Today I finally got another chance to get Scott McClellan riled up. Ever since the last time I did it, back in January, he’s been lucky enough or tricky enough to avoid having to call on me, but today, the briefing room wasn’t quite as crowded as it has been, and I got my chance to ask a question that has been puzzling me ever since the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, testified to the Senate on February 2 that:
“Tehran has been responsible for at least some of the increasing lethality of anti-coalition attacks by providing Shia militia with the capability to build improvised explosive devices with explosively formed projectiles similar to those developed by Iran and Lebanese Hizballah.”
Among the many reasons (detailed by Weldon in his article that I linked to above) that Negroponte’s statement was odd are the following: 1) Iran-connected Shiites now dominate the U.S.-backed government in Iraq, 2) IED attacks have been coming primarily from the Sunni insurgency, and 3) Iran would have nothing to gain from helping its U.S.-supported allies in Iraq attack coalition forces with IEDs.
Then last Monday, President Bush repeated Negroponte’s claim in a speech that appeared to be the opening round in a new “drumbeat to war” against Iran. But the administration is perhaps getting sloppier, for the next day it appeared that not everyone was on the same page. When Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace was asked about the claim with these words, “Do you have proof that they are, indeed, behind this, the government of Iran?”, Gen. Pace replied, “I do not, sir.” Immediately afterward, Secretary Rumsfeld also failed to endorse the accusation, saying:
“As to equipment, unless you physically see it coming in — in a government-sponsored vehicle, or with government-sponsored troops, you can’t know it. All you know is that you find equipment — weapons, explosives, whatever — in a country that came from the neighboring country. With respect to people, it’s very difficult to tie a thread precisely to the government of Iran.”
So today I asked Scott if he could clear up this slight inconsistency. Our exchange follows:
Q In his speech on Monday, the President claimed that the Iranian government shares a responsibility for anti-coalition attacks in Iraq because, the President said, Tehran is providing the capability for building IEDs used in those attacks. On Tuesday, however, General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had no evidence of Iranian government involvement in such activities. And Defense Secretary Rumsfeld also declined to stand by the claim. I have two questions. First, isn’t it true that the vast majority of attacks on coalition forces are by Sunni —
MR. McCLELLAN: Can I stop you, first of all? I don’t think that’s what Secretary Rumsfeld did, the way you described it. You said he failed to stand by that. I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, he talked about it at fairly more length than what you just described.
Q He said that it’s impossible to tell where material — who is really responsible.
MR. McCLELLAN: I think he pointed out that it’s material coming from — or components coming from Iran.
Q But he said it’s impossible to tell who’s responsible.
MR. McCLELLAN: He talked about individuals that are part of Iranian forces that are operating inside — talked about the example —
Q He said he could not blame the Iranian government on these components coming in.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let’s make sure what you’re saying.
Q Okay. So, first, isn’t it true that the vast majority of attacks on coalition forces are by Sunni insurgents who have no connection to Shiite Iran? And two, will the President retract his claim that apparently was not based on accurate intelligence?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, that’s false. That’s just — I don’t accept the premise of your question. You’re absolutely describing it in a false way. Let’s look back at what the President said. The President said that some of the most powerful IEDs — improvised explosive devices — we’re seeing in Iraq include components from Iran. I don’t think there’s any conflict with what Secretary Rumsfeld or General Pace said at their press briefing the next day. So you’re providing a false premise in your question.
And the President also specifically cited what our Director of National Intelligence said in testimony before Congress back in early February. And so you should go and look at that testimony and look at what he said. But he also talked about how coalition forces have seized IEDs and components that were clearly produced in Iran. We know that from our intelligence.
Q The President quoted Negroponte as saying that Tehran had provided the capability for building those IEDs.
MR. McCLELLAN: I don’t see any conflict with what Secretary Rumsfeld and General Pace said.
No conflict between “Tehran has been responsible” on the one hand and “I have no proof” on the other? Oh, right. These are the guys who think they can create their own reality.