Baghdad, Iraq, January 3, 2020, thousands of Iraq people participating in funeral program of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani
Trump Administration knew Soleimani killing risked war with Iran

Heavily redacted classified DOJ memo shows the legal contortions used to justify the 2020 assassination.

The Trump administration acknowledged that assassinating Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 could have escalated into war with Tehran, a newly declassified memo shows.

Last week, the Biden administration released a heavily-redacted version of the legal justification for killing Soleimani, in response to a lawsuit filed by the civil liberties organization Protect Democracy.

The memo claims that Soleimani was “actively developing plans” to harm U.S. troops and diplomats in the Middle East and that the 2002 Iraq War authorization provided legal justification for the strike. Both those arguments were cited publicly by the Trump administration at the time. 

But the document also states that the administration “considered the risk that the operation could escalate into a broader conflict,” given that Soleimani was “part of the military of Iran.” In the end, “the President’s national security team advised him, based upon available intelligence, that the targeted operation would be unlikely to escalate into a full-scale war.”

Several high-level officials were known to have pushed then-President Donald Trump to carry out the assassination.

Mike Pompeo, secretary of state at the time of assassination, had met with officials to discuss ways to “take Qassem Soleimani off the board” soon after becoming CIA director in 2017, Yahoo News reported earlier this year.

Pompeo even floated a broader “leadership decapitation strategy” against Iran, reportedly telling officials, “Don’t worry about if it’s legal; that’s a question for the lawyers,” according to the Yahoo News report.

The opportunity presented itself in late December 2019, when clashes between U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq killed one American and 25 Iraqis, and led to a pro-Iranian mob attempting to storm the U.S. Embassy.

When the option to assassinate Soleimani was being discussed, Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Trump that he would “be held criminally negligible for the rest of your life if you don’t do this,” due to the risks posed by Soleimani’s operations to U.S. lives, according to journalists Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker in their upcoming book I Alone Can Fix It.

U.S. forces then killed Soleimani on January 3, 2020 in an airstrike outside Baghdad International Airport, where the Iranian officer was meeting with several Iraqi militia commanders. Iran retaliated by firing missiles at a U.S. air base in Iraq, injuring over a hundred Americans.

In the days following the strike, the Trump administration offered contradictory explanations in public, first claiming that Soleimani posed an “imminent” threat to U.S. troops and diplomats, then admitting that they did not know of a specific time or place Soleimani planned to harm Americans.

The Trump administration’s explanation behind closed doors was not satisfactory, either, according to several Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Administration officials “were evasive and the answers were unsatisfactory,” one anonymous Democrat told Vox, while Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) publicly denounced officials for providing “the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue.”

When asked how the administration would request legal authorization for military force, an official simply said, “I’m sure we could think of something,” according to Lee.

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