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Classified Iran Briefing Sharply Divides Pennsylvania Senators


U.S. Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey are split on whether the killing of Iran’s top military official was justified, following a classified briefing with senior administration officials Wednesday.
“What I didn’t hear in that briefing was an answer to the basic question: What was the imminent threat?” Casey said in a press call immediately following the hour-and-20-minute briefing.

The Pennsylvania Democrat said the briefing was given by top White House officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, CIA director Gina Haspel and acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire.

“I was frankly rather surprised – [these officials] knew coming in to the briefing that that was a question on the minds of senators from both parties,” said Casey about the circumstances that led to the drone strike on Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani.

“They initially didn’t address [the issue of justification] at all and then pursuant to questions didn’t address it adequately.”

Casey said he was left with more questions, and said a lot of other senators still had questions when officials left.

“There has not been a strategy,” Casey said of the Trump administration's actions in the Middle East. “ I think the plan or objective here is regime change. I worry that the president ... may not even understand that some people in his administration are leading him to regime change. And that lack of a strategy that’s clearly identifiable is one of the reasons we’re facing these challenges now.”

Toomey, the Republican, countered that the administration had every justification it needed to strike Soleimani.

“If any administration knows about an imminent attack on Americans and they don't take action, then they are culpably negligent,” he said. “The administration was] absolutely right to do what they did.”

Toomey said officials in the briefing “certainly convinced me that there were very large scale attacks that were very imminent.”

In reprisal for Soleimani's death, Iran launched ballistic missiles on U.S. military based in Iraq Tuesday night, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Iranian officials said the Tuesday strikes weren’t an escalation of war, but an act of self-defense.

In a Wednesday address, President Trump said no Americans had been hurt in the Tuesday night attacks, and that "Iran appears to be standing down.” Trump said the U.S. will impose more sanctions on Iran, but didn’t provide details.

Toomey, who spoke with the president Wednesday and commended his restraint on the issue, applauded the prospect of more sanctions.

“It’s clear that that has been having a real effect. The Iranian economy is estimated to have contracted by 10 percent last year,” Toomey said. “This campaign of economic pressure, the sanctions that we’ve imposed, are absolutely having a huge impact and I think over time it’s likely that someone in Iran is going to decide 'we just can’t continue to go through this economic misery – something on a scale of a depression – all so we can have nuclear weapons.'”

Another point of controversy was Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani without the authorization of Congress. That prompted Senate Democrats to introduce a resolution to reassert Congress’s power to declare war: Until now, officials have justified military activities in the Middle East by referring to a broad authorization that Congress drafted after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Under the bill, Casey said, Congress "would be forced to take a vote on a privileged resolution that prohibits any further hostilities against Iran without a specific authorization to use military force." He signed on as a cosponsor of the resolution Wednesday.

But Toomey said he found much of the resolution problematic.

“The President of the United States does not need the permission of Congress to protect and defend Americans,” Toomey said. “Now, if we were going to go into a full-scale war with Iran with an invasion, which nobody is suggesting, but if we were, then that would certainly require Congressional consent.”

But the administration’s actions have drawn sharp criticism from some other Republican members.

Officials during Wednesday's briefing “were asked repeatedly what – if anything –would trigger the need for the administration to come back to Congress for a declaration of war or an authorization for the use of military force,” said U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). “At one point I believe one of the briefers said ‘I’m sure we could think of something.’ But they struggled to identify anything.’”

The escalating conflict has sharply divided the House as well. Hours after House members emerged from a closed-door briefing with national-security officials, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Wednesday that the House will vote on a war powers resolution to limit Trump’s authority to use military force in Iran without Congressional approval.

“Members of Congress have serious, urgent concerns about the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran and about its lack of strategy moving forward,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Our concerns were not addressed by the President’s insufficient War Powers Act notification and by the Administration’s briefing today.”