Contrary to the general impression in Congress and the news media, the Syria chemical warfare intelligence summary released by the Barack Obama administration Aug. 30 did not represent an intelligence community assessment, an IPS analysis and interviews with former intelligence officials reveals.
The evidence indicates that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper culled intelligence analyses from various agencies and by the White House itself, but that the White House itself had the final say in the contents of the document.
Leading members of Congress to believe that the document was an intelligence community assessment and thus represents a credible picture of the intelligence on the alleged chemical attack of Aug. 21 has been a central element in the Obama administration's case for war in Syria.
That part of the strategy, at least, has been successful. Despite strong opposition in Congress to the proposed military strike in Syria, no one in either chamber has yet challenged the administration's characterization of the intelligence. But the administration is vulnerable to the charge that it has put out an intelligence document that does not fully and accurately reflect the views of intelligence analysts.
Former intelligence officials told IPS that the paper does not represent a genuine intelligence community assessment but rather one reflecting a predominantly Obama administration influence.
In essence, the White House selected those elements of the intelligence community assessments that supported the administration's policy of planning a strike against the Syrian government force and omitted those that didn't.
In a radical departure from normal practice involving summaries or excerpts of intelligence documents that are made public, the Syria chemical weapons intelligence summary document was not released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence but by the White House Office of the Press Secretary.
It was titled "Government Assessment of the Syrian Government's Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013." The first sentence begins, "The United States government assesses," and the second sentence begins, "We assess."
The introductory paragraph refers to the main body of the text as a summary of "the intelligence community's analysis" of the issue, rather than as an "intelligence community assessment," which would have been used had the entire intelligence community endorsed the document.
The former senior official, who held dozens of security classifications over a decades-long intelligence career, said he had "never seen a document about an international crisis at any classification described/slugged as a U.S. government assessment."
The document further indicates that the administration "decided on a position and cherry-picked the intelligence to fit it," he said. "The result is not a balanced assessment of the intelligence."
Greg Thielmann, whose last position before retiring from the State Department was director of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, told IPS he has never seen a government document labeled "Government Assessment" either.
"If it's an intelligence assessment," Thielmann said, "why didn't they label it as such?"
Former National Intelligence Officer Paul Pillar, who has participated in drafting national intelligence estimates, said the intelligence assessment summary released by the White House "is evidently an administration document, and the working master copy may have been in someone's computer at the White House or National Security Council."
Pillar suggested that senior intelligence officials might have signed off on the administration paper, but that the White House may have drafted its own paper to "avoid attention to analytic differences within the intelligence community."
Comparable intelligence community assessments in the past, he observed -- including the 2002 Iraq WMD estimate -- include indications of differences in assessment among elements of the community.
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