The White House sent Congress on Saturday a formal notification under the War Powers Act of the drone strike ordered by President Trump this week that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, two congressional officials said.
The notification, required by law within 48 hours of introducing American forces into armed conflict or a situation that could lead to war, has to be signed and then sent to Congress, according to the officials with knowledge of the plan.
Lawmakers expected the document to publicly lay out the White House’s legal justification for the strike on General Suleimani, Iran’s top security commander, who officials have said has been behind hundreds of American deaths over the years. But the notification first sent to Congress late Saturday afternoon only contained classified information, according to a senior congressional aide, likely detailing the intelligence that led to the action. It is unclear whether the White House will send a separate, unclassified document.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Saturday evening that the notification “raises more questions than it answers,” including “serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran.”
“The highly unusual decision to classify this document in its entirety compounds our many concerns, and suggests that the Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security,” Ms. Pelosi said.
The document itself was brief, a senior Democratic aide said. But its contents are all but certain to animate a fierce debate among lawmakers about the reach of presidential war powers and Congress’s role in matters of military conflict. Many Democrats have called the strike against General Suleimani, which threatens to escalate tensions between the United States and Iran and reverberate throughout a violent and volatile region, illegal and unauthorized. They are already searching for ways to curb Mr. Trump’s ability to strike Iran in the future.
Mr. Trump’s advisers have maintained that they were operating on credible intelligence showing that General Suleimani was involved in imminent plans to attack American interests in a handful of countries. They have not detailed that intelligence, and Democratic lawmakers, among others, have raised questions about its veracity.
Briefing reporters on Friday, Robert C. O’Brien, the White House national security adviser, pointed to Mr. Trump’s “constitutional authorities as commander in chief to defend our nation” as justification for the strike. He also cited the measure Congress approved in 2002 granting President George W. Bush the legal authority to wage war on Saddam Hussein and the government of Iraq.
While Republicans praised the action against General Suleimani as a definitive blow against a longtime enemy, Democrats voiced concern that the president was risking a new war in the Middle East, and argued that the White House exceeded its legal authority by conducting the strike without explicit authorization from Congress.
“President Trump has no authority to take us to a military conflict with Iran. Period,” former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said on Saturday at an event in Des Moines.
A small group of lawmakers on Friday were already preparing efforts to cut off any further military confrontation with Iran without Congress’s express approval, setting up an array of legislative vehicles Democrats may use to try to rein in the president’s war powers.
A number of bipartisan resolutions similar to those measures had already been considered last year, but lawmakers declined to take them up or ensure their survival in pieces of must-pass legislation.
Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, introduced a resolution on Friday invoking the War Powers Act that would a force a debate and vote in Congress to prevent further escalation of hostilities with Iran.
Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, and Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, said in a statement that they would resurrect legislation to prohibit any funding for offensive military force in or against Iran without prior congressional authorization.
That measure was passed in the House last year along bipartisan lines, with nearly two dozen Republicans voting in support of it, but was later stripped from the must-pass annual defense bill. The political dynamics of taking such a vote after the strike, however, may change the calculus for Republicans and a number of Democratic lawmakers in conservative districts who initially backed the measure.
Katie Glueck contributed reporting from Des Moines.