Updated at 6:33 p.m. ET
National security adviser Robert O'Brien is defending a closed-door briefing held for lawmakers on Wednesday in which Trump administration officials laid out the justification for the U.S. drone strike that killed Iran's top military commander.
The closed-door briefing by members of the president's national security team has come under bipartisan criticism from lawmakers who say the administration has failed to adequately detail the intelligence justifying last week's killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force.
Addressing that criticism in an interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep on Thursday, O'Brien said the U.S. "had very good information that there were imminent attacks planned against Americans in Iraq and potentially Syria."
O'Brien also reiterated the administration's stance that it will hold Iran culpable for any future attacks on Americans, even those carried out by Iranian proxy forces in the Middle East.
"We've made it very clear that when Iranian proxies that are directed by Iran attack Americans, that we're going to hold the Iranians responsible. And they understand that," he said.
Wednesday's briefing for lawmakers, led by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has fueled calls, particularly among Democrats, for a curb on the the president's ability to wage military action against Iran without congressional consent.
Among those who have criticized the briefing is Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who called it "the worst briefing I've seen" on a military issue in his entire nine years serving in the Senate.
Following the briefing, Lee said he would support a proposal by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., to place limits on the president's military authority. A separate measure that would force President Trump to seek consent from Congress before taking new military action against Iran passed the House on Thursday.
O'Brien, who said he was not part of the team that briefed Congress, told NPR he was "disappointed" by Lee's characterization, adding that he heard from other lawmakers that it was received quite well.
"I think there's there's always mixed reviews on these things," said O'Brien.
Lee told NPR that his frustration was not over Soleimani's killing, but over what he described as an unwillingness by administration officials to discuss "the possibility of future military action against Iran."
"And it was on that topic they refused to make any commitment about when, whether and under what circumstances it would be necessary for the president — or the executive branch of government — to come to Congress seeking authorization for the use of military force," he said.
One question the administration would not engage on, Lee said, was a hypothetical about whether it would ever undertake a strike against the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"The fact that there was nothing but a refusal to answer that question was perhaps the most deeply upsetting thing to me in that meeting."
O'Brien told NPR "we never answer those sorts of hypotheticals," particularly when they involve sensitive military operations. "So, for example, when President Obama took out Osama bin Laden, those things don't happen with pre-briefs to Congress. But we made certain in this case that Congress was made aware of the military operation against Soleimani immediately after it happened."
O'Brien defended the intelligence that led to the strike against Soleimani, but when pressed on whether officials knew details of the "imminent" attack cited by the administration — details such as time and place — O'Brien responded, "You never know the time and place of these things with perfect particularity."
Without elaborating, O'Brien said possible targets of the attack included "Both diplomats and soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines."
"I've seen the intelligence and it was incredibly strong intelligence. There are a lot of people that want that intelligence released," O'Brien said. "You know, look, I wish we could, but at the same time, we don't want to compromise sources and methods that allow us to protect Americans."
The Trump administration ordered the strike on Soleimani following a Dec. 27 attack on a military base in Iraq by an Iranian-back militia. That attack killed an American contractor and wounded several other Americans and Iraqi personnel.
"The president made it very clear that if you harm Americans, if you kill Americans, you'll be held responsible," O'Brien said.
Iran responded to the attack early Wednesday morning local time with missile strikes on two bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. No casualties were reported, but the back-and-forth led to fears that Tehran and Washington were on the verge of a full-scale war.
Those fears appear to have eased somewhat. Iran's U.N. ambassador, Majid Takht Ravanchi, told NPR the attack was "a measured, proportionate response," adding that "As far as Iran is concerned, that action was concluded last night."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's pursue answers to a big question posed by Senator Mike Lee. He is a Republican from Utah. He says he supports President Trump, but he told Rachel Martin yesterday that the administration has done a terrible job explaining its actions against Iran.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
MIKE LEE: What I'm most concerned about is about where that goes from here. What comes next? Is there another strike coming against Iran?
INSKEEP: Senator Lee asked that question after the administration gave the Senate an explanation of what it has done so far. A U.S. drone strike killed an Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani. The strike dramatically escalated tensions and triggered Iranian missile strikes in response. Some lawmakers assert the administration failed to share intelligence to back up its claim that Soleimani was planning imminent attacks on Americans, though he certainly has directed them in the past. Democrat Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told David Greene on this program that he questioned top Pentagon officials.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
ADAM SMITH: When you ask them, OK, well, what attacks? What were the targets? They didn't know. What was the timeline? There was no message that they received or intel that they got. It was just a lot of chatter about targets that they were looking at and the desire to hit those targets sometime in the near future.
INSKEEP: With those critiques in mind, we went to the White House yesterday and sat across a table from Robert O'Brien. He is the president's national security adviser, a lawyer and former diplomat. As we will hear, he issued a warning to Iran. And he also insisted the administration has done well in explaining the president's actions to Congress.
ROBERT O'BRIEN: I've heard from a lot of people that it was a fantastic briefing. Mike Lee is a friend of mine and someone who I greatly respect and the president really respects. And so I was disappointed to hear that he wasn't happy with the briefing. But I've also heard from other senators, including Chairman Risch of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - he thought it was one of the best briefings ever had. So I think there's always mixed reviews on these things.
INSKEEP: Mike Lee was especially concerned about where the president saw the limits of his power. As you know, the president ordered the killing of a very senior Iranian military figure. And the hypothetical was asked in this meeting, we're told, would the president ask Congress before deciding to have the supreme leader of Iran killed? What is the answer to that question?
O'BRIEN: Well, we never answer those sorts of hypotheticals. But I can tell you it's been longstanding presidential practice - when you have a military operation that's particularly sensitive - for example, when President Obama took out Osama bin Laden, those things don't happen with prebriefs to Congress. But we made certain in this case that Congress was made aware of the military operation against Soleimani immediately after it happened. But we feel that we're in full compliance with obligations for briefing Congress. It's important. They're the elected representatives of the people. And they should know what's happening. And that's an obligation the president takes very seriously.
INSKEEP: The president did order the killing of a specific senior national figure who was not at that moment in the act of attacking someone. You believe something was planned. Wouldn't the same logic mean that you would claim the authority to kill Ayatollah Ali Khamenei if he was planning something, or you believed he was planning something?
O'BRIEN: Well, look. The United States always maintains the right to self-defense. United States military units and the president as commander-in-chief has Article II power to maintain the security of the United States. And in this case, with respect to Soleimani - I'm not going to talk about hypotheticals about how others - Soleimani was in the act of planning attacks against Americans. We knew that. We had very good intelligence on that front. If we didn't engage in this operation and the attacks had taken place and many Americans would have been killed, there would've been, you know, plenty of people that would have criticized us for not having disrupted the attacks. So...
INSKEEP: Did you know the time and place of the attacks that were being planned?
O'BRIEN: We had very good intelligence that there was an imminent attack being planned...
INSKEEP: But time and place?
O'BRIEN: It was imminent. You know, you never know the time and place of these things with perfect particularity. But we had very good information that there were imminent attacks. There are a lot of people that want that intelligence released. I wish we could. But at the same time, we don't want to compromise sources and methods that allow us to protect Americans.
INSKEEP: We interviewed Iran's ambassador to the United Nations. He said Iran's retaliation is over but then added Iran is not responsible for what its allied militias in Iraq or elsewhere might do. Does the United States hold Iran responsible for what its allies may do?
O'BRIEN: Well, look. We've made it very clear that when Iranian proxies that are directed by Iran attack Americans - that we're going to hold the Iranians responsible. And, you know, that's one of the reasons why we had to engage in a number of military operations recently. Remember, these were not first shots fired by the United States. The first shots were taken by the Iranians against - and their proxies - against the United States of America. They killed an American citizen, wounded our servicemen. The president takes a very hard line against people that are planning or killing Americans or harming them.
INSKEEP: The conflict with Iran, obviously, is more than 40 years old. This most recent phase of intense conflict seems to be getting rather long term, also. It may last for years for all we know. Is this the best place to be putting this much attention for a long period of time?
O'BRIEN: Well, we focus on the entire world all the time. So, I mean, we have issues going on in Venezuela. We've got issues going on in the DPRK, North Korea. We're very concerned about the rise of China. The Chinese are spending tremendous amounts of money building new ships and submarines every month, building new aircraft carriers. So there are a lot of places where we have concern. We're concerned about Russia. So we've got a lot of concerns around the world, and we're watching all of them. Iran is one of those. And we'll take care of business as it comes up.
INSKEEP: The president has said he wants to get out of endless wars in the Middle East, which can be seen as a large strategic thought, to focus instead on things like China and Russia. Does the president's own focus on Iran get in the way of his own goal?
O'BRIEN: Oh, not at all. Look. Iran is a huge problem in the Middle East, the largest state sponsor of terrorism. They're behind the genocide in Syria. They're supporting the Houthis in the civil war in Yemen. They're closely aligned with Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict, which has claimed the lives of half a million people. So one of the ways to get out of the Middle East and for the U.S. to not have the footprint that we do there is to end Iranian hegemony in the region and to get Iran to start acting like a normal country. If that happened, that would hasten our ability to deploy forces elsewhere, not tie us down.
INSKEEP: Don't you assume that would be a yearslong project at best? Because you have to assume that.
O'BRIEN: Look. There are many, many things in world affairs that are yearslong projects. I mean, that was one of the problems with the JCPOA. The JCPOA had a sunset clause.
INSKEEP: The nuclear deal.
O'BRIEN: The Iran nuclear deal. That's one reason we got out of it. And we're going to try and have a permanent solution.
INSKEEP: Back when I first asked to come talk with you some days ago, I thought it was a quiet start to the year, and we'd have an opportunity to thoughtfully talk about the year and what the threats might be. What do you see as the biggest threat facing the United States over this year that has now begun?
O'BRIEN: Well, look. The biggest threats we face are laid out in the president's national security strategy. And that is peer competition. So we have long-term threats to the United States from peer competitors like China and Russia. We need to be prepared for those.
INSKEEP: Peer competitors because China has a big economy, as the U.S. does. Russia has a big nuclear arsenal. That's what you mean, right?
O'BRIEN: And they're authoritarian regimes. They don't share our values. They're a very wealthy country. They're plowing much of that wealth into new military equipment that could threaten the United States or our allies. At the same time, there's a huge opportunity to work with the Chinese. And so the president just concluded a Phase 1 trade deal with China that we expect to be signing next week. So that's good news. So those are the major challenges to the United States. But there are subsidiary challenges. There are challenges in Iran. There are challenges in North Korea, DPRK. There are challenges in Venezuela. So we're keeping an eye on all those as we go into 2020.
INSKEEP: Is it awkward that you asked the Chinese for help on something like Iran, even as you push back on the Chinese on trade and you worry about their strategic competition?
O'BRIEN: No, that - look. That's how foreign affairs works. There are areas where we have common interests with the Chinese or the Russians and where we have common interests fighting terrorism, seeking to limit the DPRK nuclear and ballistic missile program. We'll work very closely with them. There are opportunities for trade with those countries. So we want to have good relationships with those countries. But where we disagree with them, whether it's Hong Kong or the treatment of the Uighurs or the - some of the corrupt practices taking place in Chinese development projects in Africa or the Pacific Islands, we'll push back there.
INSKEEP: Ambassador O'Brien, thanks for your time.
O'BRIEN: It's great being with you, Steve. Thank you.
INSKEEP: National security adviser Robert O'Brien spoke yesterday at the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.