Congress must ask the right questions on Syrian chemical weapons use

Kenneth Timmerman President, Foundation for Democracy in Iran
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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?

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.