The Trump administration is telling Congress about what it says are alarming ties between Iran and al-Qaida, prompting skeptical reactions and concern on Capitol Hill.
Briefings by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, backed up by other State Department and Pentagon officials, have led Democrats and some Republicans to ask whether the administration is building a case that the White House could use to invoke the war authorization passed by Congress in 2001 to battle terror groups as legal cover for military action against Iran.
As tensions between the United States and Iran have surged, Pompeo has sought to convince Congress that there is a pattern of ties between Iran and the terrorist group going back to after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said.
Pompeo and other administration officials have stopped short of telling lawmakers or aides in large group settings that the 2001 authorization for the use of military force from Congress, which permits the United States to wage war on al-Qaida and its allies or offshoots, would allow the Trump administration to go to war with Iran. President Donald Trump has said he does not want a war, but he ordered 2,500 additional troops to the region in the last month in response to what U.S. officials said was a heightened threat.
Statements tying Iran to al-Qaida or the Taliban by Pompeo and other officials point to the potential for the administration to justify invoking the 2001 authorization, some lawmakers say. And when asked in recent weeks by lawmakers and journalists whether the administration would use the 2001 authorization, Pompeo has deflected the questions.
“They are looking to bootstrap an argument to allow the president to do what he likes without coming to Congress, and they feel the 2001 authorization will allow them to go to war with Iran,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Kaine, a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, declined to discuss details of classified briefings but said senior administration officials had “talked about Iran providing safe haven to al-Qaida.”
Pompeo, a West Point graduate and former CIA director, visited U.S. Central Command in Florida on Tuesday to talk about Iran with military commanders as acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan announced his resignation.
In a classified briefing that Pompeo gave May 21 with Pentagon officials to the full House, “he discussed the relationship between Iran and al-Qaida,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich.
She said Pompeo’s talk of that relationship in both public and private settings and his refusal to answer questions on a potential use of the 2001 authorization “raises the specter that to him, the relationship between Iran and al-Qaida gives the administration that authority.”
Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official who has worked in Iraq, added, “Any of us working on national security should be looking at any talk of ties between senior Iranian leaders and al-Qaida with a real skeptical eye.”
On Monday, two Pentagon officials gave a classified briefing on Iran to legislative aides in which they mentioned Taliban ties, according to people with knowledge of the session.
That surprised the aides, who then pressed the officials — Michael P. Mulroy, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for the Middle East, and a Defense Intelligence Agency representative — on the ties.
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., addressed the topic directly at a House hearing Wednesday. Deutch pointedly asked Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran, whether the administration was preparing to tell Congress it had approval to go to war with Iran under the 2001 authorization because of ties between Tehran and al-Qaida.
Hook responded that Congress should ask the department’s legal adviser for an opinion.
“We will do everything that we are required to do with respect to congressional war powers, and we will comply with the law,” he said. He later added that “we are not looking for military action” and “there is no talk of offensive action.”
In the afternoon, Hook joined a top Pentagon official, Kathryn Wheelbarger, and an intelligence official to give a classified briefing to senators — in which they mentioned the al-Qaida ties.
Soon afterward, the Democratic-controlled House passed an appropriations bill with an amendment that would end the 2001 authorization and allow lawmakers to put together a new one. But the amendment is expected to be stripped out in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Iran is a majority Shiite Muslim nation while al-Qaida is a hard-line Sunni group whose members generally consider Shiites to be apostates. The two have often fought on opposing sides of regional conflicts, including the Syrian war.
Any relationship between Iran and al-Qaida is one of convenience and not a real alliance, said current and former U.S. officials, and there is no public evidence that Tehran has allowed al-Qaida operatives to plot attacks on the United States from Iran or offered a haven for large numbers of fighters.
Lawmakers are wary of officials using links between Iran and al-Qaida as a pretext for war because the administration of President George W. Bush talked of a relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida in 2002 to build a case for the invasion of Iraq. There were never close ties between the two.
The question of whether Trump might strike Iran has intensified since early May, when the White House announced military movements because of what U.S. officials said was new intelligence showing a heightened threat against U.S. interests from Iran or allied militias.
Trump then announced a deployment of 1,500 more troops to the Middle East, and Monday he said he was sending 1,000 more. The administration has blamed Iran for two sets of oil tanker attacks. Iranian officials said Monday that their country would soon breach limits on uranium enrichment set by a 2015 nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew more than a year ago.
The possibility of war against Iran has invigorated efforts by Democratic and some Republican lawmakers to limit the president’s war powers. On Tuesday, two Republican senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, joined with Kaine and three other senators to send a letter to Trump saying “Congress has not authorized war with Iran and no current statutory authority allows the U.S. to conduct hostilities against the government of Iran.”
Paul pressed Pompeo in a Senate committee hearing in April to declare that the administration would not use the 2001 authorization to go to war with Iran. Pompeo said he preferred to “just leave that to lawyers,” then stressed ties between al-Qaida and Iran: “There is no doubt there is a connection. Period. Full stop.”
On Sunday, Pompeo refused to answer when he was asked three times on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” whether the administration had the legal authority to attack Iran.
In his May 21 classified presentation to the House, Pompeo went into more detail on the al-Qaida ties, said Slotkin and other lawmakers. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who is an ally of Trump, said in a committee hearing last week that administration officials made remarks in the classified May briefing that pointed to the idea that the 2001 authorization permitted “hostilities toward Iran.”
In a June 13 news conference in which he listed recent attacks “instigated” by Iran, Pompeo mentioned a suicide car bombing in Kabul that killed four civilians and injured four U.S. service members and a number of bystanders. It was the first time a U.S. official had said Iran was behind the attack, which was aimed at a U.S. convoy, even though the Taliban had claimed responsibility. Iran has generally not commanded attacks against Americans in Afghanistan, unlike in the Iraq War, and analysts and lawmakers — including Deutch on Wednesday — questioned why Pompeo is trying to make the link now.
After the Sept. 11 attacks and before U.S. forces bombed Afghanistan, more than a dozen senior al-Qaida members fled to Iran. The circumstances under which they lived there were murky, but some senior officials, including Saif Al Adel, were apparently detained by Iran and later traded in a supposed prisoner swap with an al-Qaida branch in Yemen.
Terrorism analysts say Hamza bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden, was in Iran at the time. He is now believed to be in Pakistan or Afghanistan and is considered a rising al-Qaida leader. He dislikes Iran because he and his mother were imprisoned for years there, said Ali Soufan, a former FBI terrorism investigator.
Al Adel and other al-Qaida officials have had freedom of movement in Iran at times, said Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Trump administration might argue that some military strikes against Iran do not require congressional permission. One potential such action would be a bombing of the Natanz nuclear facility, an option debated over the years by U.S. and Israeli military officials.
Attorney General William Barr also has unusually broad views of a president’s power to unilaterally start even a major war.
The long-simmering discussion of presidential war powers in Congress has come to a boil in recent months, with bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both chambers introducing legislation that would place limits on the president.
The measures have found some support among moderate Republicans and constitutional conservatives who think the president’s ability to wage war should be limited.
At a hearing last week, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said, “I do not believe, for what it’s worth, the 2001 AUMF authorizes force against the state of Iran.”