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Congress Was Not Consulted On U.S. Strike That Killed Iranian General

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As the moments go on, we're learning more information about a U.S. strike inside Iraq overnight that killed a senior Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani. A U.S. official tells our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman that a Reaper drone, a type of unmanned aircraft, fired several missiles at a car in which Qassem Soleimani was being driven in Baghdad. He had just arrived at the Baghdad airport. And the United States alleges that he had malign activities on his mind.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been talking today with Fox News and with CNN, and he says the United States faced an imminent threat from Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: The risk of doing nothing was enormous, the intelligence community made that assessment, and President Trump acted decisively.

INSKEEP: Soleimani, we will remind you, was the leader of the elite Quds Force, which was involved outside Iran's borders, a kind of special operations and intelligence unit that was involved in Iraq, as well as other places like Syria and Lebanon and perhaps Yemen. President Trump authorized the killing without congressional approval. We now have a lawmaker on the line - Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. Senator, welcome back to the program.

CHRIS MURPHY: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Was it appropriate for the president to act in this way?

MURPHY: Well, I think the first question is whether the president had legal justification to do this. The president normally is allowed to use military action in order to prevent an imminent attack against the United States, and I think we will all look forward to the evidence that this, in fact, prevented attacks against U.S. personnel. The worry here, of course, is that this is actually going to get more Americans, not less Americans, killed. Is Qassem Soleimani more dangerous as a martyr than he was alive as the functional leader of the Quds Force?

There will be reprisals. We have 5,000 U.S. personnel who are very vulnerable inside Iraq today, and of course, there is a potential that there will be reprisals against American political and military leaders. This is probably the highest-ranking foreign official that the U.S. military has ever assassinated, and it is foolish to think that there aren't going to be serious mortal consequences for Americans either in the Middle East or potentially here in the United States. So...

INSKEEP: I think I hear you saying, Senator, that if the facts are as the administration has laid out, that they did not need to come to Congress for some kind of authorization, but you want to know that those really are the facts. Is that correct?

MURPHY: Yeah. He has the ability to prevent imminent attack against the United States without coming to Congress. I think we need to see the facts that that is, in fact, true. He does not have any other standing authorization to take out a strike against a country that we have not declared war against.

INSKEEP: Do you see this - you said it was the most significant foreign official that the United States has assassinated. First, is assassination the right word for what happened here?

MURPHY: I don't see any other word for it. Again, this was not a covert assassination. We don't yet have a reckoning for all of the activity that the CIA may have been engaged in 50 years ago. But this was an attack by the U.S. military, and we generally do not attack heads of foreign states because, ultimately, we know that then that makes U.S. political and military figures vulnerable. And I imagine that of the consequences that the Iranians are considering today are attacks against high-level U.S. military and political figures. That's, I think, something we have to really grapple with today.

INSKEEP: How widespread, then, is the risk? Is it merely within Iraq, or would you say the danger must be considered in a much wider scope?

MURPHY: Well, Iran doesn't want a conventional military conflict with the United States, and so their response will be asymmetrical. That means that they are going to go after vulnerable American targets, whether they be in Iraq or civilian targets throughout the Middle East. So I think you can expect that there will be reprisals, and it will likely involve American casualties.

But there's a whole other series of consequences here that I don't think the administration has thought through. Of course, this basically wipes out any potential to have an agreement with Iran over their nuclear program. They are going to restart their nuclear weapons program, I think, as a consequence of this. And I'm not sure how we stay in Iraq. If we did this without notification to - with - to the Iraqi government, I think we may be on a path to be pushed out of that country.

And of course, we're there to fight another terrorist organization, ISIS, and if we no longer are in that fight, that presents a whole 'nother set of security threats to the United States.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that the administration, the president here, has made a number of ruthless but plausibly correct gambles - a gamble that Iraq may not like this, but they're not going to throw the U.S. out; a gamble that Iran really will not like this, but they're not going to go for a full-scale war?

MURPHY: Listen - we don't know how this is going to play out, right? We can guess, and we can also probably correctly guess the administration hasn't really thought through this. But, of course, all of us that remain deeply skeptical of this action are hoping that, in fact, we can continue our mission in Iraq against ISIS, that there isn't a full-scale catastrophic reprisal or series of reprisals from Iran.

So I can't sit here and tell you I know how this is going to play out. I'm going to hope for the best. But right now, I think this administration acted as they have traditionally against Iran. They generally have been all tactics, no strategy. They make it up day by day. And my worry is that they took this action without thinking through the consequences of it.

INSKEEP: Senator, thanks for your time, as always.

MURPHY: Appreciate it.

INSKEEP: That's Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Now let's go to NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis, who's been listening in. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does that compare to other things that you're hearing from other lawmakers?

DAVIS: Well, I think you're seeing sort of a predictable party line response on Capitol Hill. There's been much more support among Republicans for the president's actions, noting that the target, Khamenei (ph), was a sponsor of terrorism, had blood on his hands of American soldiers, and the president is being applauded for decisive action. I think that confidence from Republicans does sort of belie the fact that many Republicans are, in fact, quite concerned about potential escalating military actions with Iran, and this has been a conversation in Washington long before the Trump administration.

However, when it comes to congressional role in this, I think it's worth reminding people that Congress did debate this year, giving - they had a vote in the Senate about whether the president should have to come to Congress for any potential military action with Iran. And that bill failed. They didn't have the votes to do it. So every time Congress has been given a chance to reclaim some of those war powers that have been ceded to the presidency, they decline.

INSKEEP: Is there any appetite in Congress among any but a few lawmakers for a full-scale war with Iran?

DAVIS: No, but I do think there is going to be broad bipartisan interest in hearing from the president in the coming hours and days about what the long-term strategy was here, what is the strategy with Iran, and what is the military strategy with Iran. I think what the senator said about raising the threat against U.S. military personnel and U.S. citizens because of this attack is one that is on the minds of everybody. And I think that in moments like this with a significant military action, it is not uncommon for the president to not only inform the Congress but potentially address the nation as well.

INSKEEP: And of course, we heard Murphy phrase it as all tactics, no strategy. The question is, what is the strategy, at least from some lawmakers. Sue, thanks so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That is NPR's Susan Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.