Sources and Methods: A Case for War

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 2.26.03 PMI’m going to do a more detailed discussion of what the Administration just released as its case to unilaterally and illegally start bombing Syria.

For now, I wanted to point out something that stuck out to me. The map the Administration released — purportedly to show that the location of the strikes were logical Syrian government targets — includes a curious caveat.

Note: Reports of chemical attacks originating from some locations may reflect the movement of patients exposed in one neighborhood to field hospitals and medical facilities in the surrounding area. They may also reflect confusion and panic triggered by the ongoing artillery and rocket barrage, and reports of chemical use in other neighborhoods.

It suggests the US government is uncertain whether these sites are all actual attack sites; it may even reveal USG knows some of these locations may not, in fact, be attack locations.

Remember, the UN inspectors, who are not mentioned at all in the government’s case, will ultimately have forensic evidence from these sites.

All that said, consider how the number and location of sites plays in the case itself.

Local social media reports of a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs began at 2:30 a.m. local time on August 21. Within the next four hours there were thousands of social media reports on this attack from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area. Multiple accounts described chemical-filled rockets impacting opposition-controlled areas.


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.

That is, the USG points to the sheer number of social media reports as proof that the attacks really happened, because the Syrian opposition couldn’t have faked them all.

And yet the USG’s own case suggests that those locations may be inaccurate, even though the locations are portrayed in the videos.

One more note: the government points to satellite imagery showing that attacks from regime controlled areas attacked some — but only some — of the areas in which there were reported attacks.

Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred – including Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah.

That leaves out 7 of the reported attack sites, and only includes one entirely rebel-controlled site: Kafr Batna (taking the map at its word on who controls what).

For the moment, I mean that as nothing more than an observation.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

23 replies
  1. JThomason says:

    Very curious reasoning. There doesn’t seem to be much if anything linking the evidence to Assad or discounting the Rebels as the perpetrators. That the Opposition could not launch a large scale social media disinformation campaign really doesn’t answer the question of who launched the attack.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @JThomason: Not to mention the fact that the one thing the rebels HAVE been good out throughout is launching large scale social media disinformation campaigns. But then they have help.

    There’s other stuff on who launched the attack. Lots of rumors about totally different things, too.

  3. JThomason says:

    @emptywheel: I have been monitoring the Col. Lang crowd. Still questions about the provenance of the online videos and the SigInt relied upon by Kerry over there.

    Edit: I should be clearer. The provenance of the SigInt is being questioned. The videos don’t seem to show Sarin induced symptoms and nearly as many casualties as claimed.

  4. orionATL says:

    so what role has our mighty and indispensible nsa played in obtaining confirmatory evidence of syrian govt involvement?

    only tweets?

    no overheard govt conversations?

    no military orders conveyed by voice or document?

    only tweets and video publicly available to arab speakers?

    and all i got was this lousy t-shirt.

  5. JThomason says:

    “We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact, and actually was afraid that they would be discovered.” ~ First Point in the Kerry speech. This has been around all week arising out an Israeli newspaper report in the first instance and has been considered by many as inconclusive. I have not seen the talk of the delay in letting the inspectors in and shelling the neighborhoods in any previous discussion I have accessed.

  6. JThomason says:

    So what if Gavlak’s Ghouta story is corroborated by the UN Inspectors? Do Obama et al. turn their focus to Saudi Arabia?

  7. der says:

    That the USG can know the exact fatality count, 1429, from this confusion but would not speculate on the number killed in a CIA drone strike also raises questions of intel reliability.

  8. P J Evans says:

    Kerry’s speech was unconvincing to a lot of people. Obama’s speech was, apparently (I was out), even less so: Kos says that a sternly worded letter would be as useful, and kill a lot fewer people.

  9. JThomason says:

    One other point. How does a satellite discern whether an attack is conventional or CW? I understand that this is proffered as corroboration yet it also strikes me that it is not so odd that the Regime would be attacking Rebel controlled areas.

  10. emptywheel says:

    @JThomason: Right. At least SOME of the videos resemble earlier propaganda videos. I think that’s where we’ll end up: w/casualties closer to the British numbers (500) than USG numbers (and note they hedge there, too, which suggests they know it’s high). W/some of hte locations verified as an attack of some sort–though probably not full blown sarin–but not other locations.

    That will probably blur the picture more than it is here, but nothing more.

  11. Frank33 says:

    “In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack,” said a U.S. intelligence report the Obama administration released Friday.

    What a great Intelligence Community. They are so tuned into outlaw regimes, that they know days ahead of time there will be a Sarin gas attack. Do they share troop movements and Order of Battle of Assad’s army with their Al Qaeda allies in Syria? Probably not, or Al Qaeda would have won the civil war.

    But I do not believe anything about this convenient excuse for neo-con conquest of the Middle East. Maybe it is just all disinformation. Maybe the Intelligence Community fabricated this terror as they fabricated the terror of Operation Gladio in Europe.

  12. earlofhuntingdon says:

    A picture is worth a thousand words. Great PR, however false, to show lots of colored areas, to imply bad things happened there.

    As you say, it is pretty telling when the first try out of this PR explicitly caveats that the map intentionally chosen to illustrate harm may be a lie. Worse, we may not know it’s a lie. But we will use it anyway, as a pretext to launch our own weapons of mass destruction? (We have more of those than the rest of the world combined.)

    That sounds like a war crime to me, not a necessary step to forestall preventable international harm. It’s OK, though, because Mr. Obama will have bipartisan support to do whatever he wants from a Congress that will avoid authorizing him to do it, despite the fact that launching American WMD’s to prevent someone else from using their WMD’s would be an act of war.

  13. orionATL says:

    o.t. to the present topic, but in the cybersecurity ballpark,

    nsa isn’t the only part of gov handing out big bucks for cyber security.

    our dept of homeland security is handing out $6 billion, apparently to help federal civilian agencies improve cybersecurity.

    federal times, 8/26/13 ( ol 46,no 16)

    “dhs kicks off $6b cyber program” by nicole blake johnson

  14. ess emm says:

    The MSM media seems to be taking Kerry at face value. Nobody was calling bullshit.

    And just who is making the case against the strikes on TV? on CNN I saw batshit crazy Imhofe say we cant go to war because Obama has degraded the military so much we dont have the capability. Evidence isnt even brought up.

  15. tjallen says:

    I think the doubt is about the perpetrators, not the chemicals themselves, (though there are some questions about that. too). MSF doesn’t get involved in saying who did it.

  16. tjallen says:

    There are a couple of issues, chemical and political, about the agent used. The US wanted to find sarin, because people have heard of it and are afraid of it. What good would it be to say we found 1-3 cis di-buro-mumbo-jumbo, if no one knows what it is?

    Also, we needed to find some chemical that we (US govt or industry, or the French) did not sell to them, but one that had internal or maybe Russian, ROK or soviet origin.

    Another problem is age – any soviet munitions are too old, would have leaked or degraded over time, and might not have been as deadly as expected. Also the expertise for the use of old weapons have mostly aged or died by now. Since a large number of people were killed, the munitions were at least partially effective, so unlikely to be very old.

    So even if the story is real, it is most likely been “shaped” for our ears.

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