influence their former bosses."
"[T]oday, the coziness between defense lobbyists, Congress, and the Pentagon -- what former President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex -- tilts countless decisions, big and small, away from legitimate national security interests, and toward the desires of giant corporations that thrive off taxpayer dollars," Warren said in a Medium post.
The proposal: The proposal goes on to recommend banning senior DoD officials from owning or trading any stock of giant defense contractors, prohibiting former senior national security officials from lobbying on behalf of foreign governments and requiring defense contractors to disclose the scope of their activities, including who they meet with at the Pentagon, what they're lobbying about and what unclassified information is shared.
Warren touted the plan as an effective way to cut a mushrooming Pentagon budget, saying it would identify programs that "merely line the pockets of defense contractors " and "make some cuts."
A refresher: The plan comes amid Democrats' concerns regarding acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who is President Trump's nominee to lead the Pentagon on a permanent basis.
"I opposed Shanahan's prior nomination to work as Trump's #2 at DOD because of his lack of foreign policy experience and my concerns about his ability to separate himself from Boeing's financial interests after a lifetime spent working for the company," Warren wrote. "The truth is that our existing laws are far too weak to effectively limit the undue influence of giant military contractors at the Department of Defense. The response of Congress shouldn't be to confirm Shanahan. It should be to change the rules."
The Massachusetts Democrat has stagnated near the middle of the crowded primary pack, at times reaching into the upper tier of some national and statewide polls.
She has sought to differentiate herself by introducing a slew of detailed policy platforms on education, climate change, Puerto Rico's debt and more.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Army Secretary Mark Esper will speak on "The Future of the Army in Great-Power Competition," at 11 a.m. at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-Texas), will speak on "Strengthening U.S. Leadership in an Era of Global Competition," at 12 p.m. at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
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-- The Hill: Opinion: How Congress should tackle the Russian national security threat
-- The Hill: Opinion: As tensions mount, we must not forget about the Iranian people