Pennsylvania’s federal legislators attended classified briefings on the situation with Iran on Wednesday, but were left deeply divided on whether an imminent threat existed to justify the airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week.
The divide is along partisan lines, with Republicans Rep. Glenn Thompson and Sen. Pat Toomey in agreement, and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey saying he isn’t convinced.
“What I didn’t hear was an answer to the basic question that not just senators have, but I think this is true of a lot of Americans,” Casey said in a conference call with the media earlier this week, “what was the imminent threat, what was the nature of it, what considerations were weighed in terms of upsides (and downsides) to a strike that killed Mr. Soleimani? We didn’t hear that.”
Officials who participated in the briefing included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the head of the CIA and the director of national intelligence, Casey said.
“They didn’t initially address it all,” he said, but added that in response to questions, the imminent threat was addressed. “They didn’t address it adequately.”
Toomey and Thompson disagreed with Casey’s assessment.
The Republican senator said he felt the White House officials made it clear why the air strike took place.
“I support what the president decided to do here,” Toomey said. “I think the context is very important here.
“We need to keep in mind what a dangerous, radical, pariah state Iran has chosen to be by virtue of its leadership,” he continued. “It is without a doubt the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism and that’s saying a lot.”
Regarding Soleimani, the senator said, “It is very hard to overstate the centrality of his role in all of Iran’s malicious behavior, especially outside the borders of Iran. Obviously he was the leader of the Quds which itself has been rightly designated as a terrorist organization. He was the mastermind behind developing, arming, directing and training Iranian proxies throughout the entire region in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and Afghanistan.”
Toomey added, “A big purpose for him was to kill Americans. There is no doubt that was part of his intent. He was directly responsible for the death of 608 Americans in Iraq. He’s responsible for the deaths of something on the order of 1,500 Iranian protestors in recent months who were protesting the extremely repressive government under which they live.”
He pointed out the recent acceleration of hostilities by Iran and its proxies, too — including attacking and attempting to burn down the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. “When our intelligence folks learned they were planning a series of even more direct attacks soon, it would have been irresponsible not to respond.
“You can’t kill Americans with impunity,” Toomey said. “In my view, there were two reasons why the president did the right thing. The first, by killing Soleimani, we maximize the chances that we would disrupt or prevent this attack or series of attacks. That’s an important obligation, to protect Americans.
“The second, it was necessary. It became necessary to restore deterrence, to restore to Iranian calculations that if you kill an American, very bad consequences will follow. They were not convinced of that,” Toomey said.
When questioned for specifics about the imminent threat posed, Toomey said he couldn’t characterize it in detail because it was a classified briefing. “They were right to do this,” he said of the administration. “The president of the United States does not need the permission of Congress to protect and defend Americans.”
While Casey said the strategy moving forward is unclear, Toomey and Thompson both disagreed.
Thompson said Thursday, “I appreciate the administration communicating their strategy with Congress and believe we are well prepared to address any potential aggressions from Iran moving forward.”
Toomey said the administration intends to carry out a “campaign of maximum economic pressure.”
Casey said in his view, the Trump administration is on a clear path to a regime change in Iran.
“I understand they deny that,” he acknowledged. “I don’t believe that regime change and rhetoric constitutes an effective strategy with regard to Iran. With the actions they’ve taken, I believe it’s more likely rather than less likely that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon. I believe it’s more likely rather than less likely that we’ll be in a war with Iran.
“I want to be wrong about both of those.”
Casey is co-sponsoring a resolution with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., that would prevent the administration from taking further military action against Iran without a war powers authorization from Congress.
“We know the price Pennsylvania families have paid in war over many generations. In Iraq, 197 Pennsylvanians were killed. In Afghanistan, there were 91,” Casey said. “Add the number who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who were wounded — some of them grievously, permanently wounded — and that number is in the thousands.
“We’ve paid a substantial price, and I want to make sure if this or any administration or any congress is pursuing a war against (Iran) that we make decisions based on what the constitution requires and that we do that in full view of the American people.”