3 hours from alert to attacks: Inside the race to protect U.S. forces from Iran strikes

Intelligence that foreshadowed the Iranian attack set off a tense, often confusing afternoon in the White House Situation Room.

President Trump edited his speech addressing the nation on Wednesday right until he stepped up to the lectern at the White House.  

Doug Mills/The New York Times

By Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt, Lara Jakes and Thomas Gibbons-Neff

Jan. 8, 2020

WASHINGTON — The alert came to the White House shortly after 2 p.m. on Tuesday, a flash message from American spy agencies that officials sometimes call a “squawk.” In the coming hours, it warned, an Iranian attack on American troops was almost certain.

A blizzard of potential threats had already come throughout the day — of attacks with missiles and rockets, of terrorist strikes against Americans elsewhere in the Middle East, even one warning that hundreds of Iran-backed militia fighters might try to assault Al Asad Air Base, a sprawling compound in Iraq’s western desert.

But the specificity of the afternoon’s latest warning sent Vice President Mike Pence and Robert C. O’Brien, the White House national security adviser, to the basement of the West Wing, where aides were assembling in the Situation Room. President Trump joined shortly after wrapping up a meeting with the Greek prime minister.

Three hours later, a hail of ballistic missiles launched from Iran crashed into two bases in Iraq, including Al Asad, where roughly 1,000 American troops are stationed. The strikes capped a frenetic day filled with confusion and misinformation, where at times it appeared that a dangerous military escalation could lead to a broader war. Mr. Trump spent hours with his aides monitoring the latest threats. Military planners considered options to retaliate if Iran killed American troops.

The early warning provided by intelligence helps explain in part why the missiles exacted a negligible toll, destroying only evacuated aircraft hangars as they slammed into the desert sand in barren stretches of the base. No Americans or Iraqis were killed or wounded, and Mr. Trump, who indicated to advisers he would prefer to avoid further engagement, was relieved.

Afterward, the president and vice president spoke to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, and some urged Mr. Trump to try to dampen the crisis.

This account of the tense hours surrounding Tuesday’s attacks is based on interviews with current and former American officials and military personnel in both Washington and Iraq.

As it turned out, the missile strikes might end up being a bloodless close to the latest chapter in America’s simmering, four-decade conflict with Iran. Mr. Trump declared on Wednesday that Iran “appears to be standing down” after days of heightened tensions since the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, although few who closely follow the dynamics of the United States’ relationship with Iran foresee a peaceful future.

“If this is indeed the sum total of Iran’s response, it is a big signal of de-escalation that we should gratefully receive,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, who handled Middle East issues on the National Security Council earlier in the Trump administration.

Bracing for Retaliation

A billboard of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani in Tehran. Spy satellites and intercepted communications indicated that the response to General Suleimani’s killing might come on Tuesday.

Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

Hours before officials at the White House and Pentagon arrived at their desks on Tuesday, American troops in Iraq were preparing for Iran’s retaliation to avenge the death of the general.

Spy satellites had been tracking the movements of Iran’s arsenal of missile launchers, and communications among Iranian military leaders intercepted by the National Security Agency had indicated that the response to General Suleimani’s killing might come that day.

Al Asad base in Iraq’s Anbar Province was the focus of numerous vague threat reports, including one warning that hundreds of fighters from Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia trained and equipped by Iran, might launch a frontal assault on the base.

The base was relatively vulnerable; no Patriot antimissile systems protected it, according to an American military official. They had been deployed to other countries in the Middle East deemed more susceptible to Iranian missile attacks. So American commanders prepared to partly evacuate the base and assigned most other remaining forces to hardened shelters to ride out whatever attack would come.

By morning in Washington, the intelligence was still vague enough that White House officials decided to keep Mr. Trump’s planned schedule, including the meeting with the prime minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Administration officials resumed their defense of General Suleimani’s killing amid increasing criticism that they lacked, or were unwilling to share, the intelligence that they said prompted the strike. At the State Department, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at a packed news conference that killing General Suleimani “was the right decision.”

Days earlier, he had said the killing had been necessary to prevent “imminent” attacks. On Tuesday morning, he gave a different message, citing the death of an American contractor killed in late December when Iranian-backed Shiite militias fired rockets at a military base in Iraq.

“If you’re looking for imminence, you need to look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Suleimani,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Hours later, as Mr. Trump met with Mr. Mitsotakis, the White House received the squawk alert about a likely missile strike. Mr. Pence and Mr. O’Brien led the initial discussion in the Situation Room about how to confront the threat, assessing the intelligence about the Iranians’ most likely targets.

Upstairs inside the Oval Office, Mr. Trump sat beside Mr. Mitsotakis as reporters peppered him with questions about the Iran crisis. The president hedged about threats he had made days earlier that the United States might consider targeting Iranian cultural sites — but he maintained a menacing tone.

“If Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re totally prepared.”

Confusion and Misinformation

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has become a driving force in the Trump administration’s Iran policy.

Erin Schaff/The New York Times

After the brief news conference ended, Mr. Trump descended several flights of stairs to the Situation Room.

With sandwiches piled on a sideboard in the room, the group that advised the president there at different times throughout the day included a handful of seasoned national security officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, an Army veteran of nearly 40 years; Keith Kellogg, a retired Army lieutenant general who serves as national security adviser to Mr. Pence; and Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence.

It also included Mr. Pompeo, who has become a driving force in the Trump administration’s Iran policy and an advocate of what he often calls “restoring deterrence” against Tehran’s aggression in the Middle East. As a forceful proponent of the Jan. 3 strike that killed General Suleimani, Mr. Pompeo had played an instrumental role in bringing Mr. Trump to the crisis point.

But others around the long, rectangular table in the Situation Room had only modest foreign policy experience — including Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff and a former congressman from South Carolina, and Mr. O’Brien, who was a Los Angeles lawyer before spending two and a half years as Mr. Trump’s chief hostage negotiator and assumed the post of national security adviser in September.

Appearing on a video screen was Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, who was monitoring the crisis from the agency’s headquarters in Northern Virginia. In the days before General Suleimani’s death, Ms. Haspel had advised Mr. Trump that the threat the Iranian general presented was greater than the threat of Iran’s response if he was killed, according to current and former American officials. Indeed, Ms. Haspel had predicted the most likely response would be a missile strike from Iran to bases where American troops were deployed, the very situation that appeared to be playing out on Tuesday afternoon.

Though Ms. Haspel took no formal position about whether to kill General Suleimani, officials who listened to her analysis came away with the clear view that the C.I.A. believed that killing him would improve — not weaken — security in the Middle East.

But at that moment days after General Suleimani’s death, the president and his aides were confronting a flurry of conflicting information. Around 4 p.m., reports came in that a training camp north of Baghdad might have been hit. Officials at the White House and the State Department waited anxiously for the Pentagon to provide damage reports about the camp, Taji air base, where American troops are stationed. It was a false alarm, though American officials said on Wednesday that they believed that several missiles fired in the barrage a day earlier were intended for the base.

As the reports about Taji came in, loudspeakers at the American Embassy in Baghdad announced that an attack could be imminent. As they had in the previous days, American and Iraqi personnel inside the compound raced toward bomb shelters.

Roughly one hour later, the first missiles bound for Al Asad streaked over their heads.

A Hail of Missiles

One of the bases that was targeted, Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq, has long been a hub for American military operations.

Nasser Nasser/Associated Press

Around 5:30 p.m. in Washington, the Pentagon detected the first of what would be 16 short- and medium-range Fateh 110 and Shahab missiles, fired from three locations in Iran.

Several slammed into Al Asad but did only minimal damage. They hit a Black Hawk helicopter and a reconnaissance drone, along with parts of the air traffic control tower, according to a military official familiar with a battle damage assessment of the strike.

The attack also destroyed several tents.

Minutes later, a salvo of missiles hit an air base in Erbil, in northern Iraq, that has been a Special Operations hub for hundreds of American and other allied troops, logistics personnel and intelligence specialists throughout the fight against the Islamic State. The damage to that base was unclear, though no personnel were killed or wounded.

Why did the Iran strikes do such little damage? Mr. Trump attributed it to the “precautions taken, the dispersal of forces and an early warning system that worked very well.” A senior American military official dismissed the idea that Iran had intentionally avoided killing American troops by aiming instead for uninhabited parts of the two bases.

Still, American officials acknowledged that Iran’s leaders showed restraint in planning the missile strikes, especially after the fiery talk from Tehran after General Suleimani’s killing.

“We’re receiving some encouraging intelligence that Iran is sending messages to those very same militias not to move against American targets or civilians,” Mr. Pence said during an interview on Wednesday evening with CBS News. “And we hope that that message continues to echo.”

After the attacks subsided, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence made a round of calls to congressional leaders, and even some of the president’s hawkish allies said that Mr. Trump should be measured in his response to the Iranian strikes.

Recounting his conversation with Mr. Trump, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said he told the president, “Let’s just stand down and see what happens for a few days.”

Advisers also discussed whether Mr. Trump should give an address, and several aides, including Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, as well as Mr. Pence, worked on one on Wednesday morning in the hours before the president spoke on national television. More than a half-dozen drafts circulated as aides scrambled to prepare for the speech. One military official was given only 20 minutes’ notice to head to the White House to stand behind Mr. Trump as he spoke in the Grand Foyer of the White House in the late morning, and the president made edits right until he stepped up to the lectern.

Reporting was contributed by Julian E. Barnes, Catie Edmondson, Michael Crowley, Helene Cooper and John Ismay from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.

Mark Mazzetti is a Washington investigative correspondent, a job he assumed after covering national security from the Washington bureau for 10 years. He was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on Donald Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia.

Eric Schmitt is a senior writer who has traveled the world covering terrorism and national security. He was also the Pentagon correspondent. A member of the Times staff since 1983, he has shared three Pulitzer Prizes.

Lara Jakes is a diplomatic correspondent based in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Over the past two decades, Ms. Jakes has reported and edited from more than 40 countries and covered war and sectarian fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, the West Bank and Northern Ireland.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a reporter in the Washington bureau and a former Marine infantryman.

 

New York Times

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