WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said on Sunday that he never saw any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as President Trump had claimed last week as a justification for the strike on an Iranian general that sent the United States and Iran to the brink of war.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Mr. Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But he added: “I share the president’s view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”
The muddled message on Sunday by Mr. Esper and other administration officials only added to the public debate regarding the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and whether there was appropriate justification for the killing. The administration has offered shifting justifications for the strike.
In recent days administration officials have avoided offering specifics about what, exactly, prompted the airstrike, but on Friday Mr. Trump said that part of the reason was that Iran was planning attacks on four American embassies.
On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Mr. Esper had sounded more supportive of Mr. Trump’s claim.
“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”
But appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, had also played down Mr. Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four American embassies in the region.
“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”
“But we had very strong intelligence,” he added.
Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the administration’s most outspoken Republican critics in the aftermath of the strike, said on CNN on Sunday that he was “worried” about the quality of the information that national security officials were sharing with Congress and had not “been able to yet ascertain specific details of the imminence of the attack.”
“I believe that the briefers and the president believed that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack, I don’t doubt that, but it is frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it,” he said.
Asked specifically whether administration officials had briefed Congress on Iranian threats to four American embassies, as they have subsequently claimed, Mr. Lee said he did not believe so.
“I didn’t hear anything about that,” he said. “Several of my colleagues have said the same. So, that was news to me, and it is certainly not something that I recall being raised in the classified briefing.”
Nicholas Fandos and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.