President Obama’s critics question the legitimacy of the administration’s intelligence assessment of “high confidence” that the Syrian regime carried out the Aug. 21 attacks. Some point to the George W. Bush administration’s cherry-picked intelligence during its four-month campaign in late 2002 to promote the invasion of Iraq.
There is a key difference. U.S. intelligence in 2002 was used to show by inference that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and might use them. Bashar al-Assad has chemical weapons, and U.S. intelligence apparently proves that his forces used them.
A better precedent for today’s situation might be Operation Desert Fox, the Clinton administration’s four-day missile attack and bombing of Iraq in December 1998 to knock out Hussein’s research and production facilities for weapons of mass destruction.
More about that later.
Today is a time of great mistrust of government at home and abroad, and that has to be recognized. The old claim about holding back evidence to protect U.S. intelligence’s “sources and methods” no longer works.
Based on the administration’s four-page assessment released Friday, the U.S. intelligence community has “intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on Aug. 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.”
It is time to produce those intercepts. Who was that senior official? Of course that would show sources and methods, but at this late date who in the Syrian military does not recognize the U.S. capability to intercept its communications? The Obama administration’s problem will be that many probably won’t believe the legitimacy of the intercepts.
The assessment also reports that “on the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations.” That again may involve intercepts, or it may come from human intelligence. It needs more explanation and some sort of proof, even if it means losing a source.
“In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack,” says the assessment.
Let’s see some of those satellite images and intercepted messages to support that statement.
“Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21 near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks.”
That’s fairly detailed information, so give it to Congress and the public, perhaps even offer a witness or two or satellite photos that confirm Syrian troops preparing, such as getting or putting on gas masks.
“Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred. . . . This includes the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media.”
Produce the satellite images with some intelligence expert who can explain what is seen.
To gain support from the American people and a positive vote from Congress the Obama administration has a week to carry out its own public relations campaign in a war-weary country that is also confused about what an attack on Syria would accomplish.
The Obama administration has not shown a deft hand at public relations or, more recently, getting its way with Congress.
After the Aug. 21 attack, a hundred videos were produced covering 12 locations showing victims who were either dead or suffering from the effects of chemical weapons, according to the assessment. The administration should make them available to news media.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel could play some of the videos and intercepts during their appearance set for Tuesday afternoon at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
It’s worth recalling the 1998 U.S. attack on Iraqi facilities after Hussein’s Baghdad regime refused to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. The first goal of the operation was to “degrade Iraq’s ability to create and employ WMD,” according to a Defense Department fact sheet.
This was not a “pin prick.” The same will be true for the Obama administration’s plans. The initial 1998 strikes on Day One consisted of approximately 250 Tomahawk cruise missiles and 40 sorties launched from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. The following three days saw additional missile and bomber attacks on about 100 targets. Initially it was thought that the operation had temporarily hurt Iraq’s missile programs, but there was no confirmation of damage to its nuclear, chemical and biological warfare activities.
It was not until years later, after the fall of the regime, that U.S. weapons inspectors determined the 1998 attacks had destroyed Hussein’s nuclear program facilities and limited Iraq’s plans to rebuild its chemical and biological weapons operations.
Bill Clinton faced a different domestic problem in launching the attacks, since they came during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and on the eve of the House vote on impeachment counts. Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) questioned “both the timing and the policy.”
House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) was even tougher. “The suspicion some people have about the president’s motives in this attack is itself a powerful argument for impeachment,” he said.
The 1998 attack was successful, but most Americans were unaware. They were focused on the failed attempt to impeach Clinton.
Obama has his own problems on Capitol Hill, though much different than Clinton’s. Congress in August 1998 had also passed a resolution urging the president “to take appropriate action, in accordance with the Constitution and relevant laws of the United States, to bring Iraq into compliance with its international obligations.”
That’s what Obama is trying to get done today in Syria.