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State Department security officials weren't notified of 'imminent' threats to US embassies

State Department officials involved in US embassy security were not made aware of imminent threats to four specific US embassies, two State Department officials tell CNN, further undermining President Trump's claims that the top Iranian general he ordered killed posed an imminent threat to the diplomatic outposts.

Posted: Jan 14, 2020 3:30 AM
Updated: Jan 14, 2020 3:30 AM

State Department officials involved in US embassy security were not made aware of imminent threats to four specific US embassies, two State Department officials tell CNN, further undermining President Donald Trump's claims that the top Iranian general he ordered killed earlier this month posed an imminent threat to the diplomatic outposts.

Without knowledge of any alleged threats, the State Department didn't issue warnings about specific dangers to any US embassy before the administration targeted Qasem Soleimani, Iran's second most powerful official, according to the sources.

The State Department sent a global warning to all US embassies before the strike occurred, a senior State Department official said and the department spokesperson confirmed, but it was not directed at specific embassies and did not warn of an imminent attack.

One senior State Department official described being "blindsided" when the administration justified the deadly Reaper drone strike on Soleimani by saying Iran's "shadow commander" was behind an imminent threat to blow up US embassies. CNN has reached out to the White House for comment on claims that the State Department officials were taken by surprise.

Trump claimed at an Ohio rally that Soleimani "was actively planning new attacks," then told Fox News, "I believe it probably would've been four embassies," naming Baghdad as one. Senior administration officials around the President have repeatedly pointed to danger facing US embassies in the Middle East.

But State Department officials remain in the dark about the specific nature of that threat, the sources said. These officials also say the State Department did not produce the analysis that US embassies in the Middle East faced an imminent threat, the legally required threshold to justify Soleimani's killing.

While security at US embassies in the region was increased in recent months, those steps weren't taken immediately ahead of the Soleimani strike and weren't the additional measures that are usually taken in an "imminent threat" situation, former State Department officials said.

The agency also failed to take steps that would be typical in a situation like this, former State Department officials said, failing to issue an explicit warning to diplomats overseas or take follow-up steps to limit diplomats' movements or actively consider staff evacuations.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed back in an interview on Fox News on Monday.

"With respect to these claims that officials in the embassy weren't notified, that is both false and dangerous and intentionally undermining what it is this administration did to protect the amazing men and women who work at our embassies, not only our State Department officials but people from all across the United States government that work at these important diplomatic outposts," Pompeo said.

However, he did not say that four specific embassies were made aware of imminent threats.

Confusing explanations

Since the strike, Trump administration officials have offered confusing explanations, contradicting each other about how imminent a threat the Iranian general posed, whether they had specific intelligence on the threat and even what that threat was, with Trump saying one thing, then another, while officials offered varying explanations.

On Monday, Pompeo said Soleimani's killing was part of a larger strategy of deterrence, a shift from his previous rationale that the strike was to prevent an "imminent" attack.

"Judging from the type and intensity of the strike, the regime certainly must now understand what we will do if they ever again pose risk to American lives," Pompeo said during a speech at Stanford's Hoover Institution. "If Iran escalates, we will end it on our terms."

Responding to a question later about why Americans should trust the intelligence about the reported "imminent" threat, Pompeo said, "There was in fact a set of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassim Soleimani."

"It was unmistakable," he said. Pompeo said the intelligence community's view was "that the risks were real and growing and that the actions that we took that day reduced that risk. It never eliminates it. But it reduced that risk."

However, Pompeo, a former CIA director, told the audience that "the intelligence community makes mistakes, all the time."

CNN reached out to eight embassies in the region, including Baghdad, to see if they received specific threat warnings about any plot to blow up their posts. Only two replied, stating they got the worldwide security warning that was sent to all the US embassies about a "potential escalation threat" following the death of a US contractor in a rocket attack in Iraq by Iranian proxies.

'I'm not going to discuss intelligence'

On Sunday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on CNN there was a threat against the US embassy in Baghdad, but would not go further.

"I'm not going to discuss intelligence," Esper told CNN's Jake Tapper on State of the Union, and reiterated that Trump had not referenced specific intelligence when he told Fox it was "his belief" that four embassies had been targeted.

Yet Esper also explicitly said on CBS that he had not seen any intelligence to back up Trump's claim about the four diplomatic outposts.

"I didn't see one with regard to four embassies," Esper said when asked if there was a specific piece of evidence.

Trump's National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien said "very reasonable security precautions" were taken, but suggested no specific warning was given to the embassy in Baghdad.

"We're not going to cut and run every time somebody threatens us," O'Brien said on Sunday when ABC asked why the Baghdad embassy was not evacuated. He emphasized military reinforcements which were moved to the region. "We are not going to have another Benghazi," he said, referring to a 2012 attack in Libya that left four Americans dead, including the US ambassador.

Pompeo has not said there were any threats to specific US embassies, describing the threat posed by Soleimani as one that "included attacks on US embassies."

A State Department spokesperson said that every US embassy worldwide was warned of potential escalation with Iran, but this person would not say if that security warning went out before or after the Soleimani strike, saying that the dates of classified cables aren't disclosed.

The spokesperson also wouldn't say if specific US embassies in the Middle East were warned they could face bombings.

"The Department of State sent a worldwide security warning to every embassy alerting them of potential escalation with Iran and their proxies," a State Department spokesperson told CNN. "We followed up by calling every RSO [regional security officer] in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] and Levant to make sure they understood the gravity of the situation."

The spokesperson said the department also asked the regional security officers if they needed additional diplomatic security assets, agents, or resources.

One source familiar with the warning said it had gone out before Soleimani's killing. US missile strikes against facilities in Iraq and Syria tied to an Iranian-backed militia on December 29, four days before the Soleimani strike, led officials to expect some form of retaliation from Iran's proxies.

Around the clock

The source said the State Department was working around the clock with embassies worldwide, even calling them, to be sure that they heeded the warnings. But this source said State was not aware that four specific US embassies faced a particular threat.

The fact that the State Department alert went out to "every embassy" and Trump administration officials continue to avoid referencing specific warnings to specific diplomatic outposts contributes to the mounting skepticism about Trump's assertion that Soleimani posed an imminent threat to four US embassies.

Traditionally when threat information against a US diplomatic post is received, the pertinent bureaus at State -- in conjunction with other relevant agencies -- evaluate its credibility and decide how to proceed.

"If it's credible, specific, cannot be thwarted and poses a threat to our people, an Emergency Action Committee is formed at post, coordinating their deliberations with main State and Diplomatic Security, specifically," explained John Kirby, a CNN contributor and former spokesperson for the State Department and the Pentagon.

It would be extremely rare -- and likely only in a case where the threat is hours or minutes away -- that a threat against a US embassy picked up by another US agency would not be shared with State Department officials who oversee security.

In addition to the classified security warning that went to US embassies before the Soleimani attack, another security alert was sent to US embassies the day after the strike citing "heightened tension in the Middle East that may result in security risks to U.S. citizens abroad."

Embassies were encouraged to put out public messaging to warn of the potential for mounting violence in the Middle East. Three days later, on Monday, January 6th, that security alert became mandatory worldwide.

Esper said on CNN that the US embassy in Iraq did know of a threat, separate from that of the militia the US struck on December 29th and protestors who stormed the embassy January 1. Yet in describing that threat he spoke only in broad terms of "threat streams" the embassy was tracking.

And the movements of the US ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller, could also undermine administration claims about the imminent threat looming over the embassy in Baghdad. Tueller cut short his travel outside Iraq to return to the embassy in early January because of the tumult.

But Tueller's early return raises questions about how imminent and dire that reported threat was, particularly as sources have told CNN the President is highly wary of facing another situation like the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran or the Benghazi tragedy.

As a congressman, Pompeo was a vehement critic of the Obama administration for its handling of the Benghazi attack. He described the actions of Hillary Clinton, who was then Secretary of State, as "morally reprehensible." He criticized her for not calling leadership at the Pentagon on the night of the attack to provide resources which he claimed could have saved the four Americans.

The State Department said appropriate precautions were taken to assure Tueller's safety.

"We took all appropriate and prudent precautions to protect our personnel. Our brave diplomats work all over the world, some in dangerous 'high threat' posts. Ambassador Tueller is one of those diplomats. We don't abandon our missions because there are dangerous people," a State Department spokesperson said. "We do our jobs."

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