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White House went from braggadocious to silent on Middle East intel — in four days

Biden team's implied message to Iran: This should be over

People march in Tehran with Palestinian and Iranian flags and banners to celebrate Iran's April 13 attack on Israel and protest Israel, which Iran accused of carrying out an attack on its soil six days later.
People march in Tehran with Palestinian and Iranian flags and banners to celebrate Iran's April 13 attack on Israel and protest Israel, which Iran accused of carrying out an attack on its soil six days later. (Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu via Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — White House officials remain mum about a purported Israeli counterstrike on Iranian soil, the continuation of a stark message shift about American and allied intelligence capabilities in the Middle East over just a few short days.

The episode shows how Biden administration officials employed silence at they tried to avoid the outbreak of a broader war. But it also raises questions about transparency at a time U.S. officials continue to be publicly critical of a key ally’s handling of civilians in a conflict zone and humanitarian aid trying to reach them.

John Kirby, White House national security communications adviser, was downright braggadocious on April 15 as he spiked the proverbial football over how U.S. military forces helped Israel thwart an unprecedented attack by Iranian missiles and drones.

Kirby lauded American intelligence systems and assets that allowed them to determine, along with Israel and other allies, that Iran was preparing to attack on April 13. But just four short days later, after Israel responded with military strikes inside Iran, the White House didn’t want to talk about its world-class intel.

“We have lots of tools and vehicles, through intelligence and other information methods … to glean a picture of what an adversary may or may not do. Now, sometimes it’s right. Sometimes it’s not 100 percent right,” Kirby had told reporters.

“We had a good sense of what Iran was planning to do, and we achieved that level of situational awareness on our own and working with our Israeli counterparts,” he added during one of his feistiest briefing room appearances. “The notion, the idea, that Iran sent us an email or picked up the phone and told us what they were planning to do is just ludicrous. It didn’t happen. I don’t know how else to be more clear about it.”

The Biden administration, once all the Iranian drones and missiles had been intercepted, wanted to send a clear message to Iranian leaders. Here’s how Kirby delivered it: “When the president says we’re going to take our commitments to the region seriously, when we’re going to help Israel defend itself, we got skin in the game — and we proved that.”

Israeli officials waited a few days to respond, and did so after a high-level virtual meeting with U.S. officials that had been scheduled to talk about Biden administration worries about how Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been carrying out his brutal campaign in Gaza.

But much of the meeting was about Iran’s attack, U.S. officials said.

Israeli security officials agreed April 18 to take White House officials’ concerns about Gaza “into account and to have further follow up discussions between experts,” the White House said in a meeting summary. Prior to Iran’s retaliatory attack, U.S. officials described Netanyahu as making specific “commitments” to change course in the strip.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, had nothing to say about Israel’s apparent counterstrike, nor about U.S. intelligence in the region — unlike Kirby. In fact, she used her opening comments on April 19 to shut down any notion of the White House even confirming that Israel hit inside Iran.

“I know there’s a lot … of interest in reports from the Middle East overnight, and we understand that. We get that,” she said. “I’m going to say it now, though I know you all will … certainly ask me about it, that we do not have any comment on the reports at this time.”

Kirby briefed reporters on Air Force One on April 22 and declined to confirm Israel carried out the strikes on Iranian soil.

Of course, the duo’s collective silence and repeated refusals to speculate were a message, too, to Iranian leaders: This should be over now.

During a Friday interview on SirusXM’s “The Howard Stern Show,” Biden was not asked about the Middle East conflicts, and he did not mention the situation during remarks Saturday night at a Washington gala.

Still, Jean-Pierre and Kirby have fielded new questions about just how much sway — if any — Biden has over Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s April 1 order to take out a top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander led to the counterstrikes. And helped him flip the script on Biden.

But one expert contends team Biden has strategic reasons to go mum about whether or not Israel struck targets inside Iran.

“The risk of such an attack is that Iran would escalate, and that it would do so throughout the region. Iran might conduct terrorist attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets, as it has in the past, when Iran and its ally Hezbollah struck as far afield as Argentina and Bulgaria in the name of revenge,” according to Daniel Byman, a part-time State Department adviser and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Perhaps most menacingly, Iran might unleash Hezbollah against Israeli territory,” Byman added, referring to the militant Muslim group in Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border. “Although Hezbollah and Israel are exchanging blows each day, both have avoided all-out war.”

Biden and his top diplomatic lieutenants also must consider the concerns of regional allies like Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and others, none of which want to be drawn into a likely bloody — and costly — wider regional war.

The situation has, as most issues do, seeped into the U.S. presidential election. And silence is neither one of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s strong suits nor political tactics.

“You see what’s happening … having to do with Palestine and Israel and protests and hate, anger. Biden is sending an absolutely horrible message. Horrible, horrible message,” Trump told reporters Thursday during a break in his criminal trial in New York City.

“He has no idea how to message. He can’t speak. He can’t put two sentences together. He doesn’t know what to do,” he added, a day before Biden sat for a lengthy interview with Stern. “This is not a president. This is somebody that shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing.”

Biden spoke Sunday with Netanyahu, stressing his support for the war against Hamas while again pushing for increased humanitarian aid flows into Gaza as Palestinians there experience dismal conditions.

“The president reaffirmed his ironclad commitment to Israel’s security following the successful defense against Iran’s unprecedented missile and drone attack earlier this month,” the White House said in a statement. “The president stressed the need for this progress to be sustained and enhanced in full coordination with humanitarian organizations.”

Biden has said publicly a major Israeli military operation into Rafah in southern Gaza would be a humanitarian disaster, and according to the White House he “reiterated his clear position” in the call Sunday.

The White House summary of the conversation stated the two leaders discussed Tehran’s thwarted attack. It, notably, did not mention any strike inside Iran.

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