Congressional leaders briefed on classified Iran threat
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Congressional leaders briefed on classified Iran threat

Move comes after criticism over lack of information from White House about Gulf buildup; lawmakers tight-lipped but full House and Senate to be briefed next week

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., passes reporters as he and other top congressional leaders head to a classified briefing on Iran after members of both parties asked for more information on the White House's claims of rising threats in the Middle East, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., passes reporters as he and other top congressional leaders head to a classified briefing on Iran after members of both parties asked for more information on the White House's claims of rising threats in the Middle East, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders received a classified briefing on Iran from the White House Thursday following criticism that lawmakers have been kept out of the loop about recent military moves in the Middle East.

Members of the so-called Gang of Eight were tight-lipped as they left the briefing. The ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, refused to comment on the classified information discussed, but said more lawmakers should be informed of the Iran threat.

“I think obviously there are certain protections that have to be maintained for Gang of Eight but it’s very important that more members hear this story,” Warner told reporters.

Classified briefings on Iran will also be given next week to the full House and Senate.

The USS Abraham Lincoln sails south in the Suez canal near Ismailia, Thursday, May 9, 2019 (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

Frustration has been mounting in Congress about the lack of consultation from the White House after the Trump administration sent military assets to the Middle East to protect US interests and on Wednesday partially evacuated the US embassy in Baghdad.

Asked Thursday at the White House if escalating tensions with Iran will lead to war, Trump replied, “I hope not.”

Speaking from the Senate floor, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida defended the White House’s actions. Rubio, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, described “a persistent and clear stream of information” about Iranian threats to US troops and other assets in the Middle East.

In this photo provided by Tasnim News Agency, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard members walk on the coast during a drill around Qeshm Island, Iran, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018. State TV is reporting that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard ground force has launched a drill near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea. (Hamed Malekpour/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

Iranian forces “and their proxies in the region pose a serious and potentially imminent threat to US forces and US civilians in Iraq and in the broader Middle East,” he said. Rubio also said he welcomed upcoming briefings and suggested that skepticism about the administration’s assessment of the Iran threat has been fueled by a lack of information.

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the White House raised the alarm on Iran after seeing multiple pieces of intelligence and that it wasn’t “a single item that (moved) the needle.”

“There’s been public reporting about the movement of rockets on a boat. … I would caution, I would strongly caution everyone not to grab onto that and say ‘aha! This is it.’ That is the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

The Trump administration has taken a hard line on Iran. Trump pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal last year and has re-imposed punishing sanctions that have crippled Tehran’s economy. Most recently, in April, the Trump administration designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.

US President Donald Trump sits with Attorney General William Barr during the 38th Annual National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service at the US Capitol, May 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Some lawmakers accused the White House of provoking Iranian retaliation.

“The Iranians moving weapons around is not a new thing and that they may be doing it at a more rapid pace after we have threatened them with a carrier strike group is not surprising,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee.

State Department officials said threats in the region were credible and based on intelligence showing Iranian-backed militias had been moving personnel and weaponry as well as stepping up surveillance of US and US-affiliated facilities in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. The officials were not authorized to comment publicly by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., meets with reporters at her weekly news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Members of Congress, senior US officials and allies have expressed skepticism in response to warnings from the administration about Iran’s regional threat. Many lawmakers referenced the role of false intelligence in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq when questioning current intelligence on Iran.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a member of the Gang of Eight, said failure to inform Congress is “part of a pattern” for the Trump administration “that is not right” because the power to declare war resides with the Congress.

“So I hope that the president’s advisers recognize that they have no authorization to go forward in any way” against Iran, Pelosi said.

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