Exclusive: Countering growing opposition to plans for bombing Syria, the White House dispatched Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to the Sunday talk shows. But the choice underscored the Obama administration’s credibility problems and raised new doubts about the case for war, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.
By Ray McGovern
Were White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough not pushing for yet another war based on what look to be false pretenses, one might feel sorry for him after his multiple TV appearances on Sunday arguing for a military strike on Syria. This unenviable job fell to McDonough as pinch-hitter for the two more natural choices to push the Obama administration’s case for a “limited” war on Syria.
An obvious choice would have been National Security Adviser Susan Rice, but her reputation for truthfulness got seriously tarnished after she made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16, 2012, and stuck to inaccurate talking points about the attack on the U.S. “mission” in Benghazi, Libya.
A second likely candidate would have been Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, but he has admitted to telling “clearly erroneous” things in sworn testimony to Congress regarding the collection of phone data on American citizens.
Clapper also might have been asked embarrassing questions about why the four-page “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013,” was released by the White House rather than by the DNI’s office, thus suggesting that the white paper did not have the endorsement of the full U.S. intelligence community.
Citing the curious provenance of the “Government Assessment,” Gareth Porter reported that the document appeared to be a political product of the White House rather than a professional assessment from the intelligence agencies. Yet, by implying that the document had the imprimatur of the U.S. intelligence community, the White House has used the white paper to preempt congressional questions about who was actually responsible for the Aug. 21 chemical incident in a Damascus suburb.
“Leading members of Congress to believe that the document was an intelligence community assessment and thus represents a credible picture of the intelligence on the alleged chemical attack of Aug. 21 has been a central element in the Obama administration’s case for war in Syria,” Porter wrote.
If you were in the White House, you wouldn’t want Clapper to be asked how many U.S. intelligence analysts had doubts about whether the Syrian government launched an intentional chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 and whether President Bashar al-Assad was responsible, would you?
Spinning the Case
To his credit, the handsome McDonough managed to appear courteous while filibustering the likes of CNN’s Candy Crowley. Indeed, he delivered his memorized mantra better than Socrates himself, in “making the worse cause appear the better.” But his assertions often varied widely from truth and logic. For instance, he declared:
“Nobody now debates the intelligence, which makes clear – and we have high confidence about this – that on August, in August, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. A former Iranian president has indicated he believes that. The entire world believes that. We’re talking to Congress about that now. So Congress … has an opportunity this week to answer [a] simple question – should there be consequences for him [Assad] for having used that material?”
Do you note the hyperbole in the major premise that “the entire world believes that” – when clearly the entire world does not believe that, unless McDonough considers many in Congress, millions of average Americans and a significant number of world leaders to be out of this world? Even French President Francois Hollande, the chief international sidekick for this U.S. war plan, wants to wait and see what the United Nations inspectors conclude.
Yet, ever since John Kerry on Aug. 30 advertised the “Government Assessment,” the administration’s approach has been to require acceptance of that “assessment” as Bible truth and move directly to what the “consequences” should be for such an evil deed.
But some honest soul in the drafting process insisted on inserting a measure of doubt into the text: “Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation.” (emphasis added) Such phrasing is sometimes called a “trapdoor,” used by analysts who might need to escape a conclusion if contrary new evidence arrives.
Yet, the modest caveat can’t obscure the overriding purpose of the “Government Assessment” – to paper over doubts about the hastily assembled intelligence as well as keeping all the supposed evidence secret, thus preventing any independent public scrutiny. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Should We Fall Again for ‘Trust Me’?”]
But – surprise, surprise – this well-worn tactic has proven to be largely effective with the mainstream news media, as shown by Candy Crowley’s immediate response to McDonough, “Because everyone believes that …”
Not So Fast!
The empirical “proof” that McDonough fell back on Sunday was nothing other than what he called “common sense” that Assad must be responsible for the attacks: “Now do we have irrefutable, beyond reasonable doubt evidence? This is not a court of law, and intelligence does not work that way,” McDonough told Crowley.
It appears we are back to the Cheney/Bush days of “faith-based intelligence” when the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” It used to be that intelligence analysis relied chiefly on empirical data. “Common sense,” especially when misshapen by intense political pressures, did not hack it.
Nor did intelligence analysts line up and accept something as true just because lots of people thought it was true – even if that opinion was endorsed by “a former Iranian president.” McDonough’s reference to a disputed quote attributed to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani may have been the first time a U.S. official has cited the alleged statement of an Iranian ex-president as an authoritative source for anything.
But these days, a U.S. government bent on going to war will grab at any straw to advance its arguments no matter how fragile and flimsy.
As McDonough is aware, the administration’s formidable task in the next days is to convince members of Congress that they must accept this conjured-up “conventional wisdom” or risk being called out of step with what “the entire world believes.” But that this sort of persuasion by endorsement is, for once, not going well has become quite clear, even to those watching the Sunday talk shows.
The carnival of congressional briefings held since Aug. 31 when President Barack Obama asked Congress to authorize a military strike on Syria not only has failed to rally a solid majority of members but seems to have been counterproductive.
House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, a strong supporter of military action against Syria, said he thought it “very clear” that the President lost support in the last week as members of Congress began drifting back to the nation’s capital often after getting an earful from their constituents — across the political spectrum — who are opposed to yet another war.
Meanwhile, the case against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seemingly coming apart at the seams, as is seen in a comment by the chairman the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, R-California, no peace-monger he: “They haven’t linked it [the evidence on the use of chemical agent] directly to Assad, in my estimation.”
And Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan, added: “The evidence is not as strong as the public statements that the President and the administration have been making. There are some things that are being embellished in the public statements. … The briefings have actually made me more skeptical about the situation.”
An Incredulous Look
Even some Democrats who initially opted for blind devotion to the President – to avoid lashes from the whip of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her surrogates – may be having second thoughts.
In a discussion I had with a “progressive” congressman from Northern Virginia on Saturday evening, it was clear that he had made an early decision to drink the White House Kool-Aid. Stares of incredulity met my assertion that the “intelligence” was once again being “fixed around the policy.”
Yet, according to the Associated Press, multiple U.S. officials have said that the intelligence tying Assad himself to the Aug. 21 attack was “not a slam dunk” — a reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet’s insistence in 2002 that U.S. “intelligence” could be shaped to present a convincing public case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Skeptics of the Obama administration’s case cite not only the lack of evidence of a direct link between Assad and the Aug. 21 incident, but still-unresolved questions about the alleged chemical weapons attack itself.
Confronted in London on Monday with a question regarding Assad’s personal responsibility if indeed government forces launched the attack, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to concede implicitly the flimsiness of the evidence on Assad’s role. “The Assad regime is the Assad regime,” he protested, adding that he (Kerry) knows that information on the results of the chemical event went “directly to Assad.”
But again there is the gap in Kerry’s logic. Just because officials informed Assad about the incident after it occurred doesn’t mean that Assad or even elements of his military conducted the attack. If the incident were the result of an accidental release of chemical agents or if it were an intentional provocation by Saudi-supplied rebels, Syrian officials would still inform Assad about what happened.
Another embarrassing issue cited by AP is the revelation that U.S. intelligence has lost track of some chemical weaponry in Syria, leaving a possibility that rebels acquired some of the deadly substances from government stockpiles.
A Way Out for Obama
So, contrary to the certitude of Denis McDonough and Candy Crowley that “everyone believes” the accuracy of the U.S. government’s case against Assad’s regime, there actually are members of Congress, average Americans citizens and people around the world who aren’t sold on the Obama administration’s sales job.
Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Florida, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Assad, are demanding that the White House make public whatever evidence it claims to have tying Assad and his regime to the August chemical event near Damascus.
The Obama administration has cited “sources and methods” as its excuse why it can’t reveal its proof, but there have been many cases in the past in which presidents have recognized the need to waive secrecy in order to justify military action.
As senior CIA veteran Milton Bearden has put it, there are occasions when more damage is done to U.S. national security by “protecting” sources and methods than by revealing them. For instance, Bearden noted that Ronald Reagan exposed a sensitive intelligence source in justifying to a skeptical world the justification for the U.S. attack on Libya in retaliation for the April 5, 1986 bombing at the La Belle Disco in West Berlin, which killed two U.S. servicemen and a Turkish woman, and injured over 200 people, including 79 U.S. servicemen.
Intercepted messages between Tripoli and agents in Europe made it clear that Libya was behind the attack. Here’s an excerpt: “At 1:30 in the morning one of the acts was carried out with success, without leaving a trace behind.”
Ten days after the bombing the U.S. retaliated, sending over 60 Air Force fighters to strike the Libyan capital of Tripoli and the city of Benghazi. The operation was widely seen as an attempt to kill Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who survived, but his adopted 15-month-old daughter was killed in the bombing, along with at least 15 other civilians.
Three decades ago, there was a certain shame attached to the killing of little girls. As world abhorrence grew after the U.S. bombing strikes, the Reagan administration produced the intercepted, decoded message sent by the Libyan Peoples Bureau in East Berlin acknowledging the “success” of the attack on the disco, and adding the ironically inaccurate boast “without leaving a trace behind.”
The Reagan administration made the decision to give up a highly sensitive intelligence source, its ability to intercept and decipher Libyan communications. But once the rest of the world absorbed this evidence, international grumbling subsided and many considered the retaliation against Tripoli justified.
Similarly, the U.S. government faces international skepticism now over its allegations about Syria, especially after the bitter experience of the invasion of Iraq based on false intelligence. The Obama administration may try to pretend that no skepticism exists today, but that clearly isn’t true and only further undermines U.S. credibility.
If indeed the evidence of Assad’s complicity is as conclusive as the Obama administration claims it is, then releasing the information could go a long way at least toward assuaging concerns that the U.S. government might bomb the wrong side.
However, if the administration sticks to its strategy of trying to muscle its case for war through Congress, the White House will only fuel suspicions in Congress and elsewhere that the “evidence” against Assad simply can’t stand the sunlight of public scrutiny.
If, for whatever reason, Obama is unwilling to do that, then at this point he might heed the advice offered by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, Sunday on CNN:
“If I were the president, I would withdraw my request for authorization of this particular point. I don’t believe the support is there in Congress. People view war as a last resort. And I don’t think people think that we’re at that point. So I would – I would step back a little bit. We have other issues we have to deal with in Congress domestic and international.”
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served as a CIA analyst for 27 years and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).