The Obama administration has to declassify more detailed intelligence on Syria’s chemical weapons usage to bolster support in Congress for using U.S. armed forces to deter any future Syrian government use of those weapons.
More evidence is also needed to maintain the administration’s integrity at home and abroad.
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.”
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.
Reviewing potential Syria targets
The Pentagon and the intelligence community continue to refine the target list for any Syria strike, but one bull’s-eye certainly will be the Defense Ministry’s facilities in and around Jamraya, northwest of Damascus.
Target No. 1 could be the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC). Established in the early 1970s, it is described as Syria’s equivalent of Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States, where the first atomic bomb was developed.
The SSRC, though within the Defense Ministry, is directly subordinate to President Bashar al-Assad. Its director has a standing equal to that of a senior government minister. Three other Syrian entities involved in non-conventional weapons development report to the director — the Higher Institute of Applied Science and Technology, the Electronics Institute and the National Standards and Calibration Laboratory.
Dempsey became more specific about Syria at Wednesday’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said he was going after targets “directly linked to the control of chemical weapons but without exposing those chemical weapons to a loss of security.”
That could include SSCR and its subsidiaries, but also military elements including, perhaps, the Republican Guard’s headquarters in Damascus, which sits on a large compound near the presidential palace. Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of the president, commands the regime’s Republican Guard and is suspected by the opposition of having a role in ordering the Aug. 21 chemical attack.
Dempsey also listed attacking “the means of delivery” of the chemical weapons, which could involve not just sites where rockets and missiles are based or stored, but also the factories where they are built. His last category was “those things that the regime uses . . . to protect those chemical weapons.” There, Dempsey mentioned air defense.
Overall, he said the “target package is still being refined as I sit here with you.”