“Why is the president threatening Iran with war crimes?”, George Stephanopoulos asked Mike Pompeo on Sunday, in one of multiple interviews the Secretary of State was compelled to grant in the wake of the decision to conduct a brazen drone strike that killed Iran’s most prominent general.
On Saturday evening, Donald Trump explicitly threatened to bomb multiple sites “important to Iranian culture”. For those unaware, that would constitute a war crime. Literally. Something Stephanopoulos drove home to Pompeo.
“As you know, the Geneva Conventions outlaw attacks on cultural objects and places of worship [and] our own DoD war manual discusses protection of cultural property”, he said.
“Yeah, we’ll behave lawfully”, Pompeo casually remarked, almost sneering at the question, and brushing it aside as though the gravity of Trump’s tweet somehow escapes a man (Pompeo) who finished first in his class at West Point. “We’ll behave inside the system, we always have and we always will, George, you know that”.
And therein lies the problem. We don’t “know that”.
For one thing, the US has not “always behaved inside the system”, something a former CIA Director knows better than anyone.
But leaving aside normative considerations about what deviations from “the system” are acceptable when pursuing those who have killed Americans (and some such deviations are almost surely justified) the fact is, the President of the United States threatened to commit war crimes in an unequivocal series of statements made in the most public forum imaginable.
It does not matter whether you support the administration or even whether you believe that this is a case where committing atrocities is somehow “justified” to deter future aggression by a foreign adversary.
Rather, Stephanopoulos’s point is a simple one: Donald Trump is now threatening to commit the technical definition of war crimes on Twitter. Period. The tweet is still up as of this writing, and we have no reason to believe the State department will compel him to take it down.
Pompeo continued as follows:
The president was getting to this point. In the past, previous administrations had allowed Shia militias to take shots at us, and in the past, we responded in theater, trying to challenge and attack everybody who was running around with AK-47 or a piece of indirect artillery. We’ve made a very different approach.
Stephanopoulos was not satisfied. “So, just to be clear, when the president said he had 52 Iranian sites, including sites important to the Iranian culture, that wasn’t accurate?”, he asked.
Pompeo obfuscated, and who can blame him? After all, contradicting Trump could cost him his job, but affirming these particular tweets from the president could eventually cost him his freedom, something that has surely occurred to him.
“George, I’ve seen what we are planning in terms of the target set”, America’s top diplomat responded. “The American people should know that every target that we strike will be a lawful target, and it will be a target designed with a singular mission, of protecting and defending America”.
That would be great if we could be sure it were true.
But, again, we want to emphasize that what Pompeo said on national television Sunday is starkly at odds with what Trump tweeted. There was no ambiguity in the president’s message. He threatened to commit war crimes.
We made (the correct) editorial decision on Sunday not to feature any clips from (or link to) an interview with Zeinab Soleimani, the daughter of Iran’s slain top commander.
The reason we did not (and will not) feature those clips is simple. That interview was broadcast by Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, which was deemed a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entity by the US in 2006.
The “interview” with Zeinab is, in no uncertain terms, propaganda, just like everything else the outlet broadcasts. It is designed to promote an agenda that, irrespective of Hezbollah’s political platform, fosters violence and hate, albeit not in the tradition of Sunni extremist propaganda, which is akin to Rob Zombie films.
We can only assume, based on the language in the years-old designation notice from Treasury, that any American media outlet which features those clips would be subjecting itself to government scrutiny. That may well be the wrong interpretation, but we would challenge you to read Treasury’s press release and come to a different conclusion.
If our assessment is even partially correct, it means Zeinab’s on-air remarks are effectively (i.e., de facto, if not de jure) banned in the United States.
Given the outlet, that effective ban may well be totally justified, but what we would humbly ask of the White House is that the President of the United States, as the moral leader of the free world and the guardian of democracy, exercise at least the same bare minimum amount of restraint and observe the same basic standards of human decency with his tweets that we did in choosing not to feature clips from Zeinab’s interview with one of Hezbollah’s media arms.
Apparently, that’s too much to ask of Trump, though.
[Editor’s note: We did use one, short quote from Zeinab at the tail-end of a previous article, but it was pulled from a widely-circulated Associated Press article]
Full transcript of Pompeo interview with ABC
MIKE POMPEO, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: George, good morning. And thanks for having me on the show this morning.
It’s very clear the world’s a safer place today. Qassem Soleimani no longer walks the planet. You know the history; hundreds of thousands of people in Syria, millions of refugees, Lebanon, Beirut, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, death to Americans in Iraq in the earlier war. This was a bad guy. We took him off the playing field. And that’s important because this was a fellow who was the glue, who was conducting active plotting against the United States of America, putting American lives at risk. President Trump made the right decision to stop Qassem Soleimani from the terror campaign that he’s been engaged in against America, not only 5 years ago and 10 years ago but on December 27th, when an American was killed by Kataib Hezbollah at the orchestrated direction of Qassem Soleimani and to prevent the future plans that terrorist Soleimani had in front of him.
The world is a safer place. We’re taking the actions that we need to take to protect American interests, not only in Baghdad and in Iraq but throughout the region.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You said that he was planning an imminent attack against Americans. What evidence can you share about that? Because The New York Times is reporting this morning that there was skepticism inside the government about that rationale, saying a U.S. official described the intelligence as thin indicating a normal Monday in the Middle East.
POMPEO: George, the senior leaders who had access to all of the intelligence, there was no skepticism. I think General Milley used the term, we would have been culpably negligent had we not taken this strike. The intelligence assessment made clear that no action, allowing Soleimani to continue his plotting, his planning, his terror campaign created more risks than taking the action that we took last week. We reduced risks.
President Trump is committed that every step to protect and defend American lives here in the homeland, we’ll continue to do that.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Most analyses have said that it’s not a question of whether Iran will respond, but how and when. Should Americans be braced for a counterattack?
POMPEO: George, remember, Iran has been in war with us for 40 years, and the previous administration and Navy sailors on their knees. They launched missile attacks throughout the region.
This is — this is a regime that has been acting against America for an awfully long time. And we are suffering from eight years of neglect and we’re trying to push it back. We’re trying to contain them.
We developed a strategy. It’s a diplomatic strategy. It’s an economic strategy. You’ve now seen some of the military proponents of that strategy.
We’re trying to correct for what was the Obama administration’s appeasement of Iran. And we have to — we have to do that. We have to continue to do that, or Americans will be less safe.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But before the strategy was put in place, the Iranians were abiding by the nuclear agreement. We’ve seen a spate of attacks in recent days and weeks in response to the maximum pressure.
Can you say your strategy is actually working?
POMPEO: Absolutely, George.
Remember what happened during this terrible nuclear deal. Hundreds of thousands killed in Syria. Shia militia, the ones that we’re fighting today, underwritten, resource are growing, taking control in places like Iraq. Missiles fired from Yemen that could easily have killed Americans when they attacked us on September 14th.
All of these things, these are things that were ongoing activities, resourced and funded by the trade and the money that was provided under the JCPOA.
In October of this year, George, the JCPOA, that nuclear deal, will permit arms trade with Iran. That’s crazy. That’s crazy. That’s missiles and systems — high end systems from China and Russian in Iran lawfully in October.
That was the deal we inherited. It’s a place we found ourselves, and we’re working diligently to execute our strategy to convince the Iranian regime to act like a normal nation.
The Iranian people are demanding it. We are supporting it and we will be successful.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And on the face of this, we are seeing new threats from Iran, and a strong counter-threat overnight from President Trump. I want to show a tweet he put overnight.
He said: Let this serve as a warning that if Iran strikes any Americans or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites, representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago, some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, will be hit very fast and very hard.
As you know, the Geneva Conventions outlaw attacks on cultural objects and places of worship. Our own DOD war manual discusses the protection of cultural property.
So, why is the president threatening Iran with war crimes?
POMPEO: Yes. We’ll behave lawfully. We’ll behave inside the system. We always have and we always will, George. You know that.
The president was getting to this point. In the past, previous administrations had allowed Shia militias to take shots at us, and in the past, we responded in theater, trying to challenge and attack everybody who was running around with AK-47 or a piece of indirect artillery.
We’ve made a very different approach. We’ve told the Iranian regime, enough. You can’t get away with using proxy forces and think your homeland will be safe and secure.
We’re going to respond against the actual decision-makers, the people who are causing this threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran. We’re going to take this seriously and we’re going to defend the American people at every turn, George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So, just to be clear, when the president said he had 52 Iranian sites, including sites important to the Iranian culture, that wasn’t accurate?
POMPEO: George, I’ve seen what we are planning in terms of the target set. I’m sure the Department of Defense is continuing to develop options. The American people should know that every target that we strike will be a lawful target, and it will be a target designed with a singular mission, of protecting and defending America.
President Trump has been diligent about that. He doesn’t want war. Talked about this repeatedly. He is a reluctant participant in this. But he will never shy away from protecting America.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Have you had any direct communication with Iranian officials, phone calls, a letter? And how have they responded?
POMPEO: I won’t talk about private conversations but make no mistake about it, I’ve been working on our allies in the region. We have built out an enormous coalition, that shares our fundamental view, that the primary threat to regional stability, is the Islamic Republic (inaudible) and that regime is the terror threat that undermines so much that’s taking place in the Middle East today. And so we’re working it. I have no doubt in my mind that the Iranian leadership understands President Trump’s view and America’s view. And it gets clearly the message from the American leadership.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Before Congress — Democrats in Congress were given no advance notice of this strike. And the president retweeted about that as well. A tweet from Dinesh D’Souza saying, and neither were the Iranians from for pretty much the same reason. Was the president suggesting that Senator Schumer and other Democrats shouldn’t be given advance notice because they can’t be trusted?
POMPEO: Well I hope we’ll get support from every leader all across America. For members of Congress I’m confident that they share the Trump administration’s desire to keep America safe. I’m confident too that they understand the threat and risk Qassem Soleimani presented. We’ll keep them informed through (ph) all that’s (ph) required. We’ve (ph) provided notice to them under the War Powers Resolution. We’ll continue to do that. We’ll brief them. We began our briefings on Friday of last week. We’ll brief them some more this week. We’ll keep them fully aprised.
We need a united American front to pushback — keep Americans safe. President Trump will lead it. We ask that they support it as well.
STEPHANOPOULOS: There’s also the question going forward if you take any new action against Iran is congressional authorization needed. Former Vice-President Biden spoke about that yesterday. Let’s listen.
JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE-PRESIDENT: I’m going to make it clear, President Trump has no authority to take us to a (ph) military conflict with Iran, period. The bottom line is any further action against Iran requires congressional authorization.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Will the president go to Congress before taking new military action against Iran?
POMPEO: Boy, it’s really something to hear the vice-president from the previous administration be critical of this administration’s policy of Iran. We’re having to clean up their mess, George. We’ll do everything required under the law to bring us into compliance with all the relevant constitutional legal provisions with respect to our duties to the legislative branch.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Does that mean you’ll seek new authorizations or no?
POMPEO: We have all the authority we need to do what we’ve done to-date. We will continue to do things appropriately, lawfully, and constitutionally. George, we’ve been consistent about that. There’s no reason to expect we’d do anything different going forward.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Secretary Pompeo thanks for your time this morning.
POMPEO: Thanks George.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Thank you Mr. Secretary.
POMPEO: George, thank you. Have a good day.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You too.