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Obama's weak evidence for Syria attack

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by Michael Collins

The intelligence assessment sent to Congress by President Obama supports the president's request that Congress authorize military action against Syria.  The assessment consists of a series of assertions about evidence available without any display of that evidence.  The materials are "classified," according to the document.  That means we won't see the evidence.  It also means that Congress can't investigate or debate the quality and reliability of the evidence in public since that would reveal classified information.

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Since the chemical incident on August 21, the White House has argued with increasing confidence that the Syrian government was responsible for initiating the attack.

Along with the request, the White House included a document describing the evidence used by the President to reach his conclusion on responsibility for the attack.  The document is titled, U.S. Government Assessment of the Syrian Government's  Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013This document is the foundation for the president's plan to attack Syria.  As such, it is worth a serious look.

Evaluation of the document requires understanding the following:

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1) There is no proof in the document.  It is a series of assertions without any evidence attached.  There are no photographs, diagrams, or exhibits.  There are only assertions of proof, which are unpersuasive absent some more detail.

2) A major portion of the presumed direct evidence evaluated by the administration comes from sources that want and, in some cases, need a U.S. attack on the Syrian government.   Evidence from rebel factions would carry a heavy bias. Any foreign intelligence agencies in rebel territory would, likely, be sympathetic to the rebels.  The rebels have been losing and need help.

Key arguments offered in the president's "Assessment" document sent to Congress

Degree of confidence

"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. "

The report begins by stating that the Obama administration has "high confidence" about the nature of the attack and the perpetrator.

"Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation."

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"High confidence" does not equal "confirmation."  Aren't there paths to confirmation, for example, the United Nations inspectors report?  Is the administration sharing their data with the UN team investigating the incident?  Why wouldn't the administration wait for the UN report in hopes of getting "confirmation?"

Classified evidence that we, the public, will never see

"" the regime used a nerve agent" The "all-source assessments are based on human, signals, and geospatial intelligence as well as a significant body of open source reporting."  The assessments are "classified" but have been "shared with Congress.

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