By David Wise
The long shadow of the faulty, hyped intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq has posed a huge barrier to President Barack Obama's efforts to win public and congressional support for a limited missile strike against Syria.
Remember the "mushroom cloud?" Both President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, used that terrifying phrase, invoking images of a nuclear holocaust, to push America along the road to war.
The CIA issued a now-infamous National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 that said Iraq "is reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program and that Saddam Hussein had supplies of sarin, VX and other lethal chemical weapons, as well as biological weapons, "including anthrax" and perhaps even "smallpox."
None of it was true.
Now Obama wants to strike Syria in response to what all signs point to as the Assad regime's chemical weapons attack on August 21 against opposition areas around Damascus. But according to opinion polls, the American public, weary of war in the Middle East, opposes military action by a large majority. Congress is, in turn, divided.
Underlying the skepticism about launching a U.S. military attack to punish and perhaps deter Syria from future use of chemical weapons are deep doubts over the intelligence that the Obama administration is citing. If the White House and the CIA were so wrong 10 years ago, the public is in effect saying, why should we believe them now?
There are important differences between the intelligence fobbed off on the public to justify the 2003 Iraq war and what is being said by government officials today. For one thing, the Syrians essentially admitted Monday that they have chemical weapons, when they started talking about turning them over to the international community. Nonetheless, the U.S. intelligence on Syria still leaves some critical unanswered questions.
The CIA estimate on Iraq a decade ago contained flat statements about weapons of mass destruction that it said Baghdad possessed. Yet it offered no tangible evidence to back up its claims. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had been a respected military leader, went before the United Nations with photographs and other material to try to buttress the administration's case.
It later turned out, however, that some of his key assertions were based on fabricated data from a defector code-named "Curveball," who claimed to be an eyewitness to Iraq's production of biological weapons in mobile labs. When the CIA had sought to interview the source, whose reports were provided by the German intelligence service, it was told: "You do not want to see him because he's crazy."
Powell later said he deeply regretted his U.N. performance and called it a "blot" on his record.
In contrast, in 2013, the intelligence is supported by images on television of large numbers of what appear to be bodies, wrapped in white cloth and lined up in rows — including many small children. Video shows other victims gasping for breath or in convulsions. That these are real images, not staged for the cameras, is attested to by physicians on the scene, most persuasively by Doctors Without Borders.
The humanitarian international medical organization, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, is widely respected for its work in treating casualties of wars and natural disasters. Doctors Without Borders said that three hospitals it supports in the eastern Damascus area reported that some 3,600 patients with "neurotoxic symptoms" had been admitted in the first three hours of August 21 and that 355 of those had died.
Neurotoxic means a toxin that destroys nerves — which fits the description of nerve gases. Two of the most deadly are sarin and VX. Secretary of State John Kerry says evidence of sarin was found in the area of the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria.
A single drop of sarin on the skin, or inhaled, can cause death within minutes. Sarin and similar nerve agents block the action of a key enzyme in the body that controls brain function, breathing and muscles. Unable to breathe, victims convulse and die.
According to a summary of intelligence about the attack released by the White House August 30 and cited by Kerry, a preliminary U.S. estimate counted 1,429 dead, including at least 426 children.
While the evidence that a major chemical weapons attack occurred is supported by the videos and reports from medical personnel, some opponents of a retaliatory military action by the U.S. question whether the Syrian government was responsible — which Assad denies — or the rebels.
The White House intelligence assessment said it is confident that the Syrian government carried out the attack, and finds it "highly unlikely" that the rebels did it. In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Kerry said, "Not one rocket landed in regime-controlled territory. Not one. All of them landed in opposition-controlled or contested territory."
But so far, the administration has not released any solid evidence to prove its case that Assad ordered the deadly attack. It says it has provided more information in classified briefings to members of Congress — but that data is not available to the public.
Where the intelligence might be more persuasive, it is weakened by the administration's refusal, so far at least, to make public what it claims were "intercepted communications" in which "a senior official…confirmed that chemical weapons were used" and was "concerned" that the U.N. inspectors would obtain the evidence.
Whenever the CIA or the National Security Agency wants to avoid releasing important information it invokes the need to preserve "sources and methods." But after the continuing revelations by Edward Snowden, the fugitive former NSA contractor, now in Russia, it is hardly a secret- if it ever was — that the NSA and similar agencies in other countries eavesdrop on and "intercept" communications.
Intercepted communications, normally highly secret, are sometimes leaked when it suits the government's purposes. When Korean Airlines Flight 007 was shot down in 1983, killing all 269 passengers and crew, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation and played the tapes of a Soviet fighter pilot reporting to ground control as he tracked and destroyed the aircraft. Three years later, excerpts of NSA intercepts were leaked to the Washington Post as evidence that Libya was responsible for the bombing of a Berlin discotheque that killed three people, including two American servicemen. When Reagan spoke on television to announce the bombing of Libya by U.S. forces, he closely paraphrased the intercepts.
The Snowden case may be a hidden factor in the Obama administration's reluctance to release the intercepts on Syria. The administration would like to prosecute Snowden for disclosing NSA secrets, which might make it awkward for Obama to reveal the intercepts.
Yet the administration's proposed military attack on Syria is a critical foreign policy issue that has divided the nation. Under the circumstances, it is puzzling that the White House cites the intercepts as proof of Syria's use of chemical weapons but has not released them.
(David Wise writes frequently about intelligence and espionage. His most recent book is "Tiger Trap: America's Secret Spy War with China." His other books include "Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America.")