U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on Syria at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 30, 2013. [State Department photo]
The Obama administration's three-page white paper making the case that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on Aug. 21 is even skimpier than the "evidence" that George W. Bush's team put out to "prove" that Iraq was hiding WMD in 2003.
The white paper against Syria is noteworthy in that it lacks any specifics that can be assessed independently, in contrast to, say, Secretary of State Colin Powell's infamous presentation to the UN Security Council which included intercepted quotes from Iraqi officials and satellite photographs of suspected Iraqi WMD locations.As it turned out, Powell had misquoted the Iraqi officials to make their intercepted comments appear more sinister (but at least the State Department posted the actual transcripts online so Powell could be fact-checked) and the satellite photos ended up not proving anything at all.
But there was at least a presentation that -- however misleading -- didn't simply call on the American people and the world to "trust us." That is pretty much all that the Obama administration is saying in its indictment of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly deploying deadly chemical weapons last week.
The white paper states:
"The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013. We further assess that the regime used a nerve agent in the attack. These all-source assessments are based on human, signals, and geospatial intelligence as well as a significant body of open source reporting."
But the white paper offers no verifiable details to support any of its conclusions. For instance, it states:
"We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel -- including personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC [the Scientific Studies and Research Center, which oversees Syria's chemical weapons arsenal] -- were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack.
"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. 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. Our intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons."
Yet, despite these seemingly incriminating assertions, no supporting evidence is cited: no satellite or other photos of these military movements were released, no names of individuals mentioned, no communications intercepts published. Just assertions attributed to "sources" with no way to assess their reliability.
In 2003, Secretary Powell also cited "sources" to buttress his case that Iraq was hiding WMD -- and only after the Iraq War was underway did the public learn that these "sources" had code names like "Curve Ball" or were connected to self-interested outfits like the Iraqi National Congress. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
Perhaps, the Obama administration's most damning claim on Friday was that "We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence. On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations."
However, again, the identity of the "senior official" is not included, nor is the direct quote cited. Given the history of the U.S. government doctoring quotes to make a case -- besides Powell in 2003, the Reagan administration also did it in accusing the Soviet Union of intentionally shooting down KAL Flight 007 in 1983 -- you might have thought the Obama administration would take pains to include the actual words and put them in their proper context. But no.
In the KAL 007 case, as presented to the UN Security Council, the Reagan administration cut and pasted intercepts from a Soviet pilot and his ground control to transform what was really a tragic mistake into a case of premeditated murder.
Only years later did one of the participants in the propaganda stunt, Alvin A. Snyder, who had been director of the U.S. Information Agency's television and film division, describe how the scam was pulled off, by releasing some incriminating snippets packaged in a way to suggest the slaughter was intentional.
In his 1995 book, Warriors of Disinformation, Snyder reported that the Reagan administration wanted to use the incident as a propaganda club against the Soviets and did so by manipulating the tape recording of the Soviet pilot who actually believed he was chasing a spy plane, not a civilian airliner that had wandered off course.
"The tape was supposed to run 50 minutes," Snyder wrote. "But the tape segment we [at USIA] had ran only eight minutes and 32 seconds. ... 'Do I detect the fine hand of [Richard Nixon's secretary] Rosemary Woods here?' I asked sarcastically."