In a new post for the blog Just Security from the New York University Law School on Wednesday, a former CIA counterterrorist manager revealed details of his work under President Donald Trump and why he’s skeptical of the administration’s defense of killing Suleimani.
Douglas London, who worked at the CIA until the end of 2018, said he “often struggled in persuading the president to recognize the most important threats.”
Rather than caring about what career professionals thought were the biggest danger to the United States, Trump was instead interested in — what else? — actions that he could tout as personal victories. This drew the president toward what London called “celebrity targeted killing,” that is, the assassination of high-profile figures whose names could make a big splash in the newspapers. The killings of Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS, and of former Iranian military leader Qassim Suleimani fall into this category.
This description of Trump’s priorities rings true — he is always trying to take credit for supposed presidential accomplishments, like his recent attempt to garner praise for the falling rate of cancer deaths. Even before coming president, the appearance of success was always more important to him than actual business success.
In this spirit of killing “celebrity” targets, London said Trump was obsessed with killing a son of Osama bin Laden, Hamza, even though the intelligence community saw him as a low-priority target.
When it comes to the killing of Suleimani, which London was not involved in, the ex-CIA official argued that the Trump administration’s explanation for his killing doesn’t add up.
“[It] appears to have been more about Trump, and the potential for headlines, rather than the intelligence,” he wrote. “Soleimani’s very public removal was too great a headline to pass up for Trump, but there were other options.”
He also doubted that Gina Haspel, the current CIA director, recommended the killing, even though the New York Times has reported that she was on board. It would have been “uncharacteristic,” he said, for her to recommend such a move when it would likely lead to missiles being fired at U.S. troops. She would have been unlikely to anticipate that Iran’s counterstrikes would not result in any known fatalities, as they did.
And as for the claim that there was some “imminent threat,” as Trump officials have claimed, that justified his killing, London didn’t buy this explanation:
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.
Read the full post at Just Security.