Congress must ask the right questions on Syrian chemical weapons use

President Obama has wisely decided to seek a vote in Congress to authorize the use of force against Syria. He needs to take this opportunity to publicly present the evidence behind the administration’s certainty that the Syrian government ordered and carried out the horrible massacre that took place in the Damascus suburbs on August 21.

The three page “white paper,” released on Friday, doesn’t even begin to reach the standard of evidence the public deserves and Congress should demand.

“The United States Government [sic] assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013,” the White House document begins.

The government is a political entity, and this paper reads like a poorly written political argument, not an intelligence estimate. For starters, if the intelligence was so good, why wasn’t it issued by the Director of National Intelligence in the name of the intelligence community?

A proper National Intelligence Assessment would have begun, “The Intelligence Community assesses,” or more simply, “We judge.”

Could it be that the conclusions the “Government” reached did not win the unanimous approval of the 16 intelligence agencies the DNI oversees? And is that the real reason the White House released this pathetically thin document, because the DNI would have been obligated by law and convention to air any dissent?

This has happened in some famous cases, notably under the George W. Bush administration. The October 2002 intelligence assessment on Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities included “dissents” by named agencies. Most came from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence & Research, which wasn’t convinced that Iraq was buying aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment centrifuges.

It also happened with the 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear weapons development. But in that case, the publicly-released version of the NIE buried the dissent in a stunning caveat to the very first line, which qualified the assessment that Iran had stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003 to the point of becoming meaningless.

As I reported at the time, the obvious deception on the part of the very partisan authors of the NIE widely discredited the assessment. The lesson is clear: Intelligence agencies and governments shouldn’t play with the facts. They will get burned.

On Monday, the CIA summarily ejected British military officers from a Centcom headquarters, arguing that since Britain was not going to participate in an attack on Syria, they should not have access to the intelligence.

Could it be that the CIA feared “objections” to their politicized version of intelligence? Do they fear truth-tellers coming out of the woodwork, such as the one who exposed the fraudulent use of an Israeli intelligence report last week?