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WASHINGTON — As the political turmoil in Venezuela deepened, the Pentagon on Friday downplayed concerns that the U.S. was operating with a lack of intelligence that could lead to a decision akin to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"I don't feel like we have an intelligence gap. I think we have very good reporting," acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told reporters Friday at the Pentagon. During President George W. Bush's administration, the U.S. invaded Iraq after citing faulty intelligence assessments that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Shanahan's comments came after he met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security advisor John Bolton on Friday at the Pentagon.
Shanahan, like others in the administration, has previously said that all options are "on the table" when it comes to possible military action in Venezuela. He gave no further insight on Friday into the Pentagon's potential next steps.
Venezuela, which has the world's largest oil reserves, was once the economic envy of South America. Now, amid a collapsing economy sparked by government corruption, social unrest and a global commodity bust, Caracas faces intensifying uncertainty as the Trump administration continues to back opposition leader Juan Guaido over President Nicolas Maduro.
Earlier this week, Guaido, who declared himself interim president in January, said he was "beginning the final phase of Operation Freedom" and promised to bring an end to Maduro's government. In the wake of his address, opposition protesters clashed in Caracas with Venezuelan soldiers.
President Donald Trump, who spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, said that while Moscow continues to support Maduro, the Kremlin does not want to get involved in Venezuela. Trump and Putin "agreed to continue contacts at various levels" in regard to the situation in Venezuela, according to a Kremlin readout about the call.
On Wednesday, Bolton said that Venezuela is "not where the Russians ought to be interfering." "This is our hemisphere," Bolton added. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned in a phone call to Pompeo that further U.S. intervention in Venezuela would violate international law and could lead to grave consequences, Reuters reported.
Moscow is a major political friend of Venezuela as well as a financier of the South American nation's oil fields. Russia's largest oil company, Rosneft, operates in Venezuela and has issued loans to state-run oil company PDVSA.
In another show of support, Moscow has given Caracas a line of credit to purchase Russian arms. From Kalashnikov rifles to Sukhoi planes, the Kremlin has brokered several weapons deals with Venezuela and deployed two Russian bombers to the country last year.
At the time, the Pentagon knocked Russia's bomber deployment, a move designed to show Moscow's support of Maduro's socialist regime.
"The Venezuelan government should be focusing on providing humanitarian assistance and aid to lessen the suffering of its people and not on Russian warplanes," Pentagon spokesman U.S. Army Col. Rob Manning said in December.
Manning then reminded that the U.S. military deployed the hospital ship USNS Comfort to South America last year to provide humanitarian aid to refugees fleeing the desperate conditions.
The Comfort, a vessel transformed from a hulking oil tanker into a 1,000-bed hospital ship, has treated more than 20,000 people along its stops in various Central and South American nations.
"The Comfort is currently in Honduras and will continue treating those in need until the ship departs this week," Manning said at the time, before knocking Moscow's actions in the region. "Contrast this with Russia, whose approach to the man-made disaster in Venezuela is to send bomber aircraft instead of humanitarian assistance."