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article imageOp-Ed: US intelligence assessment on Assad's use of chemical weapons

By Ken Hanly     Aug 30, 2013 in Politics
Damascus - The US has released a document providing the preliminary assessment of the alleged chemical weapons attack on Damascus suburbs recently.
This article consists of just a few preliminary observations on the information provided in the document. The entire original document is available here. Before reading the document several factors should be kept in mind.
First, this document consists of selectively declassified material. The practice of selective declassification is a favorite tactical move by the Obama administration in the constant use of psychological warfare techniques to convince the public of the merits of the government's policies. The move was almost transparent with the drone program. The ACLU cannot even get confirmation that the program even exists through the courts,, yet the New York Times and other news sources manage to get considerable information about the program: "Additional information about the drone program appeared in The New York Times and Newsweek in 2012, relying on bits of information provided secretly by officials.
Through these journalistic accounts, Americans have been able to glimpse a slightly fuller picture of the lethal program. They learn about administration officials who wrestle with difficult questions about the killings but nevertheless show discretion in the strikes.
At least that is the image of the program — and of the government officials — that has been promoted through the leaks to journalists. The portrayal has been largely positive."
The document assessing the chemical weapons attack in Damascus is meant to assist the administration in convincing the public and legislators that the Assad regime perpetrated a dastardly chemical attack, rendering Kerry's moral outrage, and Obama's plan to punish Assad justified.
Secondly, the reader should realize that there are huge omissions in the document. Although the document states categorically that they found no evidence that the rebels used chemical weapons there is no attempt to address the ample evidence that they have. Although the intelligence about the conversation between a Syrian defense department official and a chemical field commander is mentioned as an important part of the evidence, there is no indication that this intelligence was provided by Israel although plenty of sources including in Israel have attested to this. There are other aspects of this communication that are crucial but omitted from the document. I will consider that later but first I want to provide an example of what we surely should consider spin.
The preliminary assessment by the US government is that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack including at least 426 children. Notice that the exact number is given. Surely they really cannot be certain of an exact number both of general casualties and children. The aim is to give the impression that there is exact knowledge of what happened. The other feature that strikes me here is that the number is huge at the very far end of the scale. Most groups put the death toll in the hundreds, the high hundreds or a thousand at most. The main group that comes close to the US tally is the Syrian National Coalition who actually issued a report on the attack:The six-page SNC report claimed that more than 1,500 Syrians died in the missile attack, and approximately 5,000 were injured. Other reports have estimated fewer casualties. The coalition lacks the definitive knowledge of US intelligence but it is right up there in the same range well above most reports. I would conclude that the US assessment is probably inflated and stated in a way to suggest that the US knows the exact tally--and just think of all those 426 dead children as well.
Another main issue with the report is the description of the communication between a Syrian Defense Ministry official and a field commander of a chemical unit. An important part of the evidence the US document claims is an intercepted communication: 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 and was concerned with the U.N.inspectors obtaining evidence
This intercept was provided by Israeli intelligence according to sources such as the Guardian: The 8200 unit of the Israeli Defence Forces, which specialises in electronic surveillance, intercepted a conversation between Syrian officials regarding the use of chemical weapons, an unnamed former Mossad official told Focus. The content of the conversation was relayed to the US, the ex-official said.
Part of the conversation is also given in Foreign Policy: Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, 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
Other sources such as Times of Israel say that Israel provided intelligence on this conversation to the US. What is left out in the US account is why the Ministry Official was phoning the commander. It seems clear that he was not aware of the attack and demanded answers. It would be nice if we had the actual transcript translated of the Israeli intercept but it is unlikely we ever will. The part left out in the US report places the attack in an entirely different context and is evidence that superiors in fact did not know about the attack contradicting a key claim of the intelligence assessment.
The report also leaves out the fact that some chemical experts claim the videos of the treatment of the victims and their condition indicate that whatever chemical was used, it was unlikely to be the weapons grade sarin that Assad has in his stockpiles. Of course the US did not need to wait until the UN inspections gave a clearer idea what the chemical weapon might be and of what grade. Using its own data the US already knows that it was sarin from Assad's stockpiles.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about chemical weapons use in Syria, Syrian civil war, US response to chemical attack
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