Fixing Intel Around the Syria Policy

Exclusive: Senior U.S. intelligence analysts disagreed with the Obama administration’s certainty that the Syrian government was behind the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, but that dissent was suppressed amid the rush to a near war, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

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.

President Barack Obama speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013. (UN photo)

President Barack Obama speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013. (UN photo)

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.

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).

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 (or face the likelihood that they would speak out).

Inspectors’ Doubts

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:

“There was considerable dissent from even that equivocation, including by many analysts who felt that the evidence for a Syrian government role was subject to interpretation and possibly even fabricated. Some believed the complete absence of U.S. satellite intelligence on the extensive preparations that the government would have needed to make in order to mix its binary chemical system and deliver it on target was particularly disturbing.

“These concerns were reinforced by subsequent UN reports suggesting that the rebels might have access to their own chemical weapons. The White House, meanwhile, considered the somewhat ambiguous conclusion of the NIE to be unsatisfactory, resulting in considerable pushback against the senior analysts who had authored the report.”

Demands from Above

When Obama’s National Security Council demanded more corroborative evidence to establish Syrian government guilt, “Israel obligingly provided what was reported to be interceptions of telephone conversations implicating the Syrian army in the attack, but it was widely believed that the information might have been fabricated by Tel Aviv, meaning that bad intelligence was being used to confirm other suspect information, a phenomenon known to analysts as ‘circular reporting,’” Giraldi wrote.

“Other intelligence cited in passing by the White House on the trajectories and telemetry of rockets that may have been used in the attack was also somewhat conjectural and involved weapons that were not, in fact, in the Syrian arsenal, suggesting that they were actually fired by the rebels.

“Also, traces of Sarin were not found in most of the areas being investigated, nor on one of the two rockets identified. Whether the victims of the attack suffered symptoms of Sarin was also disputed, and no autopsies were performed to confirm the presence of the chemical.

“With all evidence considered, the intelligence community found itself with numerous skeptics in the ranks, leading to sharp exchanges with the Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. A number of analysts threatened to resign as a group if their strong dissent was not noted in any report released to the public, forcing both Brennan and Clapper to back down.”

The Obama administration’s “solution” to this analyst revolt was to circumvent the normal intelligence process and issue a white paper that would be called a “Government Assessment,” declaring the Syrian government’s guilt as indisputable fact and leaving out the doubts of the intelligence community.

While this subterfuge may have satisfied the institutional concerns of the intelligence community – which didn’t want another Iraq-War-style violation of its procedural protocols on how NIEs are handled – it still left the American people vulnerable to a government deception on a question of war or peace.

Yes, there was no scene comparable to the positioning of CIA Director George Tenet behind Secretary of State Colin Powell as he delivered his deceptive Iraq War speech to the UN Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. Both Clapper and Brennan were absent from the administration’s testimony to Congress, leaving Secretary Kerry to do most of the talking with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey bracketing Kerry as mostly silent wing men.

And, yes, one could argue that the Obama administration’s hyping of its case against the Assad regime had a happy ending, the Syrian government’s agreement to eliminate its entire CW arsenal. Indeed, most of the grousing about the Syrian outcome has come from neocons who wanted to ride the rush to judgment all the way to another regime-changing war.

Dogs Not Barking

But Americans should be alarmed that a decade after they were deceived into a disastrous war in Iraq based on bogus intelligence – and the complete breakdown of Official Washington’s checks and balances – a very similar process could unfold that brought the country to the brink of another war.

Besides the disturbing fact that the Obama administration refused to release any actual evidence to support its case for war, there was the gullibility (or complicity) of leading news outlets in failing to show even a modicum of skepticism.

The New York Times and other major news organizations failed to note the dogs not barking. Why, for instance, was there no NIE? Why were the U.S. government’s top intelligence officials absent from public presentations of what amounted to an intelligence issue? It shouldn’t have required a Sherlock Holmes to sniff out the silenced intelligence analysts.

When a government leader refuses to reveal any of his supposed proof for a claim and conceals the professionals who don’t agree with his claim, any reasonably savvy person should draw the conclusion that the government leader doesn’t really have a case.

Though some Americans may cite the work of a few Web sites, like our own Consortiumnews.com, as having challenged the misguided conventional wisdom on Syria as we also did on Iraq, they should not draw too much comfort from this. After all, our readership is tiny when compared to the many sources of misinformation being disseminated to the broad American public.

The dangerous reality is that the United States remains vulnerable to the kinds of stampedes in judgment that can end up crushing people around the world.

[Here is some of our earlier reporting on the Syrian crisis: “A Dodgy Dossier on Syrian War”; “Murky Clues From UN’s Syria Report”; “Obama Still Withholds Syria Evidence”; “How US Pressure Bends UN Agencies.”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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6 comments on “Fixing Intel Around the Syria Policy

  1. charles sereno on said:

    “At that point, Clapper would have had to acknowledge the disagreement from rank-and-file analysts.”
    No. That wouldn’t have been a problem for Clapper. Wiser heads prevailed, thinking it might be too soon for him to produce yet another lie.

  2. British MP George Galloway claims that Israel gave chemical weapons to the Syrian rebels fighting Assad regime.

    http://rehmat1.com/2013/08/27/galloway-israel-gave-chemical-weapons-to-syrian-rebels/

  3. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Has anyone else noticed that mainstream media articles, and even some progressive ones, still refer to “Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people”? I have previously commented on the abject fraud behind the so-called “Government Assessment”. Photographs and videos depicting the so-called “victims” demonstrated symptoms that were not consistent with nerve agent poisoning. Personnel treating “victims” were not using appropriate treatment protocols, personal protective equipment or necessary medications. Many of the “cadavers” did not look dead. Those that obviously were dead did not appear to have succumbed to chemical agents, favoring the conclusion that these scenes were staged using available cadavers. In one unbelievably ridiculous photograph, the “victim” on the gurney was wearing the surgical mask, while the “surgeons” in attendance wore none. This low fraud was presented to the American public with a straight face.

    As exciting as an extraterrestrial visit might be, I’ve never heard a UFO story I could accept as “irrefutable”. No physical evidence has ever been presented. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in psychics. I find “secret society” stories implausible. But scientific evidence is another matter altogether. And the “Downing Street Memo” should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that conspiracies are not all “theories”. I am aware of Dr. Cyril Wecht’s position on the Kennedy assassination, but I have never heard him speak on that topic. When I heard his lectures, he was speaking on the topic of forensic pathology, and I was a student in his class. That was a long, long time ago, but the science hasn’t changed.

    The “Government Assessment” of the Syria gas attacks is as patently false as the Warren Commission Report. Anyone with medical knowledge of CBRNE warfare could not conclude otherwise. As the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination approaches, America can choose to take back its democracy. Or it can surrender to state sponsored manipulation of the truth. This may be our last chance. The JFK Documents Act of 1992 has yet to be fully implemented. The radiographic evidence can’t be made to fit the official story. Neither can the “evidence” in the Syria gas attacks. Dead men do tell tales. Forensic evidence doesn’t lie. President Obama could still save America. Release the documents. If necessary, exhume the body. Stop the lies, before it’s too late.

  4. EthanAllen1 on said:

    At the onset of my comment I commend Robert Parry and ConsortiumNews for this succinct and erudite synopsis of the Syrian chemical weapons charade, and applaude both for not conflating this piece of political theater with the tragic internal problems the people of Syria are experiencing.
    My instant concern regards the deception of the U.S. citizenry by its own government; and the facilitation of that deception by publically enfranchised private corporate media.
    The practice of fabricating evidence to support preconcieved actions is, of course, antithetical to the gathering of factual evidence from which informed and appropriate actions can be considered. The employment of this intentional method of deception and dissembling does not begin with the implementation of the final phase of these preconcieved plans, the origins are almost always to be found in the covert subliminal dissemination of subtle denigrations, historical revisions and false-flag characterizations of the imagined motives of the target that precede the public announcement of said ‘final phase’. With regard to Syria, the propaganda and intentional public mis-information campaign, the usual ground-work that precedes such misguided adventures, has been being foisted on the public, both here and abroad, for several decades; the language of this concerted effort has become the common parlance when discussing such matters, even amongst otherwise thoughful and informed opponents of such unethical and counter-productive behavior on the part our publically funded government and corporate sponsored and self-described “fourth estate”.
    For instance, let us examine the pejoritive use of the descriptive term “Regime” to confer hyperbolic evil and contrived tyranical and uncivilized character on the targets of such propaganda. Even Robert Parry herein, hardly a proponent of disinformation and dissembling, has chosen to use “regime” to describe President Assad’s administration as a “regime” four times, and the Syrian government writ large twice. If the actual factual distinction between an “administration” or “government” and a “regime” is based on some imagined difference in ethical or moral characteristic, than why does the behavior alluded to herein not describe Obama’s administration, or those of his allied fellow travelers as such “regimes”? While it can be easily understood how the general public can unwittingly fall prey to such unscrupalous schemes and chicanery on the part of their imagined “public servants”, it is a matter of much greater concern that these charlatans have managed to corrupt the very language that is the foundation of, and necessary tool for communicating factual information, to the extent that such bastardized “word-speak” has even tainted the prose of earstwhile proponents of reform and factual discourse.
    I believe the question must be thoughtfully considered as to what degree the compromised language of serial dissembling and propaganda has successfully been intentionally incorporated, to the extent that it has even become implanted in our people’s most reliable sources of information.
    As Usual,
    EA

  5. incontinent reader on said:

    Great article and excellent comments. As another instance of the Administration’s prevarications, John Kerry had the gall to hold up a picture of cadavers lined up side by side, to bolster his claim that the Syrian army was responsible for the gas attack in Ghouta. What he failed to note was that the BBC had used the same picture in May, 2012, to “prove” the the Syrian government had committed the civilian massacre in Houla, when, in fact, the picture had been taken in March, 2003 by Marco di Lauro, of mass bodies found at Al Musayib, in a desert south of Baghdad. (See, for example, http://theuniversalspectator.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/john-kerry-fake-but-accurate-on-that-photo-of-dead-syrian-children-or-something/ and
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/9293620/BBC-News-uses-Iraq-photo-to-illustrate-Syrian-massacre.html )

    The lies have been so ludicrous as to astound even the imagination, but when the media keeps repeating them, people will too often be unwilling to disbelieve the official narrative, patently false as it may be.

  6. Dan Huck on said:

    Mr. Parry, another great article. I’m sure the people responsible for enforcing the requirement America must have a duplicitous administration read your articles, and so I’d like to offer this note to Mr. Netanyahu as a comment on this article.

    Mr. PM Netanyahu

    Just a note at the time it has come to light there is high probability a state actor is responsible for the apparent assassination of the previous Head of State of the Palestinian people, Yasser Arafat. Assassination has played an outsized role in the manner in which Israel has dealt with Palestinian activists over the years.

    GB Shaw had an insight regarding liars that I’d like to share with you. It is said there are some things that your friends will be the last to tell you, but there is an even older idea which relates to how we can get to know the truth about ourselves, and that is to listen to what our enemies or those who don’t like us say about us; what do they say about our behavior, what do they say about our friends, what do they say about the ideas we try to put forward. Our enemies get to the heart of our inmost faults.

    Mr. Netanyahu, our former friends say we are liars. It is ‘we’ after all, because our Congress never stops drumming on the ‘special relationship’, and we are joined, as some Siamese twins are, in the area of the back pocket. Now every time we open our mouths to say something, especially accusing someone or some country of something, they think to themselves “How about Iraq?” , and how about all the other instances of our aggression where there was a questionable precipitating event? And how about events which have been partially precipitive, but questioned sufficiently to stop our most devastating response such as the Syrian CW killings where the world seems to take, contradicting our accusation of Assad, a Mother Superior’s observation – “They’ve used this child in the red sweater as a dead victim in two different places” – is this some kind of a sick set-up by the Saudi and Israeli-supported Al-Nusra front (the folks who eat Syrian hearts and livers)? Soon people will want to do a slow-motion scientific analysis of the video of Neda’s murder, I’m referring, of course, to the young woman of Iran’s Green fizz revolution fame, whose ‘fiance’ took a video of her killing which impressed President Shimon Peres so much, because the incident just happened to fit in so well with the verbal picture our propaganda machine was dunning into our heads incessantly. One more nail in the coffin of the Iranian leaders it seems people behind closed doors must have been saying. The picture of President Peres and the ‘fiance’, President Peres beaming, sticks in my head. He wanted to meet the young ‘hero’ gentleman.

    It goes on and on.

    Shaw’s insight was “The liars punishment is not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else.” ; the obverse of Cassandra’s plight! She told the truth and no one would believe her. We lie, and we distrust everyone, regardless of factual verification.

    The whole world knows you have nuclear weapons, even the US Congress, and so your nation has been prevaricating about this for 50 years or so, with our help. Iran has the right to enrichment and to a civilian nuclear program – they are not threatening you. You may be threatened by their potential to challenge your regional hegemony, but a peaceful Israel (you might not agree) will more than hold it’s own in any situation.

    Regarding Iran and the story Senators Menendez, Graham, and what’s his name, the grandson of the Admiral of USS Liberty fame, who threatened sailors if they said anything about Israel’s involvement in the attack on the USS Liberty, who knows what might happen to them; their lying war mongering at your instigation is really not going to fly.

    I don’t know what the American people are going to do about this whole situation, but it is clear former President Bush and former VP Cheney and many others are at risk for their treasonous behavior, and many American Jewish organizations, ostensibly operating for the benefit of American Jews, but really operating at the dictates of the Likud leadership in Israel are at the least going to be pressured to admit they have been agents of a foreign nation, and forced to register as such.

    Sir, I would suggest you don’t try bombing Iran.

    Best wishes,

    Dan Huck