Only days after the White House suggested it was all but certain Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to gas hundreds of civilians, United States intelligence officials briefed on the situation say the evidence isn’t all there.
Despite recent remarks from US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other top administration officials, sources within the intelligence community are disputing the certainty that Assad ordered the use of chemical gas last week on innocent civilians outside of Damascus, Syria.
Four US officials — including one senior member of the intelligence community — told the Associated Press this week that there’s confusion over where the reported chemical warheads are currently being held and who exactly possesses them. Citing a lapse in both signals and human intelligence reports, the officials all told the AP on condition of anonymity that US and allied spies “have lost track of who controls some of the country’s chemical weapons supplies,” according to reporters Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo.
Multiple officials, the AP reported Thursday morning, used the phrase “not a slam dunk” to discuss the credibility of intelligence linking chemical weapon use directly to Pres. Assad. In 2002, then-Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet infamously said Washington scored a “slam dunk” with regards to confirming Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Now more than a decade down the road, US officials hesitant to rush off to war are again questioning the credibility of the White House’s own report.
According to an Office of the Director for National Intelligence report cited by the AP, the evidence against Syria “is thick with caveats” and contains gaps that are getting in the way of putting the chemical weapon use directly in the hands of Assad.
But Carney, the administration’s press secretary, said earlier this week that the White House “established with a high degree of confidence that the Syria regime has used chemical weapons already in this conflict.”
“It is our firm conviction that the Assad regime is responsible” for gassing civilians on August 21, Carney added. “Logic dictates that conclusion, as well as the hard facts. And the president is working with his national security team to evaluate the options available to him to respond, as well as consulting with international allies and consulting with members of Congress.”
Those remarks echoed a statement made by Sec. Kerry this week as well in which he said the White House was certain Assad’s regime maintains custody of the chemical weapons used, and that the regime “has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place.”
Kerry fell short of directly saying Assad ordered the attack, but Pres. Obama made that allegation during an interview with PBS’ NewsHour on Wednesday.
“We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out, Obama said of the assault. “And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.”
Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reporter Noah Shachtman wrote that the US intelligence community recently intercepted conversations in Syria that suggested the Aug. 21 assault could have been not necessarily ordered by Assad, but perhaps “the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds.”
“It’s unclear where control lies, one US intelligence official told Foreign Policy. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”
“We don’t know exactly why it happened,” the official added. “We just know it was pretty fucking stupid.”
Pres. Obama is briefing members of Congress on the Syrian situation on Thursday using conclusions made by US intelligence, after which a declassified report is expected to be released to the public.