A top Republican lawmaker said Friday that the threat from Iran picked up by U.S. intelligence – which sparked a U.S. military deployment to the Middle East and heightened tensions across the region – was very specific and involved the possible kidnapping and killing of American soldiers.
"To the extent I can discuss it, it was human intelligence," Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told USA TODAY on Friday. He was referring to intelligence information that prompted the Pentagon to deploy an aircraft carrier, along with B-52 bombers and other military forces, to the Middle East.
Trump administration officials said the move was made to counter what they described as credible threats from Iran to U.S. forces in the region.
McCaul said U.S. intelligence officials learned that the head of Iran's Quds Force, a unit of Iran's military force, met with Iran's proxy militias and said: "We are getting ready to have a proxy war and target Americans."
He said the same message was delivered to a Hezbollah proxy group. Hezbollah is an Iranian-sponsored terrorist group.
"One of the Hezbollah cells is known for its kidnapping and killing operations, and their directive was to go in and kill and kidnap American soldiers," McCaul said.
McCaul made the comments in a brief interview with USA TODAY after delivering remarks on U.S. foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. He made similar comments in a question-and-answer session at that event.
The Guardian newspaper first reported some details of this threat, citing unnamed sources.
The leader of Iran's Quds Force is Major General Qasem Soleimani, an extremely powerful figure inside the country and across the region. Experts say he has helped Iran extend its sphere of influence through proxy forces in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.
"Without question, Soleimani is the most powerful general in the Middle East today," Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who handled several high-profile terrorism cases, wrote in an analysis last fall.
"More than anyone else, Soleimani has been responsible for the creation of an arc of influence – which Iran terms its 'Axis of Resistance' – extending from the Gulf of Oman through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea," Soufan wrote.
Until now, top Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have said the U.S. had specific, credible threats that Iran or its proxies might be preparing attacks against American forces or U.S. targets in the region, but they did not provide details.
In addition to the Pentagon deployment , the State Department on Wednesday ordered all nonemergency employees to leave Iraq immediately. The U.S. has more than 5,000 troops stationed in Iraq.
McCaul did not directly answer a question about new reporting that suggests the increasingly aggressive moves by both Iran and the U.S. may have been spurred by a misreading of the intelligence threats. The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Iranian officials believed the U.S. was planning an attack and that prompted Tehran to prepare for possible counterstrikes.
The U.S. intelligence officials may have misread Iran's countermeasures as aggression, the Journal reported, noting there are divisions within the Trump administration over the meaning of the intelligence gathered in recent weeks.
The State Department declined to comment on McCaul's remarks or the Wall Street Journal story. A spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats did not immediately respond to questions on these matters.