President Barack Obama speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013. (UN photo)
After the Aug. 21 chemical weapons incident in Syria, a number of senior U.S. intelligence analysts disagreed with the Obama administration's rush to judgment blaming the Syrian government, but their dissent on this question of war or peace was concealed from the American people.
The administration kept the dissent secret by circumventing the normal intelligence process and issuing on Aug. 30 something called a "Government Assessment," posted at the White House press office's Web site and fingering the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad as the guilty party.
Once the "Government Assessment" was issued, Secretary of State John Kerry was put forward to present the case for launching a military strike against Syria, an attack that was only averted because President Barack Obama abruptly decided to ask congressional approval and then reached a diplomatic agreement, with the help of the Russian government, in which the Syrian government agreed to dispose of its chemical weapons arsenal (while still denying that it was responsible for the Aug. 21 attack).
Normally, such an important issue -- a possible U.S. military engagement -- would be the focus of a National Intelligence Estimate, but that would also cite the disagreements expressed within the intelligence community. By avoiding an NIE, the Obama administration was able to keep the lid on how much dissent there was over the Assad-did-it conclusion.
Although war was averted, the Obama administration's deception of the American public -- by pretending that there was a government-wide consensus regarding Syrian government guilt when there wasn't -- was reminiscent of the lies and distortions used by President George W. Bush to trick the nation into war with Iraq over bogus WMD claims in 2003.
The behavior of the rest of Official Washington and the mainstream U.S. news media also shows that little has changed from a decade ago. Obvious indications of a deception were ignored and the few voices who raised the alarm were treated with the same mocking contempt that greeted skeptics of Bush's case for invading Iraq.
Writers for Consortiumnews.com were among the few in the American media who noted the glaring flaws in the Obama administration's case, including its refusal to release any of its supposed proof to support its conclusions and the curious absence of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper from the public presentation of the administration's casus belli.
The reason for keeping the DNI on the sidelines was that he otherwise might have been asked if there was a consensus in the intelligence community supporting the administration's certitude that Assad's regime was responsible. At that point, Clapper would have had to acknowledge the disagreement from rank-and-file analysts.
Similarly, it appears that on-the-ground inspectors for the United Nations had their own doubts about the Syrian government's responsibility, especially since Assad's regime had allowed a UN team into Damascus on Aug. 18 to investigate what the regime claimed was evidence of rebels using chemical weapons.
It never made sense to some of these inspectors that Assad -- just three days later -- would launch a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus just a few miles from the hotel where the UN inspectors were staying. Assad would have known that the Aug. 21 incident would mean serious trouble for his government, very possibly drawing the U.S. military into the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels.
The UN inspectors also failed to find Sarin or other chemical agents at one of the two sites that they subsequently examined near Damascus, and they inserted a qualification in their report about apparent tampering at the one area where Sarin was found.
However, instead of noting the many holes in the U.S. "Government Assessment" and the UN report, the mainstream U.S. news media simply joined the rush to judgment, hyping dubious claims from both U.S. government officials and non-governmental organizations favoring U.S. military intervention in Syria.
The New York Times and other major news outlets that swallowed Bush's false claims about Iraq WMD a decade ago also began reporting Obama's dubious assertions about Syria as flat fact, not as issues in serious dispute. As I wrote on Oct. 25, one typically credulous Times story accepted "as indisputable fact that the Syrian government was behind the Aug. 21 attack on a suburb of Damascus despite significant doubts among independent analysts, UN inspectors and, I'm told, U.S. intelligence analysts."
New details of the rebellion among the intelligence analysts have just been reported by former CIA officer Philip Giraldi for the American Conservative magazine. According to Giraldi's account, a "mass resignation of a significant number of analysts" was threatened if the Obama administration issued an NIE without acknowledging their dissent.
A "hurriedly updated" NIE had reflected the Syrian government's suspected use of chemical weapons against rebels and civilians, "while conceding that there was no conclusive proof," Giraldi wrote, adding: