The Case for War: Since When is Médecins Sans Frontières a Secret Intelligence Source?

There are a couple of new developments in the case for war. Most notably, a Syrian — whose former position has been described variously as head of forensic evidence in Aleppo and some medical role in Bashar al-Assad’s CW group — defected, carrying documents proving that a March attack in Aleppo was CW. Of course, that’s the March attack, not the August 21 one. And it’s not yet clear that it answers the attribution question behind all reports of CW in Syria. (I’d also repeat that every defection — particularly one that happens at such a convenient time 6 months after the atrocity that might explain it — ought to raise questions about the loyalty of the insiders in positions of authority in Assad’s government.)

Meanwhile, Walter Pincus — who wrote some of the best pieces questioning the Iraq intelligence but has been rather credulous on the NSA of late — argues that the US won’t get away with hiding its case behind a sources and methods case.

The Obama administration has to declassify more detailed intelligence on Syria’s chemical weapons usage to bolster support in Congress for using U.S. armed forces to deter any future Syrian government use of those weapons.

More evidence is also needed to maintain the administration’s integrity at home and abroad.

President Obama’s critics question the legitimacy of the administration’s intelligence assessment of “high confidence” that the Syrian regime carried out the Aug. 21 attacks. Some point to the George W. Bush administration’s cherry-picked intelligence during its four-month campaign in late 2002 to promote the invasion of Iraq.

There is a key difference. U.S. intelligence in 2002 was used to show by inference that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and might use them. Bashar al-Assad has chemical weapons, and U.S. intelligence apparently proves that his forces used them.


Today is a time of great mistrust of government at home and abroad, and that has to be recognized. The old claim about holding back evidence to protect U.S. intelligence’s “sources and methods” no longer works.

And McClatchy (which purchased Knight Ridder along with a bunch of journalists who had also debunked the Iraq intelligence before the war) has a piece pointing out public information that challenges some of this same information.

I’ve mentioned this previously, but I’m especially curious about the Administration’s potentially inflated claims about the number of dead. Here’s how McClatchy lays that out.

Another point of dispute is the death toll from the alleged attacks on Aug. 21. Neither Kerry’s remarks nor the unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence he referenced explained how the U.S. reached a tally of 1,429, including 426 children. The only attribution was “a preliminary government assessment.”

Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, took aim at the death toll discrepancies in an essay published Sunday.

He criticized Kerry as being “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” of 1,429, and noted that the number didn’t agree with either the British assessment of “at least 350 fatalities” or other Syrian opposition sources, namely the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has confirmed 502 dead, including about 100 children and “tens” of rebel fighters, and has demanded that Kerry provide the names of the victims included in the U.S. tally.

“President Obama was then forced to round off the number at ‘well over 1,000 people’ – creating a mix of contradictions over the most basic facts,” Cordesman wrote. He added that the blunder was reminiscent of “the mistakes the U.S. made in preparing Secretary (Colin) Powell’s speech to the U.N. on Iraq in 2003.”

An unclassified version of a French intelligence report on Syria that was released Monday hardly cleared things up; France confirmed only 281 fatalities, though it more broadly agreed with the United States that the regime had used chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack.

Another eyebrow-raising administration claim was that U.S. intelligence had “collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence” that showed the regime preparing for an attack three days before the event. The U.S. assessment says regime personnel were in an area known to be used to “mix chemical weapons, including sarin,” and that regime forces prepared for the Aug. 21 attack by putting on gas masks. [my emphasis]

I’m especially interested by the potentially inflated number given the way the White House case introduced it.

In addition to U.S. intelligence information, there are accounts from international and Syrian medical personnel; videos; witness accounts; thousands of social media reports from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area; journalist accounts; and reports from highly credible nongovernmental organizations.

A preliminary U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children, though this assessment will certainly evolve as we obtain more information.

I confess, when I first read this and followed its presentation on Twitter, I believed the casualty numbers were attributed to the “highly credible nongovernmental organizations” referenced in the previous sentence, not “a preliminary US government assessment.” That had me perplexed because there are two potential organizations that might comment on casualties: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which, as the bolded language in McClatchy’s account makes clear, says there have been 502 dead (at the time the White House presented their case, I don’t think they had yet come up with an estimate). Or Médecins Sans Frontières, which had reported the number of 355 by that point, but emphasized they couldn’t confirm the cause of death in these cases.

Three hospitals in Syria’s Damascus governorate that are supported by the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have reported to MSF that they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21, 2013. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.


“Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to MSF doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress,” said Dr Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations.

Patients were treated using MSF-supplied atropine, a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms. MSF is now trying to replenish the facilities’ empty stocks and provide additional medical supplies and guidance.

“MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” said Dr Janssens. “However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterised by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.” [my emphasis]

And that’s significant because the only piece of intelligence from an NGO specifically mentioned (though not by name) in the White House case was MSF.

Three hospitals in the Damascus area received approximately 3,600 patients displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure in less than three hours on the morning of August 21, according to a highly credible international humanitarian organization.

The only other mention of NGOs I see is this one, which again seems to include MSF.

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.

The MSF 3,600 number was almost always reported with the 355 number. And the White House case quotes the MSF release, almost verbatim. If the 3,600 is credible, then the 355 number should be treated as credible too.

But the Administration used the 1,429 number, several times the casualties either the Brits or the French or either of the two highly credible NGOs cite.

Just as important, though, is the Administration’s treatment of the MSF number. There was nothing secret about MSF’s hospital admissions number — the release with almost the same language as that used in the White House case is right there on its website.

And yet the Administration treated it — a public fact — with the same vagueness as it treated its purportedly sensitive source and method intelligence. This may be, in part, an effort to avoid angering MSF, which I think said explicitly its numbers shouldn’t be used to make the case for war. In addition, if the US had cited MSF, it might have had to cite a lot of the social media accounts, some of which even the Administration seems aware may not be credible. (The French, by contrast, simply picked 6 social media accounts to post with its intelligence case.) Hiding the source for the 3,600 number also hides what is an implicit Administration admission that a highly credible NGO says there were just 355 deaths among those three hospitals.

More importantly, though, the Administration’s treatment of MSF reflects badly on both the decision to hide its sources and methods (because we know that it is hiding sources for reasons other than to protect intelligence) and the portrayal of credibility laid out in its report. MSF is one of the only sources cited as “highly credible” in the Administration case. I agree it is highly credible, but the Administration had no reason to hide that it was MSF (except in case MSF asked it not to use their numbers, but if so, it used one of their numbers anyway). Not only didn’t the Administration not tell us what that highly credible public source was, but it obscured that that highly credible source also offered dramatically different numbers on number of dead.

But, along with other hidden known sources, it appears to be an attempt to seed credibility in obscurity, in the Administration’s performed access to have much better intelligence than we have. It’s as if the Administration hides even public sources to accord its case a kind of magic.

Ultimately, the dispute over the number of dead is moot as to the seriousness of the attack (unless we have reason to believe the numbers got inflated through rebel propaganda and the US used it in their case).

It was a serious attack.

But it does demonstrate several fundamental credibility problems with the government’s case as presented.

Update: Thanks to TheMomCat for posting MSF’s follow-up comment which insists its numbers should not be used to justify war.

Last Saturday, MSF said that three hospitals it supports in Syria’s Damascus governorate had reportedly received 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms, of which 355 died. Although our information indicates mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent, MSF clearly stated that scientific confirmation of the toxic agent was required and therefore an independent investigation was needed to shed light on what would constitute, if confirmed, a massive and unacceptable violation of international humanitarian law. MSF also stated that in its role as a medical humanitarian organisation, it was not in a position to determine responsibility for the event.


Now that an investigation is underway by UN inspectors, MSF rejects that our statement be used as a substitute for the investigation or as a justification for military action. As an independent medical humanitarian organisation, MSF’s sole purpose is to save lives, alleviate the suffering of populations torn by Syrian conflict, and bear witness when confronted with a critical event, in strict compliance with the principles of neutrality and impartiality.

30 replies
  1. C says:

    A few months ago David Frum made an offhand comment about the war in Iraq. He said that it wasn’t that they worked it out but to paraphrase him, that “at some point they had just decided to do it”, that is there was never an attempt to determine why or a specific event or revelation that triggered the decision just a point at which they had already decided to do it and were then engaged in justifying that decision. And from that point on, according to Frum, questioning the decision was unthinkable.

    That is what is happening here.

    Months ago Obama declared that Assad must go. Now they have an event in hand to validate it but they are “sexing it up” as needed. Ultimately the “credibility” on the line is not ours but his and like Cheney and Rumsfeld he is going to make it happen democracy be damned.

  2. jerryy says:

    Since the administration is able to determine the death count with such precision, does this mean next time one of their drone attacks occur, they will also be able to tell us exactly how many civilians are killed?

    It does seem like some folks are not going to be happy until the lands are stained red by the rivers of blood washing over them.

  3. TheMomCat says:

    Needless to say MSF is pissed and issued this statement on their website

    Syria: MSF statements should not be used to justify military actions
    Response to the US administration and other governments referring to MSF Statement of August 24

    28 August 2013 – Over the last two days, the US Administration and other governmental authorities have referred to reports from several agencies, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), while stating that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was “undeniable” and to designate the perpetrators. MSF today warned that its medical information could not be used as evidence to certify the precise origin of the exposure to a neurotoxic agent nor to attribute responsibility.

    Last Saturday, MSF said that three hospitals it supports in Syria’s Damascus governorate had reportedly received 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms, of which 355 died. Although our information indicates mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent, MSF clearly stated that scientific confirmation of the toxic agent was required and therefore an independent investigation was needed to shed light on what would constitute, if confirmed, a massive and unacceptable violation of international humanitarian law. MSF also stated that in its role as a medical humanitarian organisation, it was not in a position to determine responsibility for the event.

    Now that an investigation is underway by UN inspectors, MSF rejects that our statement be used as a substitute for the investigation or as a justification for military action. As an independent medical humanitarian organisation, MSF’s sole purpose is to save lives, alleviate the suffering of populations torn by Syrian conflict, and bear witness when confronted with a critical event, in strict compliance with the principles of neutrality and impartiality.

    The latest massive influx of patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in Damascus governorate comes on top of an already catastrophic humanitarian situation facing the Syrian people, one characterised by extreme violence, displacement, the destruction of medical facilities, and severely limited or blocked humanitarian action.

  4. klynn says:


    Thank you for posting.

    Key in that statement is, “…an investigation is underway by UN inspectors, MSF rejects that our statement be used as a substitute for the investigation or as justification for military action.” Sounds like humanitarian aid is what is needed.

    All this just as Jack Bauer and 24 are coming back on tv…

  5. c says:

    @Bay State Librul: No I’m not saying that all presidents think alike (although other historical parallels such as the Spanish American War do exist). For the present I am really arguing that this case mirrors the Iraq case in that the administration decided to go to war and then began looking for a public reason.

    Team Obama may very well believe that they have a better secret reason that noone else will see, such as weakening Iran and Russia and shoring up Israel’s border. They may also believe that their internal deliberations are different than those of Cheney and Rumsfeld. But the fact remains that the public debate and congressional posturing (I refuse to call what is happening authorization or deliberation, it is neither) is proceeding in the opposite direction and that this attack came long after Obama ordered Assad to go thus putting “credibility” on the line before the stated reason took place.

  6. Bay State Librul says:


    Yes. Obama has taken a huge risk.
    He might seek to minimize the risk when we see the final vote and language.
    His credibility is definitely on the line.
    Let’s hope things go well.

  7. klynn says:

    EW, it might be good to update your post with the statement from MSF.

    It is a powerfully worded statement. And, spot on.

  8. C says:

    @Bay State Librul: Based upon preliminary reports about the AMUF being considered (see other articles here) minimization is not the goal.

    Ultimately I think the best outcome would be for Obama to lose the vote like David Cameron and for us to focus on other things. His personal credibility is not the issue, at least for me. The health of America’s democracy and economy are and another rushed mideast war will harm both.

  9. Eureka Springs says:

    In re the defector, there are a few comments over at MOA which deserve a bit more scrutiny/consideration than I have time to do. Begin at #43 thru #46

    43 says the following:

    That supposed defector that was to give a press conference in Turkey? The Syrian opposition has cancelled that planned press conference with chemical weapons official who it claimed was ready to announce his defection. He says Abdel Tawwab Shahrou is “head of medical services in Assad’s chemical warfare branch” and also “head of Aleppo forensics”.

    Khalid Saleh, spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said Abdel Tawwab Shahrou could not attend the event “due to security concerns” BUT
    the avid Syria blogger Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, points to reports that Shahrou was reported to have been kidnapped by insurgents two weeks ago.

  10. Bay State Librul says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head.
    The latest research shows 48% of American people definitely against air strikes, 29% for, and 23% don’t know.
    The conundrum for me is that I saw the gas footage and it nauseated me.
    I saw and felt the Boston Marathon bombing and wanted justice.
    I guess the best thing is turn the other cheek and let legalities of the
    chemical warfare issue slip by and verbally denounce it.
    We are sick of war.
    I know I am…..
    Hopefully, democracy will play out.

  11. FrankProbst says:

    It looks like Boehner and Cantor are now with the Surge Sisters (sans Lieberman) in terms of backing military intervention. A lot of people are going to have egg on their face if Congress doesn’t pass some sort of resolution on this.

  12. C says:

    @Bay State Librul: Well I don’t see not firing missiles as the same as “turning the other cheek.” Given how things went in Iraq I see it more as “not making the problems worse.”

    Sadly I’ve lost faith in the ability of Obama, or more importantly the DOD, to plan for things like “What to do tomorrow” and so while I think the chemical weapons use is wrong I have yet to be convinced that whatever Obama plans to do will make it any better. If we are really focused on alleviating suffering alone then donating the cost of the cruse missiles that would be used to MSF might be a better way to go at least right now. It certainly would be less taxing to our national credibility.

  13. Frank33 says:

    And here is the real reason for the newest war. If we do not attack Syria, then North Lorea, Iran, Hezbollah and others would be “emboldened”. Yet another government falsehood for another war.

    They would be emoboldened to attack their own people. Or perhaps they would use poison gas and weapons of mass destruction against others. The US government does not do that, with the exception of depleted uranium, and white phospherous, and a few others.

    George Little is a chicken hawk who helped lead interagency attempts to capture Bin Laden. He failed at that. But Chicken Hawk Little also worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, which makes him a terror profiteer. All the people who support these wars profit from them, such as Little.

    #SecDef and #SecState emphasize in #Syria hearing that taking no action against CW use could embolden Iran, Hezbollah, NK, and others.— George Little (@PentagonPresSec) September 3, 2013

  14. emptywheel says:

    @TheMomCat: Thanks so much for linking to that! I knew they had said something like that but had to run out before I looked far enough on their site to find it.

  15. P J Evans says:

    Last time I remember hearing something like that, it was the ‘domino theory’ that if South Vietnam became Communist, all of southeast Asia would do so. Kerry damned well ought to remember that one.

  16. GKJames says:

    Why would the Administration let itself be drawn into the numbers debate in the first place? The offense for which Washington wants to punish and deter is the act of USING chemical weapons. Doesn’t that make the body count secondary? Unless, of course, it’s a matter of the usual itchy Washington trigger fingers overselling the case.

  17. Frank33 says:

    We have been at war with East Asia and with Syria forever or at least since 2008. That is when the US Military sent a message to Syria. The message was, Americans are murderers. American secret soldiers murdered seven innocent civilians.

    The President has been ordered to do more atrocities in Syria by his Bankster Overlords.

    On October 26, 2008, U.S. helicopters stormed a farm near the Iraq-Syria border in order to assassinate leading al-Qaeda operative Abu Ghadiya. One year later, the authors report from Syria that the raid may have been botched, and the lives of seven innocent civilians were mistakenly taken instead.

  18. orionATL says:


    thanks to momcat for the posting about msf’s disclaimer, to klynn for suggesting an update, and to ew for recognizing the importance of and making that update.

    considering the extreme risk these medical personnel are exposed to “sans” any u.s. spotlight, and the extreme need for their assistance by syrian medical personnel (e.g., supplying atropine),

    it was truly repugnant that the american president and his support staff would use or mention msf at all. there was NO need for that statistic to be broadcast or for any related reference to msf.

    i am reminded, in anger, of the cia’s uncaring, ruthless use of pakistani physician afridi to conduct a FAKE vacination campaign to help pinpoint o. bin-laden’s location.

    and reminded in greater anger of the consequences for the world health organization polio eradication/vacination program in pakistan. in places the taliban stopped vacination; in places they simply gunned down (often) women and men health workers who were trying to help eradicate this health scourage from one of its last redoubts.

    if anything conveys president obama’s gang’s ruthless, amoral drive for political “success” better than the exploition of msf in a domestic numbers racket intended to influence the congress, i can’t think what that example might be.

    i do hope the president’s and his women and men, with their stated great concern for “morality in war” sewn on their sleeves, are asked about their morality in exposing msf to brutal retaliation, and likely leaving injured civilians in need of supplies and attention, struggling in the web of this proxy war.

  19. earlofhuntingdon says:

    One more war in the Middle East. Quite a track record for our Nobel peace prize-winning president.

    What’s it all about, Mr. Obama? Surely, it’s not about the US using its WMD’s to chastise another country for using its WMD’s without our permission.

    Is it about our claim to control the world’s oil spigot, and our right to dole out oil only to those who acknowledge our supremacy? Or is it about regime change in Syria, proving again that something is true only after the US repeatedly claims it’s false?

    Is it about keeping Israel, our supposed ally, from starting war first? That would be the tail wagging the dog, an elegant feat of leverage that has the purported imperial master maintaining its credibility only when it does its tributary’s bidding. Or is this just another page in the playbook of the Project for the New American Century (“Century” being crude code for Empire)?

    It sure isn’t about saving Syria’s people (or others in the Middle East) from death by WMD; it will only hasten that end.

  20. AndyB says:

    I’m really amazed that, in the discussion of sarin gas, some obvious truths are being (perhaps disingenuously) omitted. Exposure to Sarin results in almost instantaneous death, even to the bodies or clothes of the victims WITHOUT ADEQUATE PROTECTIVE BODY PROTECTION. If sarin was the culprit, all MSF, and their assistants would be dead.

  21. Clayton says:
    U.S. Backed Syrian Opposition YEARS BEFORE Uprising Started
    “Seven countries in five years”
    Former Bush official: Syria resolution could authorize attack on Iran and Lebanon
    The Administration’s Proposed Syria AUMF Is Very Broad [UPDATE on Ground Troops]

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