US officials not sure Assad ordered chemical attack

US officials not sure Assad ordered chemical attack
Fri Aug 30, 2013 09:43:50

The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus is no “slam dunk,” US intelligence officials say.

Most notably, questions remain over the existence of chemical weapons stores in Syria and whether Assad himself ordered the strike.

President Barack Obama declared unequivocally Wednesday that the Syrian government was responsible, while laying the groundwork for an expected US military strike.

“We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out,” Obama said in an interview with “NewsHour” on PBS.

“And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.”

However, multiple US officials used the phrase “not a slam dunk” to describe the intelligence picture – a reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet’s insistence in 2002 that US intelligence showing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk” – intelligence that turned out to be wrong.

A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining the evidence against Syria is thick with caveats. It builds a case that Assad’s forces are most likely responsible while outlining gaps in the US intelligence picture.

Relevant congressional committees were to be briefed on that evidence by teleconference call Thursday, US officials and congressional aides said.

The complicated intelligence picture raises questions about the White House’s full-steam-ahead approach to the Aug. 21 attack on a Damascus suburb, with worries that the attack could be tied to Al-Qaeda-backed militants later.

Administration officials said Wednesday that neither the UN Security Council, which is deciding whether to weigh in, or allies’ concerns would affect their plans.

In addition, an intercept of Syrian military officials discussing the strike was among low-level staff, with no direct evidence tying the attack back to an Assad insider or even a senior Syrian commander, the officials said.

So while Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that links between the attack and the Assad government were “undeniable,” US intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on Assad’s orders, or even completely sure it was carried out by government forces, the officials said.

Ideally, the White House seeks intelligence that links the attack directly to Assad or someone in his inner circle to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military decided to use chemical weapons without Assad’s authorization.

The uncertainty calls into question the statements by Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden.

“We know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons,” Kerry said. “We know that the Syrian regime has the capacity to do this with rockets. We know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday it didn’t really matter whether the administration knew those details with total certainty: “We ultimately, of course, hold President Assad responsible for the use of chemical weapons by his regime against his own people, regardless of where the command and control lies.”

The CIA, the Pentagon and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment, and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed serious concern with the expected military strike.

The Syrian Army strongly rejected any role in the alleged chemical attack, saying the accusations were fabricated to distract a visiting team of the UN chemical weapons experts and to cover up militants' losses.

The Syrian government also  provided the United Nations evidence on three chemical attacks carried out by terrorists groups on the outskirts of Damascus last week, asking for immediate investigations.

Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari said he had requested of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the team of experts currently in Damascus investigating an alleged use of chemical weapons last week also investigate these other attacks.

The attacks took place on August 22, 24 and 25 in Jobar, Sahnaya, and al-Bahariya, Jaafari told journalists on Wednesday.

On Thursday, British lawmakers voted down the prospect of any possibility of British involvement in a military campaign in Syria to leave the US alone in a potential strike.

By a 285 to 272 margin British MPs on Thursday rejected the government’s motion to support in principle military action against Syria.


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