WASHINGTON: One hour before House Armed Services Committee members were to receive a White House briefing on last week’s Syrian massacre of more than 1,400 civilians, the White House released an unclassified summary of intelligence about the attack concluding with “high confidence” that nerve agents were used in the chemical attack.
President Obama told reporters Friday afternoon that he is considering a “limited, narrow act” of military response to Syria but has not yet authorized the use of military force. “We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale,” Obama added.
HASC Chairman Buck McKeon, who has made it clear he must be convinced of the evidence of a chemical attack and why a US response might be needed, is sure to press White House officials for answers beyond those in the unclassified report above. But McKeon hasn’t had the chance to ask questions yet because a conference call scheduled for 2:15 didn’t occur. “Total amateur hour at the White House right now. The conference call crashed… members are not able to call in. WH says they are trying to fix it…,” a House staffer said in an email.
The White House summary bears all the hallmarks of a formal intelligence finding, using terms such as high confidence and “all source assessments.” One of the most interesting tidbits is the reference to “satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred…” That sounds likely to be a reference to intelligence from either DSP or SBIRS satellites, or a combination of the two. SBIRS data has been highly praised by leaders of Strategic Command and members of the intelligence community over the last few years. The satellite is designed to detect the initial flash of a strategic missile launch as well as to stare at tactical missile sites to detect their launch and path to target.
Secretary of State John Kerry just said whatever actions we take would not be like those in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. So that means cruise missiles, special operations troops, aircraft strikes or some combination thereto, with cruise missiles being the most likely simply they are highly accurate and are not manned.
“There are two things Senator Kerry left out of his remarks today and last night that give Chairman McKeon pause. First, what is the military objective that will achieve the political goal of deterring Assad. Second, what legal justification will the President use? The President ought to be able to answer those questions to Congress, but more importantly to the American people, before he determines his course of action,” a House Armed Services Committee staffer said in an email.
More on all this as events warrant.
Note to readers: the photo above shows the president using a tablet to read the Presidential Daily Briefing, the gold standard of the intelligence community. We don’t know yet, but he may have used one like this today. If the White House gets its way, Obama and his successors will get a briefing and be able to directly demand further information from the intelligence community using the tablet and to access background info on the main briefing.