What Does The White House's Released Syria Report Actually Say?
After more unplanned intelligence leaks than you could shake a stick at, the White House is now one step ahead — it's just leaked its own intelligence document.
Fresh from Secretary of State John Kerry's press conference Friday afternoon — in which he confirmed that the U.S. was preparing a "military response" to last week's chemical attack in Syria — the White House has declassified and distributed its intelligence file on the incident.
The document comes after a myriad of international powers, including Russia, China and the U.K., have either warned the U.S. to refrain from strikes until more evidence comes to light — or voted down motions to support them for the same reason. Kerry clarified what President Obama and Joe Biden had already noted: that the evidence suggesting that Assad is to blame for the attack is overwhelming.
The report is short — just 1500 words — and you can read it on the White House's official website here. Rather than describe evidence in detail, it tends to refer to it indirectly ("We have evidence that...") and isn't a game-changer, because it just reiterates what the White House has said so far — which is that their intelligence sources are credible, and that nobody but Assad had the capability to perform such an attack.
The report reads:
On August 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks. Our intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons.
Local social media reports of a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs began at 2:30 a.m. local time on August 21. We have identified one hundred videos attributed to the attack, many of which show large numbers of bodies exhibiting physical signs consistent with, but not unique to, nerve agent exposure. The reported symptoms of victims included unconsciousness, foaming from the nose and mouth, constricted pupils, rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing. Several of the videos show what appear to be numerous fatalities with no visible injuries, which is consistent with death from chemical weapons, and inconsistent with death from small-arms, high-explosive munitions or blister agents. At least 12 locations are portrayed in the publicly available videos, and a sampling of those videos confirmed that some were shot at the general times and locations described in the footage.
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. We have a body of information, including past Syrian practice, that leads us to conclude that regime officials were witting of and directed the attack on August 21. 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
Critics are asking why the hundred of videos of the attack haven't been presented to the public (though there remain ethical arguments against that) and why there remains a difference between indicating evidence ("We asses," "Our intelligence sources say," "We have identified") and actually revealing evidentiary sources. At the end of the report, it's noted that much information must remain top-secret because of the nature of the project.
After all, we've become accustomed to detailed information, courtesy of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. The White House's document seems vague in that light, but declassifying a document of that nature is a rare move for any administration. Certainly the public didn't have any such "insider knowledge" before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The White House also released the following map detailing the attack, which occurred in a suburb of Damascus:
Analysts have noted that Kerry's speech was riddled with warnings that a strike would, indeed, occur — even though he didn't state that plan conclusively one way or another. Kerry did however explicitly address the fear that Syria would be the next Iraq: it "will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, to Iraq or even Libya," Kerry promised.
Noted The Guardian: "Kerry said "history will judge us all extraordinarily harshly, if we turn a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction." That's not the kind of thing you say as prelude to doing nothing."
Kerry also or may not have been making a backhanded snub of the U.K. when he referred to France as "America's oldest ally," (which is a case that could be argued historically, and has been said by the administration before) and which is being called "a slap in the face" by U.K. media outlets.
In a separate interview Friday, Obama reportedly called the Syrian chemical attack "a challenge to the world," implying that America would will be the only power to stand up and face that challenge. He's promised that the United States is "not considering any open-ended commitment," and said he's "not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach."