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Obama's weak assessment, weak evidence to attack Syria

September 1st, 2013

Michael Collins
The intelligence assessment sent to Congress by President Obama supports the president's request that Congress authorize military action against Syria. The assessment consists of a series of assertions about evidence available without any display of that evidence. The materials are "classified," according to the document. That means we won't see the evidence. It also means that Congress can't investigate or debate the quality and reliability of the evidence in public since that would reveal classified information.

Since the chemical incident on August 21, the White House has argued with increasing confidence that the Syrian government was responsible for initiating the attack.

Along with the request, the White House included a document describing the evidence used by the President to reach his conclusion on responsibility for the attack. The document is titled, U.S. Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013. This document is the foundation for the president's plan to attack Syria. As such, it is worth a serious look.

Evaluation of the document requires understanding the following:

1) There is no proof in the document. It is a series of assertions without any evidence attached. There are no photographs, diagrams, or exhibits. There are only assertions of proof, which are unpersuasive absent some more detail.

2) A major portion of the presumed direct evidence evaluated by the administration comes from sources that want and, in some cases, need a U.S. attack on the Syrian government. Evidence from rebel factions would carry a heavy bias. Any foreign intelligence agencies in rebel territory would, likely, be sympathetic to the rebels. The rebels have been losing and need help.

Key arguments offered in the president's "Assessment" document sent to Congress

Degree of confidence

"The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013. "

The report begins by stating that the Obama administration has "high confidence" about the nature of the attack and the perpetrator.

"Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation."

"High confidence" does not equal "confirmation." Aren't there paths to confirmation, for example, the United Nations inspectors report? Is the administration sharing their data with the UN team investigating the incident? Why wouldn't the administration wait for the UN report in hopes of getting "confirmation?"

Classified evidence that we, the public, will never see

"… the regime used a nerve agent" The "all-source assessments are based on human, signals, and geospatial intelligence as well as a significant body of open source reporting." The assessments are "classified" but have been "shared with Congress.

The assessment that a "nerve agent" was used comes from multiple sources. Congress will receive the information, which is "classified." The clear implication is that we will not be able to review and evaluate the information.

Since the material is "classified," any debate or committee hearings on the evidence must be conducted in private . To do otherwise would risk the release of classified information.

Ruling out the rebels as a source of the attack

"We assess that the scenario in which the opposition executed the attack on August 21 is highly unlikely."

"…the regime’s preparations for this attack and its means of delivery, multiple streams of intelligence about the attack itself and its effect, our post-attack observations, and the differences between the capabilities of the regime and the opposition. "

"...the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year"

The government is blamed for the attack. In addition to the already referenced satellite images, the report implies that the rebels have not used chemical weapons and lack the ability to do so. But. is that so?

These claims ignore the reports of Carla del Ponte of the UH Human Rights Commission who said that rebel groups likely used chemical weapons, sarin gas specifically, in a March attack near Aleppo, Syria. If accurate, that implies that the rebels have delivery capabilities for chemical weapons.

Assessment opens up the consideration of motivation

"We assess that the regime’s frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus may have contributed to its decision to use chemical weapons on August 21."

This is, perhaps, the weakest point of the entire assessment. When you consider motivation, one question comes up immediately: Why would the Assad regime undertake a highly provocative attack using chemical weapons when a) the government was winning battles all over the country for the past two months and b) a UN weapons inspection team was already in Damascus to investigate past claims of chemical weapons use? The regime was preparing an attack on the rebel held areas of Damascus but it was hardly desperate. One could argue that the rebel groups were in a truly desperate situation - losing battles to the government on a regular basis and different rebel factions attaching each other.

Satellite imagery from the U.S. but not other sources

"Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred."

We should see the imagery and also imagery from Russian satellites, which supposedly found just the opposite.

Crowd sourcing a collection of videos some of which may be fake

"We have identified one hundred videos attributed to the attack."

"We assess the Syrian opposition does not have the capability to fabricate all of the videos, physical symptoms verified by medical personnel and NGOs, and other information associated with this chemical attack."

This implies some of the videos are fabricated. How many videos does the rebel movement "have the capability to fabricate"? How could the administration know that?

Intercepted communication from the Syrian government

"We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence. On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations."

Leaked intelligence from the Obama administration showed that "an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people." Foreign Policy, August 27 This could be interpreted to indicate that the Syrian government officials didn't know what was going on. This is hardly a "slam dunk" proof of culpability.

In addition, Craig Murray, the United Kingdom's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, made a critical observation. The best listening facility by far in the region of Syria is the UK Troodos facility in UK Troodos facility in Cyprus, Murray noted. He pointed out that this facility would surely have picked up the alleged phone conversations quoted by the Obama administration. Murray asked why this information was not part of Prime Minister David Cameron's case for attacking Syria before the House of Commons. This is a good question, a factual question that should be settled before any further claims are made.

Let the public have the evidence for a full examination of the basis for the claims made by the president. This is our country. Congress and the president work for us. They are "public servants." They need to start acting that way, particularly when the citizens of the United States are overwhelmingly opposed to any military action in Syria.

END

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