FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Obama’s Case for Syria Didn’t Reflect Intel Consensus

by GARETH PORTER

Contrary to the general impression in Congress and the news media, the Syria chemical warfare intelligence summary released by the Barack Obama administration Aug. 30 did not represent an intelligence community assessment, an IPS analysis and interviews with former intelligence officials reveals.

The evidence indicates that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper culled intelligence analyses from various agencies and by the White House itself, but that the White House itself had the final say in the contents of the document.

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.

That part of the strategy, at least, has been successful. Despite strong opposition in Congress to the proposed military strike in Syria, no one in either chamber has yet challenged the administration’s characterisation of the intelligence. But the administration is vulnerable to the charge that it has put out an intelligence document that does not fully and accurately reflect the views of intelligence analysts.

Former intelligence officials told IPS that that the paper does not represent a genuine intelligence community assessment but rather one reflecting a predominantly Obama administration influence.

In essence, the White House selected those elements of the intelligence community assessments that supported the administration’s policy of planning a strike against the Syrian government force and omitted those that didn’t.

In a radical departure from normal practice involving summaries or excerpts of intelligence documents that are made public, the Syria chemical weapons intelligence summary document was not released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence but by the White House Office of the Press Secretary.

It was titled “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013.” The first sentence begins, “The United States government assesses,” and the second sentence begins, “We assess”.

The introductory paragraph refers to the main body of the text as a summary of “the intelligence community’s analysis” of the issue, rather than as an “intelligence community assessment”, which would have been used had the entire intelligence community endorsed the document. 

A former senior intelligence official who asked not to be identified told IPS in an e-mail Friday that the language used by the White House “means that this is not an intelligence community document”.

The former senior official, who held dozens of security classifications over a decades-long intelligence career, said he had “never seen a document about an international crisis at any classification described/slugged as a U.S. government assessment.”

The document further indicates that the administration “decided on a position and cherry-picked the intelligence to fit it,” he said. “The result is not a balanced assessment of the intelligence.”

Greg Thielmann, whose last position before retiring from the State Department was director of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, told IPS he has never seen a government document labeled “Government Assessment” either.

“If it’s an intelligence assessment,” Thielmann said, “why didn’t they label it as such?”

Former National Intelligence Officer Paul Pillar, who has participated in drafting national intelligence estimates, said the intelligence assessment summary released by the White House “is evidently an administration document, and the working master copy may have been in someone’s computer at the White House or National Security Council.”

Pillar suggested that senior intelligence officials might have signed off on the administration paper, but that the White House may have drafted its own paper to “avoid attention to analytic differences within the intelligence community.”

Comparable intelligence community assessments in the past, he observed – including the 2002 Iraq WMD estimate – include indications of differences in assessment among elements of the community.

An unnamed “senior administration official” briefing the news media on the intelligence paper on Aug. 30 said that the paper was “fully vetted within the intelligence community,” and that, ”All members of the intelligence community participated in its development.”

But that statement fell far short of asserting that all the elements of the intelligence community had approved the paper in question, or even that it had gone through anything resembling consultations between the primary drafters and other analysts, and opportunities for agencies to register dissent that typically accompany intelligence community assessments.

The same “senior administration official” indicated that DNI Clapper had “approved” submissions from various agencies for what the official called “the process”. The anonymous speaker did not explain further to journalists what that process preceding the issuance of the White House paper had involved.

However, an Associated Press story on Aug. 29 referred to “a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence outlining the evidence against Syria”, citing two intelligence officials and two other administration officials as sources.

That article suggests that the administration had originally planned for the report on intelligence to be issued by Clapper rather than the White House, apparently after reaching agreement with the White House on the contents of the paper.

But Clapper’s name was not on the final document issued by the White House, and the document is nowhere to be found on the ODNI website. All previous intelligence community assessments were posted on that site.

The issuance of the document by the White House rather than by Clapper, as had been apparently planned, points to a refusal by Clapper to put his name on the document as revised by the White House.

Clapper’s refusal to endorse it – presumably because it was too obviously an exercise in “cherry picking” intelligence to support a decision for war – would explain why the document had to be issued by the White House.

Efforts by IPS to get a comment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence suggest strongly that Clapper is embarrassed by the way the Obama White House misrepresented the Aug. 30 document.

An e-mail query by IPS to the media relations staff of ODNI requesting clarification of the status of the Aug. 30 document in relation to the intelligence community was never answered.

In follow-up phone calls, ODNI personnel said someone would respond to the query. After failing to respond for two days, despite promising that someone would call back, however, ODNI’s media relations office apparently decided to refuse any further contact with IPS on the subject.

A clear indication that the White House, rather than Clapper, had the final say on the content of the document is that it includes a statement that a “preliminary U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children.”

That figure, for which no source was indicated, was several times larger than the estimates given by British and French intelligence.

The document issued by the White House cites intelligence that is either obviously ambiguous at best or is of doubtful authenticity, or both, as firm evidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack.

It claims that Syrian chemical weapons specialists were preparing for such an attack merely on the basis of signals intelligence indicating the presence of one or more individuals in a particular location. The same intelligence had been regarded prior to Aug. 21 as indicating nothing out of the ordinary, as was reported by CBS news Aug. 23.

The paper also cites a purported intercept by U.S intelligence of conversations between Syrian officials in which a “senior official” supposedly “confirmed” that the government had carried out the chemical weapons attack.

But the evidence appears to indicate that the alleged intercept was actually passed on to the United States by Israeli intelligence. U.S. intelligence officials have long been doubtful about intelligence from Israeli sources that is clearly in line with Israeli interests.

Opponents of the proposed U.S. strike against Syria could argue that the Obama administration’s presentation of the intelligence supporting war is far more politicised than the flawed 2002 Iraq WMD estimate that the George W. Bush administration cited as part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006. Porter received the UK-based Martha Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

December 06, 2016
Anthony DiMaggio
Post-Fact Politics: Reviewing the History of Fake News and Propaganda
Richard Moser
Standing Rock: Challenge to the Establishment, School for the Social Movements
Behrooz Ghamari Tabrizi
Warmongering 99 – Common Sense 0: the Senate’s Unanimous Renewable of Iran Sanctions Act
Norman Solomon
Media Complicity is Key to Blacklisting Websites
Michael J. Sainato
Elizabeth Warren’s Shameful Exploitation of Standing Rock Victory
David Rosen
State Power and Terror: From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock
Kim Ives
Deconstructing Another Right-Wing Victory in Haiti
Nile Bowie
South Korea’s Presidency On A Knife-Edge
Mateo Pimentel
Some Notes and a Song for Standing Rock
Bill Fletcher Jr – Bob Wing
Fighting Back Against the White Revolt of 2016
Peter Lee
Is America Ready for a War on White Privilege?
Pepe Escobar
The Rules of the (Trump) Game
W. T. Whitney
No Peace Yet in Colombia Despite War’s End
Mark Weisbrot
Castro Was Right About US Policy in Latin America
David Swanson
New Rogue Anti-Russia Committee Created in “Intelligence” Act
George Ochenski
Forests of the Future: Local or National Control?
December 05, 2016
Bill Martin
Stalingrad at Standing Rock?
Mark A. Lause
Recounting a Presidential Election: the Backstory
Mel Goodman
Mad Dog Mattis and Trump’s “Seven Days in May”
Matthew Hannah
Standing Rock and the Ideology of Oppressors: Conversations with a Morton County Commissioner
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
#NoDAPL Scores Major Victory: No Final Permit For Pipeline
Fran Shor
The End of the Indispensable Nation
Michael Yates
Vietnam: the War That Won’t Go Away
Michael Uhl
Notes on a Trip to Cuba
Robert Hunziker
Huge Antarctica Glacier in Serious Trouble
John Steppling
Screen Life
David Macaray
Trump vs. America’s Labor Unions
Yoav Litvin
Break Free and Lead, or Resign: a Letter to Bernie Sanders
Norman Pollack
Taiwan: A Pustule on International Politics
Kevin Martin
Nuclear Weapons Modernization: a New Nuclear Arms Race? Who Voted for it? Who Will Benefit from It?
David Mattson
3% is not Enough: Towards Restoring Grizzly Bears
Howard Lisnoff
The Person Who Deciphered the Order to Shoot at Kent State
Dave Archambault II
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Statement on Dakota Access Pipeline Decision
Nick Pemberton
Make America Late Again
Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Coming War on China
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail