‘I Don’t Believe You’: Sen. Tom Cotton Calls Out Biden’s Defense Sec Over Handling Of Syrian Airstrikes

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton sparred with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin over the Pentagon’s handling of an attack and counterstrike against Iran-backed group in Syria just before a key vote on Thursday.

The Senate voted down Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s amendment to a bill repealing two obsolete Authorizations of Use for Military Force (AUMFs) that would have hinged an approval for military operations against Iraq on the administration’s ability to certify Iran no longer provided any form of support to proxy militias in Iraq and Syria. Cotton alleged that the Pentagon made a “conscious” decision to delay informing Congress of the airstrikes on U.S. forces in Syria out of fear that the timing of the operation would influence senators to vote for the amendment, effectively nullifying the bill.

“Secretary Austin, I don’t believe you,” Cotton said at a hearing Tuesday. “I believe that your office specifically withheld notification of this deadly strike against Americans because the Rubio amendment, on which we voted midday, directly touched on exactly this scenario.”

“I just want to say, Senator, that is absolutely not true,” Austin countered.

An Iran-backed group launched a drone attack on U.S. forces in Syria at 6:38 a.m. local time in Washington, D.C., the same day of the vote, killing one U.S. contractor and wounding several servicemembers. President Joe Biden authorized a counterstrike later that afternoon, according to Politico; however, the Department of Defense (DOD) did not notify Congress of both events until 8 p.m. the same day, 13 hours later.

Republicans say there was plenty of time for the Pentagon to fulfill its lawful duty in notifying Congress, and that the branch deliberately postponed fulfilling its legal duty to preclude a change of heart in Congress over Rubio’s amendment, Politico reported.

The Pentagon has denied such political machinations factored into the delay in alerting Congress of the attacks and Biden’s chosen response.

“There is no connection between when we notified you, Senator, and your vote,” Austin said. (RELATED: GOP Senator Blocking Pentagon Promotions Over Abortion Policy)

DOD “should have” notified Congress earlier and would take steps to improve the timeliness of the notification process in the future, Austin told Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi earlier in the hearing when pressed on the same issue.

But, he and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley were also testifying at a hearing that morning and did not begin developing response options until immediately afterward, Austin said.

Even if Austin did not personally engineer the delay, people in the secretary’s congressional liaison office did, Cotton alleged.

“Do you really expect us to believe” the legislative affairs division at the Pentagon did not know “we were voting on an amendment that directly covered this kind of attack?” Cotton asked.

Iranian proxies have conducted roughly 83 assaults on U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria since the Biden administration took office, Austin told Cotton, five more than U.S. Central Command head Gen. Erik Kurilla testified to last week, according to Reuters.

The U.S. has performed four major counterattacks in response, he added.

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