Congress must ask the right questions on Syrian chemical weapons use

The White House assessment of the chemical weapons attack on August 21 states with certainty that 1,429 people were killed in the attack, without explanation.

It is important to understand how the Government came up with that figure, since it is five times higher than previous estimates. Doctors without Borders, who examined 3,600 victims shortly after the attacks, confirmed 355 deaths. A declassified French intelligence estimate, released on September 2, reviewed 47 videos it deemed authentic and said they showed 281 dead.

The French said that “technical methods from different sources” led them to believe that more than 1500 people had died. “Work by our experts, which simulated  [my emphasis] the impact of a chemical attack on the sites in question, was consistent with that number,” the French report said.

In other words, the White House certainty that 1,429 people died in the attack is just a guess, based on computer modeling or some other technique. Using a specific number, instead of “more than 1500 people” as the French did, was clearly an act of deception. Why?

During his press conference on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry showed a macabre photograph of a child jumping over a row of white-shrouded dead bodies, to give a visual image of the amplitude of this horrific event.

But the photo was not from Syria. It was taken in Iraq in 2003. The State Department retracted it once the photographer who had taken the original came forward and exposed the deception.

The White House document alludes to satellite photographs showing Syrian troops firing rockets and artillery at the suburbs that were hit with chemical weapons, as well as preparations for the attacks. Congress needs to see that evidence.

Without the evidence to back up these assertions, the administration’s argument amounts to: “Trust us.”

Coming from any administration, “trust us” is an insufficient argument for going to war. Coming from this administration, it is just laughable. This is an administration and a president with no compunction about flat-out lying to the American people, whether it’s on the economy, Obamacare, the sequester, or more deadly scandals like Fast and Furious and Benghazi.

Congress must demand to see supporting evidence, and to hear dissenting views from within the intelligence community. They should demand to see the original Israeli intelligence report I mentioned in this space last week and to compare it with versions used by the administration.

They should demand to see the paper trail on how the three-page White House document was developed, including earlier drafts and material that was ultimately deleted.

The Turkish government arrested a group of Syrian rebel fighters in June, trying to bring into Syria two kilograms of Sarin nerve gas – the same chemical weapon it appears was used on August 21. Was that a serious effort by the opposition to acquire and use chemical weapons? Congress needs to ask that question and get documentary evidence in response.

The civilized world can not allow the use of chemical weapons to become standard battlefield practice. I have stood with the victims of an earlier chemical weapons massacre in Halabja, Iraq, and fully understand the horror that barbarian regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s or Bashar al Assad’s are willing to unleash. Not to act is a sign of our assent.

But for military intervention to be just, and to win public support – which it does not have today in any of the Western countries contemplating intervention – the intelligence must be rock solid. It must be shared to the greatest extent possible with the public. And it must specifically eliminate the possibility of a provocation by the jihadi-dominated rebel alliance, just itching for the United States to defeat their enemy for them.