The President, His Relationship with Intelligence, and the Soleimani Strike

When it comes to intelligence, like with so much else, President Donald Trump likes big names. It’s this focus on celebrity, headlines, and immediate gratification — versus  substance, impact, and consequences — that so often motivates him. Partly because of this, as a senior CIA counterterrorist manager, my team and I often struggled in persuading the president to recognize the most important threats. Now, with the killing of Qassem Soleimani, I worry that while Trump got a big name and lots of headlines, the long-term impact on U.S. strategic interests was not fully considered. 

At CIA, I saw this play out more than once. Trump’s obsession in focusing resources against Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza is one example of the president’s preference for a “celebrity” targeted killing versus prioritizing options that could prove better for U.S. security.

CIA had not overlooked the value in Hamza’s name recognition, nor his musings posted by al-Qaeda’s media cell, but he was young, lacked battlefield experience, and had yet to develop a serious following. Despite having the opportunity to be tutored by his eventual father-in-law and indicted al-Qaeda operative Abu Muhammad al-Masri, Hamza was not under serious consideration in succeeding Ayman Zawahiri, the group’s current leader.

Despite intelligence assessments showing the greater dangers posed by  Zawahiri, as well as his Iran-based lieutenants al-Masri and Saif al-Adil, and the unlikelihood Hamza was in the immediate line of succession, the president thought differently. He regularly demanded updates on Hamza and insisted we accelerate our efforts to go after him. The president was willing to accept CIA’s take concerning the threat al-Qaeda continued to pose from South and Southwest Asia, but he was dismissive of our prioritization. His wishes necessarily influenced the alignment of the Intelligence Community’s focus and resources. In July, U.S. officials confirmed Hamza had died and that the U.S. played a role in the operation that killed him, but did not disclose further details.

The president responded in similar fashion with ISIS, as his public comments after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death show. Although U.S. efforts to target key ISIS leaders and operatives had preempted what might have been any number of devastating terrorist attacks, the president’s lack of familiarity with their names made such efforts, and their accomplishments, less consequential to him. As the commander-in-chief, of course, the president’s preferences are tied to his own political risk versus gain calculus, and this is not always aligned with the views of the Intelligence Community. It was not lost on us working the issue that the president pressed hardest for results in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.

That brings us to where we are today.  As commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Soleimani was a big name. In the president’s mind, killing Soleimani could have seemed like an opportunity to make himself the commander-in-chief willing to do what no one else would risk. Again, it appears to have been more about Trump, and the potential for headlines, rather than the intelligence. It also seems that the president’s preference for Soleimani’s overtly targeted killing reflects the same resistance to Intelligence Community input as did his surprise and uncoordinated orders to withdraw the U.S. military from northern Syria and its resulting accommodation of Turkey’s destabilizing and bloody invasion. 

While I can’t rule out reporting suggesting CIA Director Gina Haspel supported the Soleimani strike, it would be rather uncharacteristic and incongruous for her to endorse an action that the press similarly reported she advised would prompt Iran to unleash its ballistic missiles against the 5,000-plus U.S. troops deployed in Iraq. This very expectation long factored into U.S. retaliatory options when gaming out such a prospective crisis with Iran. It’s doubtful she or CIA’s analysts could have known even before attacking Soleimani that Iran would ultimately telegraph and pull its punches. On Jan. 7, Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases that housed U.S. troops, but not before warning of the coming attack. No Americans were killed or wounded.

Even with these dangers, Soleimani’s very public removal was too great a headline to pass up for Trump, but there were other options. Were the U.S. to have made the case internationally for Iranian culpability in the rocket attack that killed an American contractor or the U.S. Embassy assault, a more effective overt, kinetic option might have been striking Soleimani or IRGC elements in Syria instead of Iraq. Better still would have been acting against Soleimani in a way in which the U.S. could deny responsibility, a covert task that would have taken time, elaborate planning, and significant patience, but more likely to have accomplished strategically what the president claimed to seek. To date, for example, no country has acknowledged the 2008 assassination in Syria of Hezbollah founding member Imad Fayez Mughniyeh, whose name factored in almost every Iranian- facilitated terrorist act against the U.S. throughout the 1980’s and ’90’s. Iranian and Hezbollah covert operational planning was certainly affected by his death, but absent a smoking gun, against whom could Iran retaliate militarily? 

I do not debate we had intelligence regarding any number of prospective attacks Iran was facilitating through proxies in Iraq, and elsewhere. But don’t we always? The Iranians design potential operations at various degrees of lethality and provocation, some of which they will execute, others to put aside for a rainy day. It’s what they do. The reality is that the U.S. government would have been legally bound to warn the public of a threat against an American embassy. The U.S. Intelligence Community is also prohibited from exclusively warning American government officials of threats likewise faced by civilians, and regardless of nationality. For this reason, the deep skepticism that has met the president’s claim that Iran was planning to attack four U.S. embassies is certainly warranted.

The White House’s narrative and the posture adopted by the intelligence agencies are inconsistent with U.S. options, if there was, in fact, a specific, credible, and imminent threat from Iran. Rather, the Trump administration appears to have cherry-picked information from the broader intelligence to support its actions. Intelligence assessments on the anticipated escalatory paths Iran would follow in response to kinetic U.S. retaliatory measures have been consistent and well briefed to every president. The surprise wasn’t that the Iranians escalated, but that they  pulled their punches to minimize casualties and provide an off ramp to further escalation.

Further undermining the Trump administration’s argument that the Soleimani strike disrupted an imminent plot to kill Americans, the IRGC is a military institution and so taking out its leader is unlike removing a key terrorist leader, whose death can often eliminate the planning, communications and direction for a particular attack. The IRGC’s command and control are likely largely unaffected, whereas its resolve has likely increased. Moreover, the U.S. acting without any deniability seems to have forced Iran’s hand to respond openly. 

As a senior CIA counterterrorist manager, my team and I often struggled in persuading the president to recognize the most important threats

What to Expect Next

Iran works deliberately, asymmetrically and with discipline untethered to particular events but rather informed by strategic goals. There are no rogue operations and the greater the risks, the more likely Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself would need to approve an operation. Soleimani’s death will be a great loss to Iran, and provides justice for the vast blood he has spilled over the years, but the operations he shepherded will not die with him. Iran is not done, but will return to the clandestine arena where operating asymmetrically levels the playing field with the U.S. I expect that the Intelligence Community has told the president as much, or would have, if he bothered to solicit and value its input. Instead, the president’s decision to kill Soleimani reflects his propensity to play a good hand badly and respond from ego rather than pragmatism and the country’s best interests.

Attacks against U.S. interests across Iraq could expand to draw the reasonably stable and autonomous Kurdish region into the fray. Moreover, Iran’s clerics could unleash Lebanese Hezbollah, and not merely against the U.S. presence in Beirut. The 2017 arrest of a Hezbollah “sleeper” agent in the U.S. exposed the tip of the iceberg concerning Iranian plans to bring pain to the U.S. at home. 

Plus, while Iran’s Shiite regime might be al-Qaeda’s theological antithesis, they make for effective bedfellows when they need each other. Now, the regime’s carefully concealed support to al-Qaeda could be jump started free from internal and external political considerations in the face of a perceived all-out American attack. Unrestricted Iranian funding, plus arms, training, intelligence, and travel facilitation for al-Qaeda operatives would raise the threat and could force the administration’s hand in retaliating against its source.

Pundits will debate where to go from here. Don’t expect the White House to produce any evidence to support its contention that Americans are any safer. Indeed, the greatest risk is the proclivity of both Iran and the U.S. to act from the wrong strategic calculus. 

To avoid this, the U.S. must first decide what’s most important, the price it’s willing to pay and anticipate the consequences. I have great trust in the Intelligence Community, but with the stakes never higher, it’s time for the president to start listening to it and to begin to put U.S. strategic interests first. 

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Douglas London

Retired Senior CIA Operations Officer, Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. Mr. London retired from his position at CIA at the end of 2018. Follow him on Twitter (@douglaslondon5).