Saturday, September 7, 2013

Is Intelligence Analysis of Syria Really Infallible?

Steve Sack / Minnesota Star Tribune, Cagle Cartoons
Steve Sack, Star Tribune.

    The Village Elliot is not impressed by Secretary Kerry's capsule summary of intelligence on the use of sarin gas in Syria.  In short this rationale is ten times weaker than the flawed rationale that led the US into Iraq. 
     What we are told is that there is physical evidence that sarin (a deadly neurotoxin) was indeed used in Syria and killed hundreds of people.  
     We are also told that the delivery system for the likely weapons originated in government controlled areas and that the target was in rebel controlled areas, and that the government undertook unspecified precautions before the delivery system was actually used.  Doesn't that prove that it was Assad who ordered the strike?

     Not to me it doesn't.  What it proves is that the local military may have been tipped off, perhaps by an informant.  

   The press reports that the Office of the Director for National Intelligence issued a report which acknowledges that the U.S. intelligence community does not know where Syria's chemical weapons are stored.  Also, there is no proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use, nor was any consideration allowed for rogue elements within the Syrian military.  This according to the Huntington Post citing two intelligence officials and two more U.S. officials.  ( ) . So there is some evidence behind President Obama's position, but it is by no means a "slam dunk" assessment.  

John Cole / Scranton Times-Tribune, Cagle Cartoons
John Cole / Scranton Times-Tribune, Cagle Cartoons

     There is no understandable motive based on the information given to date.  Assad's forces, by all accounts, were WINNING the skirmish with the rebels.  Why would they they randomly decide to use chemical weapons and invite the US and the West to support the rebels?  That would be stupid.   This part of the story makes no sense.  

     Note that there is not one group of rebels, but perhaps as many as a dozen, most of whom actually hate each other.  The most effective fighting force is said to be Al Qaeda.  Hence there are about eleven groups with a potential motive. 

     Another thing we don't know is the target of the gas.  Was it truly just a random strike on civilians at a random location? Were unarmed civilians the true targets?  Or were there some high profile persons involved?  I would like to know who the prominent persons were who were killed.  

     Moreover, the Russian KGB has gone public with their own assessment (prior to the attack) that terrorists such as Al Qaeda have chemical weapons.  They would be interested in having the government be blamed for using chemical weapons in order to trick the US into supporting their civil war efforts.  That is a potential motive.

    The US intelligence services pooh-pooh the KGB report.  However, it seems to me based on the records, the KGB is not too shabby, and the US intelligence agencies have produced major fiascos when the President leans on their advice. Beyond, that however, why would anyone doubt that Al Qaeda has chemical weapons?  And why would the US want to punish one chemical weapons holder and support another chemical weapons holder?  This rationale is so stupid that it is beyond belief.  I believe the American people should hold the President, Secretary of State and Intelligence Services accountable, and ask them to prove that Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are free and clean of chemical weapons as precondition before even considering the mad debate of intervening on their behalf against the Syrian government. 

Nate Beeler / Columbus Dispatch, Cagle Cartoons

Nate Beeler, Columbus Dispatch

    US policymakers like Secretary Kerry claim that the evidence is clear "beyond a reasonable doubt."  Well if you're going to use courtroom language, we may as well ask what kind of trial is carried out with thousands of prosecuting attorneys and zero defense attorneys?  It's no wonder that the intelligence agencies routinely issue false threat assessments, since there are no checks on what they say.  Remember when they said that the per-capita income in Communist East Germany was higher than the per-capita income in West Germany?  What a farce!  They also failed to foresee the fall of the USSR, believing that it was all a communist plot to get America to lower its defenses.  

     More recently, of  course, they have screwed up in assessing the existence of nuclear weapons and chemical weapons in Iraq under the Saddam regime.  They are not infallible. My sense is that the analysis at the lower levels is much more thorough and evenhanded, but as it goes up the chain of command it becomes more and more slanted until it hits the cabinet level.  But at that point all common sense seems to go out the window.  

    They now want us to believe that chemical weapons are being used by Syrian President Assad, and that there are all these political moderates in Syria that can be supported with American aid and military power.  Secretary Kerry reports that three fourths of the rebels are moderates who will become US allies in due course.  Only a small number are extremists or Islamists.  Oh boy!  What exciting news!  Can I have some of these moderates over to my house for dinner?

     This despite the fact that the press reports that Al Qaeda is the most effective anti-government fighting force, and nobody has actually interviewed or even seen one of these "moderates."  In short this is complete madness, and if Secretary Kerry can be so off base in his assessment about moderates in Syria, then he may well be wrong about many other things as well, including the true function of chemical warfare in Syria.  

"Maybe 15% to 25% might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys," Kerry said.
Something else that needs to be pointed out is that in a situation where the overwhelming majority of people hate the guts of the US, one way to strengthen Assad would be to say  something like, "Assad must go!"  Fear and loathing of the US may cause the opposite reaction from what is intended.  What exactly are we hoping will happen if we intervene in Syria?  This may be the subject of a future essay.  

For further reading:

Tal Toplin, "John Kerry: There are moderates in Syria,"  Politico 9/6/2013,  

Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 80 Updated - February 11, 2004, Edited by Jeffrey Richelson,  Originally posted December 20, 2002, 
Previously updated February 26, 2003.

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