Trusting Obama’s Syria War Case

While some intelligence experts are skeptical of President Obama’s case for bombing Syria, others trust the allegations and mock those who doubt the justification for war. Ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman is part of the latter group but agrees with the first that Obama should release the proof.

By Melvin A. Goodman

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been challenged by the role of intelligence in making the case for war against Iraq and Syria, respectively. President Bush had a bad case to make because he wanted to go to war preemptively, which requires excellent intelligence.

The Bush administration didn’t have such intelligence so the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency conspired to create a case virtually out of whole cloth. Don’t ever forget CIA Director George Tenet’s statement that it would be a “slam dunk” to provide intelligence not to convince the White House but the American people. Lying about intelligence allowed President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to go to the American people and the Congress to make a case for an immoral war.

President Barack Obama.

President Bush used a phony National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) engineered by a National Intelligence Officer, Robert Walpole, to provide the intelligence community’s endorsement of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which were non-existent.  Several days later, another National Intelligence Officer, Paul Pillar, managed an unclassified White Paper for the Congress and the American people that repeated the false allegations of the NIE and even omitted the dissents to the estimate from the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

In January 2003, President Bush used a forged document to argue that Iraq was seeking enriched uranium from Niger, and CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin lied to Secretary of State Colin Powell about the credibility of intelligence for the Secretary’s speech to the United Nations. Powell’s speech was a staged farce with CIA Director Tenet and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte sitting side-by-side to witness one of the low points in U.S. diplomacy. And never forget “slam dunk.”

Meanwhile, President Obama has a good case for the use of military force; indeed, he has a moral and just case, but he has argued the case so poorly and presented his evidence so ineffectively that the House of Representatives will probably deny the President the ability to use military force. The misuse of intelligence by the White House and the CIA in 2002-2003 has clearly weakened the instrument of intelligence to support the use of force against Syria.

The distortion of evidence of Iraqi WMD a decade ago has made it difficult to convince the American public, let alone a skeptical international audience, of the need to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. As a result, the Obama administration must ignore the usual safeguards regarding intelligence sources and methods, and provide the intelligence that is not only convincing but beyond any reasonable doubt.

We need to know more about the intercepted communications that allowed the United States to track three days of activity by chemical weapons personnel near an area used to mix chemical weapons. We have identified the area publicly so there is no reason to withhold information that would be dispositive.

Multiple streams of intelligence, including communications intelligence and satellite photography, not only tracked the rocket and artillery attack, but did so about 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. This information is so convincing that the administration should be accused of failing to provide warning to the innocent people in the Damascus suburb and should not be accused of politicizing intelligence.

An excellent humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, has confirmed the arrival of several thousand patients at three hospitals in the Damascus area. The epidemiology is consistent with mass exposure to a nerve agent. Moreover, we know that the Syrian government has sanctioned the use of chemical weapons “multiple times” in the past year.

At the very least, President Obama could use some of the one hundred videos of the attack, which show hundreds of bodies exhibiting physical signs consistent with exposure to nerve agents. Since no one, not even Russian President Vladimir Putin, believes that the Syrian opposition has the capability to fabricate these videos or other information associated with the attack, let alone conduct such operations, the so-called debate over the provenance of the attack would be laughable if the events were not so horrific.

Finally, since the Obama administration has an intercept “involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive,” according to the U.S. assessment, that confirms the use of chemical weapons and his concern with UN discovery of evidence, the tape itself should be played. Surely, in view of what we have just learned about the intercept capabilities of the National Security Agency, no one in Syria (or anywhere else for that matter) will be shocked to learn that the United States monitors high-level communications in a zone of interest.

The Obama administration should be able to convince the American people that Iraq, where there were no chemical weapons, is not Syria, where chemical weapons have been used against civilians. There is nearly a century’s worth of international agreements and treaties that prevent the use and even stockpiling of chemical weapons.

If the United States cannot protect the integrity of important conventions on weapons of mass destruction and non-proliferation, then the integrity of the United States in the international arena is also at risk.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the recently published National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (City Lights Publishers) and the forthcoming The Path to Dissent: The Story of a CIA Whistleblower (City Lights Publisher). Goodman is a former CIA analyst and a professor of international relations at the National War College. [This article originally appeared at Counterpunch and is reposted with the author's permission.]

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10 comments on “Trusting Obama’s Syria War Case

  1. “Meanwhile, President Obama has a good case for the use of military force; indeed, he has a moral and just case…”

    Give me a break.

  2. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Bull-biscuits. The same “moral arguments” could be made against Israel for using white phosphorus against civilians and stockpiling nuclear weapons. Israel never signed the NNPT just as Syria never signed the chemical weapons convention. And in a monumental tribute to moral bankruptcy, the United States has never ratified the Rome Statutes or the International Criminal Court. But beyond all this, merely discussing military action against a sovereign nation as a matter of foreign policy is A WAR CRIME under the United Nations Charter. Moral? Possibly. But we’ve got no track record to assert that. Legal? Sorry, there just ain’t no way.

  3. BARBARABF on said:

    Bush and Powell lied. Obama and Kerry lie.

  4. Make sure the bombs and missiles dropped on Syria have depleted uranium. That will show them. #AmericanHypocrisy

    • George Collins on said:

      Mel Goodman is almost cavalier in asserting the purported credibility of Obama’s case. He makes no reference to independent contrary reports whether to Mint regarding Prince Bandar’s role and the reports of some rebels or to material reported by Pepe Escobar, or the Brits H of C rejection of the case against Assad or reports that Germany’s BND had an intercept suggestive of Assad exculpation. He also appears oblivious to US imperial designs and is silent about the ethics of initiating an aggressive war, the mother of all war crimes.

      Is it believable that Mel has not heard of his former colleagues’ rival letter to Obama and its excoriation of the Obama “intelligence” claims…authored by a dozen or more former CIA intelligence officers?

      Mel’s persuasiveness is swiss cheese. Whether he is ill-informed, naive or politically motivated is unclear but he does seem a less than reliable witness or advocate for all his purported “authority”.

      • F. G. Sanford on said:

        You hit the nail on the head: politically motivated. This guy would have us believe The President is holding three aces and a pair of kings, but as a matter of self restraint, he’s betting them like a jack and a pair of twos.

  5. incontinent reader on said:

    This article is a real disappointment, since Mr. Goodman is one to whom I have looked to for credible answers on intelligence and defense policy. Specifically paragraphs 5 through 13 are so rife with questionable and unproven assertions that I wonder what I will be able to trust of what I might read of his in the future.

    Can we safely assume that he read the many analyses here by Bob Parry, Ray McGovern, Gareth Porter and others questioning the credibility of the Administration’s intelligence ‘assessment’? If so, why did he not also address and dispute those hypotheses and conclusions? Has he read and drawn on what has been reported from Syria by journalists who are better positioned to nail down the facts than analysts at Langley who may have made the Administration’s purported ‘assessment’? I always thought that one looked at everything material and relevant before making findings of such import especially if it was going to justify such precipitous action.

    Also, I was surprised that he misstated the import of what Doctors Without Borders said, including its statement on its website. As for the intercepted conversations, they have since been reinterpreted to suggest that the Syrian Government was as shocked as the U.S. was about the attack. Has Mr. Goodman considered any of this? Furthermore, has Mr. Goodman seen and vetted each of the videos carefully, or is he accepting wholesale the Administration’s interpretation?

    There are hundreds of intelligence assessment questions that have to be answered, and within the framework of a comprehensive forensic examination, before one can confirm the Administration’s allegations and ask for the type of endorsement for military action that the Administration is seeking. But if Mr. Goodman trusts the evidence gathered from Al Nusra, and the Saudis and Israelis, and Messrs. Brennan and Kerry, but not the rest of it, then I suppose he might as well believe the President and argue the Administration’s case.

    Finally, I wonder if he also takes the position that the Administration did not initiate the war in Syria, nor is responsible for any acts of war or war crimes committed against that country- including by our allies, mercenaries and other proxies- and whether he believes that the Administration has facilitated, as opposed to obstructed, peace negotiations between the warring parties.

    I suppose it is difficult to come out against the President if one teaches at the National War College, and that one is able to hedge one’s bets by agreeing with the President while asking for him to release the evidence. But wouldn’t it have been more intellectually honest to have retained some healthy skepticism?

  6. Frances in California on said:

    I always react to stuff like this from a writer to whom I also go for credible analyses the same way as FG Sanford: “Bull-Biscuits”. I wanted to say, as did Scott, “Give me a break, too, Mel” but incontinent reader says it all much better than I could, so slow down, y’all and read i.r.’s post.

  7. On September 3, 2013, Yaron London in an Op-Ed at Israel’s top daily YNet, titled ‘Wink on the way to a bomb’ says that Washington’s hesitation to bomb Syria “tells Israel its assurances regarding Iranian threat cannot be counted on”.

    http://rehmat1.com/2013/09/10/israel-cant-trust-obama-on-iran/

  8. rpdiplock on said:

    The whole Syrian chemical gas case is a smokescreen to keep the 9-11 criminal investigation off the front pages. When the Jewish plot is exposed one can only hope that it will be Israel (rather than Syria) that will be blown off the map.