U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday that he ordered thousands of American troops be deployed to the Middle East because he believed Iran was planning attacks on U.S. embassies.
Appearing on CBS News' Face the Nation on Sunday, Esper said he shared President Donald Trump's view that Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike, was plotting to attack four U.S. embassies.
"I know other members of the national security team shared that view. That's why I deployed thousands of American paratroopers to the Middle East to reinforce our embassy in Baghdad and other sites throughout the region," he said.
Esper also said the United States had information that an attack would occur "within a matter of days that would be broad in scale, in other words, more than one country and that it would be bigger than previous attacks, likely going to take us into open hostilities with Iran."
In an interview with Fox News' Laura Ingraham on Friday, Tump said "it would've been four embassies" that would have been attacked under Soleimani's plans.
Esper on Sunday said that he didn't see an explicit threat against four embassies and that his decision was based on the shared belief between him and Trump that those embassies were facing an imminent threat.
"The president didn't cite a specific piece of evidence. What he said was he believed," Esper said. "I didn't see one, with regard to four embassies. What I'm saying is that I shared the president's view that probably -- my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassy is the most prominent display of American presence in a country."
Democratic lawmakers including Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., have said a briefing last week from Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not indicate that the threats mentioned by Trump and Esper were behind the rationale for killing Soleimani.
"Let's be clear -- if there was evidence of imminent attacks on four embassies, the Administration would have said so at our Wednesday briefing," Murphy said. "They didn't."
Esper on Sunday told CNN that information was only shared with a group of congressional leaders who are often provided sensitive information the rest of Congress is not briefed on, known as the "Gang of Eight," because they thought it shouldn't be more widely shared.
"I spoke to one of the briefers. One of the briefers told me was that most, nearly all of the members of that 'Gang of Eight,' believe that the intelligence was persuasive as well and that it should not be shared with the broader membership because of the concerns that it could reveal our sources and methods," he said.
Esper also condemned Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, for stating that U.S. escalation contributed to what Iran has described as an unintentional shooting down of a Ukranian commercial airliner that killed 176 and has sparked protests in the country.
"To somehow allow Iran to play the victim card with the international community is just ridiculous," he said.
Trump on Sunday tweeted a message to Iranian leaders urging them not to kill protesters stating thousands have already been killed or imprisoned.
"The world is watching, More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free! Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!" Trump wrote.
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