Not a single member of the U.S. national security establishment mourns the death of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). I served as a CIA officer in the Middle East for many years, including in Iraq, and I witnessed firsthand that Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops. As such, my colleagues in the Intelligence Community and I share a deep sense that justice was done when he was killed earlier this month. We applaud the men and women in the special operations and intelligence communities who carried out and contributed to this operation. I know many of them personally, and I am confident there is an enormous sense of satisfaction that they avenged their colleagues who had been maimed and killed in operations Soleimani planned or by militias he armed and trained. They also likely feel relieved that they took out a key terrorist mastermind who was no doubt going to cause further loss of U.S. life if not stopped.
All that said, it is not a sign of unpatriotic behavior to question several aspects of the operation that killed him. A healthy democracy demands that our political leaders provide the American people clear justification – both legal and strategic — for such lethal actions. The U.S. and Iran are at the brink of open conflict and face years of asymmetric warfare because of the Soleimani killing. As such, putting the Trump administration in the hot seat should be welcomed by both sides of the political aisle.
Four fundamental questions come to mind in the aftermath of the strike that can and should be debated.
First, the degree of actual imminence of an IRGC terrorist attack has been correctly and repeatedly questioned by journalists as well as members of Congress. The administration has been at best bumbling, and in the case of President Donald Trump, may be him simply making up the “where” and “when” of purported IRGC plotting, claiming Iran had plans to attack four U.S. embassies.
My take on this issue is quite clear and it’s based on decades of experience at the CIA in managing threat reporting. If a threat was indeed specific (four embassies) and imminent, one would expect a number of key requisite and highly bureaucratic processes to have taken place within the U.S. government. These include Emergency Action Committee meetings at embassies (where the deputy chief of mission chairs a meeting to discuss specific steps that will be taken to protect the embassy); the subsequent closure of facilities, such as the consular sections, in order to protect both the embassy staff and the general public; dialogue with the host country government’s security and intelligence services; and warden notices that are publicly disseminated to the American community living in the country being targeted. Many of these steps are overt moves that are highly scrutinized, as they cause justifiable worry in the host countries.
With this in mind and looking across the region, the State Department appears to have taken no such steps whatsoever, which indicates to me that there was no intelligence that pinpointed imminent attacks on four specific embassies, as Trump said. It is also worth questioning whether killing Soleimani would cause attack-planning to be postponed or delayed, as he was an overall leadership figure and not a member of an actual cell tasked with pulling the trigger. The Trump administration’s claims that an attack was imminent certainly suggests that an active plan was in full motion and in its final stages. If that were true, Soleimani’s role would not be required for the execution phase of an imminent operation. I stress that does not mean that he was not plotting at a strategic level, and that perhaps operations were near to fruition. But as far as I can tell, imminence is a standard that appears to be overstated by the administration.
Second, and to me a critical question that has been virtually ignored by the media, is why did the U.S. conduct this strike under Title 10 authorities and acknowledge its responsibility for it? An unacknowledged strike, carried out under Title 50, would have provided at least a fig leaf of deniability, thereby not rubbing the Iranians noses in the result, which almost certainly would cause them to retaliate.
The Israelis have perfected this method of non-attributable targeted killing and operate in a space of what they term a “zone of deniability.” While I understand there is a debate about its morality and efficacy, this method has proved very successful in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in ensuring minimal retaliatory moves after lethal operations.
A question which we should demand an answer from the administration is why the president didn’t choose to make this operation deniable, in the sense that (in the words of the covert action statute), “the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” It is worth noting that such an operation would require a presidential finding and notification of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. There is no doubt in my mind what the correct answer is. Yet, I wonder if such an option was ever discussed by the National Security Council. Perhaps the president simply does not have the discipline required for an unacknowledged strike in which the U.S. would have to stay silent about its responsibility. Such a secret strike would deny the president the ability to thump his chest. After 26 years at CIA, mostly spent working on the Middle East, I strongly believe that the ability of a nation state to refrain from bragging of operational successes, to operate silently in the shadows under a mystique of military and special operations might, is a more powerful sign of strength and resolve than publicly demanding credit and praise for these types of operations.
Third, I question whether a true “deep dive” assessment was carried out by the analytic community, including not only the anticipated Iranian conventional military and asymmetric responses, but also an assessment of the myriad of second order effects, such as how would the interim Iraqi government react in terms of U.S. troop levels in Iraq. Would the strike speed the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon? How would our European and NATO allies react? According to the Washington Post, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was expecting European leaders to champion the strike publicly, even though they were not consulted on it. Instead, European allies are reportedly worried that killing Soleimani could put their embassies in Iran and Iraq in danger and lessen the chances of curbing Iran’s nuclear program.
Given the gravity of this move — to kill an individual who was arguably the most famous intelligence official on the planet — the lack of such a deep dive assessment, and the true interagency coordination that would provide alternative views, appears reckless, impulsive, and, frankly, disturbing. I also note that amongst my fellow retired operations officer colleagues from CIA — many of them at the senior intelligence service level — there was near unanimous shock at the strike. Not necessarily that we carried it out with such tactical precision, as many of us knew that Soleimani had been of interest for years. Rather, that the U.S. national security apparatus, presumably under careful planning and consideration, had elected to take this step. Case officers from the Near East division are considered the “cowboys” of the CIA, so if there is shock from this group, one knows that a seminal event had occurred.
Finally, it is worth noting that the U.S. government has become quite proficient at targeted killing. Morally and in practice, I am a strong proponent of such measures, as it offers our national security chiefs an incredibly precise and lethal tool of statecraft. That said, the real issue of significance is what are the implications of this devastating tool on our national security doctrine in 2020 and beyond. Are we prepared for our adversaries to, at some point, also obtain such capabilities? At that point, similar to nuclear doctrine, will there be deterrence practiced on targeted killings when our adversaries can find, fix, and finish our officials, just as we can theirs? I’d bet that a class at the National Defense University will soon discuss such scenarios, if it’s not already.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks about the situation with Iran in the White House on Jan. 8, 2020. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images