Is the intelligence on Syria different this time?

By David Wise
September 9, 2013

The long shadow of the faulty, hyped intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq has posed a huge barrier to President Barack Obama’s efforts to win public and congressional support for a limited missile strike against Syria.

Remember the “mushroom cloud?” Both President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, used that terrifying phrase, invoking images of a nuclear holocaust, to push America along the road to war.

The CIA issued a now-infamous National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 that said Iraq “is reconstituting” its nuclear weapons program and that Saddam Hussein had supplies of sarin, VX and other lethal chemical weapons, as well as biological weapons, “including anthrax” and perhaps even “smallpox.”

None of it was true.

Now Obama wants to strike Syria in response to what all signs point to as the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack on August 21 against opposition areas around Damascus. But according to opinion polls, the American public, weary of war in the Middle East, opposes military action by a large majority. Congress is, in turn, divided.

Underlying the skepticism about launching a U.S. military attack to punish and perhaps deter Syria from future use of chemical weapons are deep doubts over the intelligence that the Obama administration is citing. If the White House and the CIA were so wrong 10 years ago, the public is in effect saying, why should we believe them now?

There are important differences between the intelligence fobbed off on the public to justify the 2003 Iraq war and what is being said by government officials today. For one thing, the Syrians essentially admitted Monday that they have chemical weapons, when they started talking about turning them over to the international community. Nonetheless, the U.S.  intelligence on Syria still leaves some critical unanswered questions.

The CIA estimate on Iraq a decade ago contained flat statements about weapons of mass destruction that it said Baghdad possessed. Yet it offered no tangible evidence to back up its claims. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had been a respected military leader, went before the United Nations with photographs and other material to try to buttress the administration’s case.

It later turned out, however, that some of his key assertions were based on fabricated data from a defector code-named “Curveball,” who claimed to be an eyewitness to Iraq’s production of biological weapons in mobile labs. When the CIA had sought to interview the source, whose reports were provided by the German intelligence service, it was told: “You do not want to see him because he’s crazy.”

Powell later said he deeply regretted his U.N. performance and called it a “blot” on his record.

In contrast, in 2013, the intelligence is supported by images on television of large numbers of what appear to be bodies, wrapped in white cloth and lined up in rows — including many small children. Video shows other victims gasping for breath or in convulsions. That these are real images, not staged for the cameras, is attested to by physicians on the scene, most persuasively by Doctors Without Borders.

The humanitarian international medical organization, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, is widely respected for its work in treating casualties of wars and natural disasters. Doctors Without Borders said that three hospitals it supports in the eastern Damascus area reported that some 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” had been admitted in the first three hours of August 21 and that 355 of those had died.

Neurotoxic means a toxin that destroys nerves — which fits the description of nerve gases. Two of the most deadly are sarin and VX. Secretary of State John Kerry says evidence of sarin was found in the area of the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria.

A single drop of sarin on the skin, or inhaled, can cause death within minutes. Sarin and similar nerve agents block the action of a key enzyme in the body that controls brain function, breathing and muscles. Unable to breathe, victims convulse and die.

According to a summary of intelligence about the attack released by the White House August 30 and cited by Kerry, a preliminary U.S. estimate counted 1,429 dead, including at least 426 children.

While the evidence that a major chemical weapons attack occurred is supported by the videos and reports from medical personnel, some opponents of a retaliatory military action by the U.S. question whether the Syrian government was responsible — which Assad denies — or the rebels.

The White House intelligence assessment said it is confident that the Syrian government carried out the attack, and finds it “highly unlikely” that the rebels did it. In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Kerry said, “Not one rocket landed in regime-controlled territory. Not one. All of them landed in opposition-controlled or contested territory.”

But so far, the administration has not released any solid evidence to prove its case that Assad ordered the deadly attack. It says it has provided more information in classified briefings to members of Congress — but that data is not available to the public.

Where the intelligence might be more persuasive, it is weakened by the administration’s refusal, so far at least, to make public what it claims were “intercepted communications” in which “a senior [Syrian] official…confirmed that chemical weapons were used” and was “concerned” that the U.N. inspectors would obtain the evidence.

Whenever the CIA or the National Security Agency wants to avoid releasing important information it invokes the need to preserve “sources and methods.” But after the continuing revelations by Edward Snowden, the fugitive former NSA contractor, now in Russia, it is hardly a secret– if it ever was — that the NSA and similar agencies in other countries eavesdrop on and “intercept” communications.

Intercepted communications, normally highly secret, are sometimes leaked when it suits the government’s purposes. When Korean Airlines Flight 007 was shot down in 1983, killing all 269 passengers and crew, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation and played the tapes of a Soviet fighter pilot reporting to ground control as he tracked and destroyed the aircraft. Three years later, excerpts of NSA intercepts were leaked to the Washington Post as evidence that Libya was responsible for the bombing of a Berlin discotheque that killed three people, including two American servicemen. When Reagan spoke on television to announce the bombing of Libya by U.S. forces, he closely paraphrased the intercepts.

The Snowden case may be a hidden factor in the Obama administration’s reluctance to release the intercepts on Syria. The administration would like to prosecute Snowden for disclosing NSA secrets, which might make it awkward for Obama to reveal the intercepts.

Yet the administration’s proposed military attack on Syria is a critical foreign policy issue that has divided the nation. Under the circumstances, it is puzzling that the White House cites the intercepts as proof of Syria’s use of chemical weapons but has not released them.

 

PHOTO (Top): Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 21, 2013. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

PHOTO (Insert): Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he described
as one that could contain anthrax during his presentation on Iraq to
the U.N. Security Council in New York February 5, 2003. REUTERS/Ray
Stubblebine

 

 

8 comments

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Put me down as having zero faith.

The discussion has been hijacked by the same unrelenting lies and omissions.

There are a number of hard questions that go unanswered, or are dismissed with prejudice, that every american should put on their mind.

Reminiscent of the time Lanny Breuer spoke candidly in a Frontline interview concerning the lack of criminal prosecutions brought in the wake of the financial meltdown. Lanny Breuer mentioned the reason there were very few indictments sought was the number of financial institutions were “systemically important” and that could collapse the global financial markets.

Lanny Breuer was dismissed a week later.
They dismissed the Asst. Attorney General….

My government has a difficult time with the truth.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

there is absolutely no proof that the Assad gov’t has EVER used chemical weapons on it’s citizens. There is plenty of proof that the “friends of Syria” sponsored terrorist al-CIAda/al-Nusra/non-Syrian mercenary FSA has used chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. Both the Russians and the UN weapons team have proof. Plus there are umpteen you tube videos by the ‘rebels’ demonstrating they have chemical weapons. Both the Turkish and the Iraqi gov’ts have caught the ‘Syrian rebels’ with chemical weapons including sarin and chlorine gas. Bandar Bush admits he and the CIA gave the ‘rebels’ chemical weapons and the training to build, handle, and use them.

the US, Israel, UK, and other “friends of Syria” have a long sordid history of using NBC weapons on civilian populations including mustard gas, cs gas, tear gas, sarin, agent orange, white phosphorous, depleted uranium, and others. The CIA also declassified docs showing they had provided chemical weapons to other gov’ts to use on their citizens. Who are we to make such accusations of other gov’ts?

Posted by prolibertate | Report as abusive

P.S. those poor children ended up being Alawite christian children kidnapped weeks earlier by the ‘Syrian rebels’. And we’ve seen thru their many youtube videos how proud they are about making war on women, children, Christians, and other defenseless civilians.

Posted by prolibertate | Report as abusive

The chemical weapons beat-up is not intelligence – Clapper would not sign-off on it. It is simply a political cover story crafted by the White House to get the US military into the war against Assad.

http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2013/09/s yria-intelligence-being-manipulated-exac tly-like-iraq.html

Posted by DariusJedburg | Report as abusive

http://top.rbc.ru/politics/10/09/2013/87 5726.shtml
Russia has provided evidence of innocence to the UN regime of Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons against the civilian population in the suburbs of Damascus, the Information Department of the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation.

Evidence was given during the briefing “Human Rights and Armed Conflict: U.S. threat to use force against Syria and the international law.” The Russian delegation showed the video and photos of victims himataki were fabricated in advance.

In addition, the testimony of numerous witnesses demonstrated unanimously claimed that chemical weapons in the East Huta was applied exactly militants. The results of the investigations into the incident by activists and eyewitnesses were transferred to an independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Posted by asd345vera | Report as abusive

So, Mr. Wise, are you advocating killing of thousands or tens of thousands of Syrians on the basis that Assad’s government might have used chemical weapons??

And, why didn’t you mention the absolute illogicalness of Assad waiting for the arrival of UN inspectors to invite upon himself bombing, when it is clear that the US has been looking for an excuse to do so since the “red line” ploy?

What you write appears to be immoral war-mongering.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

At this point in time no thinking person would trust the US government as far as he could throw it. We have been lied to and manipulated since “Remember the Maine”. President Obama is just the latest in a long string of liars occupying the White House.

Posted by PeterBarlow | Report as abusive

Please justify more millions of dead/wounded Syrians and millions more refugees.

Plus, did anyone hear a Plan B – just in case?

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive