Syria: The Administration’s Attribution Failure

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Reuters confirms something that I have long suggested: the government doesn’t know who ordered the CW attack in Syria on August 21.

The Administration’s best case tying Bashar al-Assad to the attack, through the Scientific Studies and Research Council, consists of speculation that the group may be involved and apparent specific knowledge that the head of the organization was not involved.

A declassified French intelligence report describes a unit of the SSRC, known by the code name “Branch 450”, which it says is in charge of filling rockets or shells with chemical munitions in general.

U.S. and European security sources say this unit was likely involved in mixing chemicals for the August 21 attack and also may have played a more extensive role in preparing for it and carrying it out.


U.S. officials say Amr Armanazi, a Syrian official identified as SSRC director in a State Department sanctions order a year ago, was not directly involved. [my emphasis]

This is what every government has used as central proof; yet even here they appear to just assume that because SSRC controls Assad’s CW they probably were involved.

Remember, we’ve already had anonymous admissions that the intelligence community isn’t really sure who controls Assad’s CW; nor do they know what happened when rebels took over a location where weapons had been stored.

Over the past six months, with shifting front lines in the 2½-year-old civil war and sketchy satellite and human intelligence coming out of Syria, U.S. and allied spies have lost track of who controls some of the country’s chemical weapons supplies, according to the two intelligence officials and two other U.S. officials.

U.S. satellites have captured images of Syrian troops moving trucks into weapons storage areas and removing materials, but U.S. analysts have not been able to track what was moved or, in some cases, where it was relocated. They are also not certain that when they saw what looked like Assad’s forces moving chemical supplies, those forces were able to remove everything before rebels took over an area where weapons had been stored. [my emphasis]

And months ago, the government worried a rogue officer might launch Assad’s CW.

So on multiple occasions the intelligence community has raised ways — rebel capture, non-authorized capture on the Syrian side, or rogue officer — in which CW might be released against Assad’s wishes. Yet their case tying this attack to Assad relies on mere assumptions that none of those things have happened, even while they know the chain of command did not operate as it normally would have.

With all that in mind, consider the implications in this Alan Grayson op-ed. He explicitly reports the Administration has provided no more than a 12-page classified summary. He suggests the summary doesn’t refer to individual social media reports and, given the rules imposed by Mike Rogers, he would be unable to take notes on which social media reports it referred and cross-check them.

Per the instructions of the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, note-taking is not allowed.

Once we leave, we are not permitted to discuss the classified summary with the public, the media, our constituents or even other members. Nor are we allowed to do anything to verify the validity of the information that has been provided.

Remember, the Administration’s own map betrays some doubts that the social media reports, at least, would all hold up. If the Administration has simply decreed that no one can check their claims (remember, these are social media reports, and therefore not classified!), it suggests those doubts are now much stronger.

Then Grayson points to the same intercept that has provided the strongest proof that the attack came from within the regime, albeit launched without the authorization of the chain of command.

The danger of the administration’s approach was illustrated by a widely read report last week in The Daily Caller, which claimed that the Obama administration had selectively used intelligence to justify military strikes in Syria, with one report “doctored so that it leads a reader to just the opposite conclusion reached by the original report.”

The allegedly doctored report attributes the attack to the Syrian general staff. But according to The Daily Caller, “it was clear that ‘the Syrian general staff were out of their minds with panic that an unauthorized strike had been launched by the 155th Brigade in express defiance of their instructions.’ ”

I don’t know who is right, the administration or The Daily Caller. But for me to make the correct decision on whether to allow an attack, I need to know. And so does the American public.

In the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Grayson asked that this intercept be declassified. There were reports the Administration would declassify select intercepts, but thus far it hasn’t happened.

In short, the Administration is so sensitive about their case they’re unwilling to allow members of Congress check even the open source parts of it, and any means of tying the attack to Assad relies on assumptions and an intercept that seems to undermine their case.

Which is why the Administration is invoking on a theory it would never apply to itself: that because Assad is Commander in Chief of his military, he must be held accountable for any actions taken by someone in his military, even if done without authorization.

Here’s what accountability for chain of command in the US military looks like, from just yesterday.

The Marine Corps has dropped criminal charges against an officer accused in connection with a YouTube video showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, the Marine Corps Times reports.

Capt. James V. Clement, the only officer criminally charged in the case, instead will face a Board of Inquiry that will determine an administrative punishment, the website said. He’s accused of “substandard performance of duty, misconduct, and moral or professional dereliction.”


Clement is not seen in the YouTube video but faced charges of dereliction of duty, violation of a lawful general order, making false statements to an investigator and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman for failing to supervise junior Marines, failing to stop the misconduct of junior Marines and failing to report misconduct.

We’re not even willing to hold an officer accountable for making false statements about the desecration of corpses caught on tape, much less the President himself. (Remember, too, the President went to great lengths to hide a memorandum of notification that, among other things, amounted to a direct order from Bush that CIA cooperate with Syria in torturing Maher Arar and others.)

And yet, with at least some evidence that the chain of command didn’t want this attack, and with an absence of any evidence directly tying Assad to it, we’re still planning on starting a war over it.

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.

37 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    I would like to know why it’s so fucking important that we attack Syria, when we have no real idea what’s going on inside their civil war.
    If it’s so fucking important to Israel and Saudi Arabia, they can have the honor of enlarging the war.

  2. allan says:

    “I don’t know who is right, the administration or The Daily Caller.”

    … provides much needed comic relief.

  3. Frank33 says:

    Per the instructions of the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, note-taking is not allowed.

    Once we leave, we are not permitted to discuss the classified summary with the public, the media, our constituents or even other members. Nor are we allowed to do anything to verify the validity of the information that has been provided.

    We have secret evidence, and secret wars and secret enemies. Mike Rogers is guilty of treason. Rogers is aiding and abetting terrorism with his lies and propaganda. This new Syria Disaster is a war created by Hayden, Clapper, Brennan, and the Secret Government. Obama and his allies, are the Coalition of the Willing. Obama’s allies include Mike Rogers, Dougie Feith, KKKarl Rove, the Kagans, Heroic Generals and their Women who all play supporting roles.

    And maybe Graham Fuller and Ollie North play supporting roles.

  4. orionATL says:

    “..the Administration is invoking on a theory it would never apply to itself: that because Assad is Commander in Chief of his military, he must be held accountable for any actions taken by someone in his military, even if done without authorization..”


    of course not, otherwise barrack and chelsea would be doing time together in leavenworth.

    one set of rules for american powerboys; another, very flexible, set of rules for the rest of the world.

  5. SpanishInquisition says:

    “Which is why the Administration is invoking on a theory it would never apply to itself: that because Assad is Commander in Chief of his military, he must be held accountable for any actions taken by someone in his military, even if done without authorization.”

    If Obama actually believes this, he should be serving Manning’s time because he would be responsible for what Manning did. It would be nice if the media started asking him about his criminal culpability for Wikileaks given how Obama wants to not just hold another sovereign to that standard, but to go and kill people in that sovereign country based on that standard.

  6. Susan Nelson says:

    Marcy, I saw a couple of things on Twitter this morning that may be of interest. One, the veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity think that the CW evidence may be cooked up by the rebels. Two, website hosted by Some Dude I know nothing about posits that the real objective is getting a natural gas pipeline built through Syria to hurt Gazprom. He has a lot of links to other sources fwiw.

  7. orionATL says:

    “who shot the gas in syria” will surely become a textbook example of how difficult it is to gather detailed, accurate intelligence,

    how many different sources are needed and need to be checked against each other,

    and how absurd and deceitful it is for presidents, and dni’s, and generals to assure us that the nsa’s collection of every byte of internet communications, together with some hidden technological magic message massage, will allow the u.s. to know what is happening and has happened in syria, or boston, or somalis, or yemen, or ……

    there is absolutely no need for or benefit from the existing nsa behemoth. as currently funded and designed, it is no less than a military/security bureaucracy con and a politician’s slush fund.

  8. joanneleon says:

    VIPS, a group of retired intelligence professionals, who spoke out before the Iraq war and questioned the intelligence that Bush/Cheney were using, have stood up again on Syria and have issued another letter.

    Col.Pat Lang has a post about it. He was on the original VIPS but has since left the group though he sometimes joins them in things and he’s signed on this one, saying he is a “co-drafter and signer of this appeal”.

    I think this is a really BFD. For anyone who hasn’t read it already, you should stop what you’re doing and read the full letter, IMHO. This is just the excerpt that Lang chose to put in his post. There’s more in the full letter and some of it is specific to John Brennan.

    VIPS Warning to POTUS on Syria intelligence

    “We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed because your advisers decided to afford you the opportunity for what is commonly known as “plausible denial.” We have been down this road before – with President George W. Bush, to whom we addressed our first VIPS memorandumimmediately after Colin Powell’s Feb. 5, 2003 U.N. speech, in which he peddled fraudulent “intelligence” to support attacking Iraq. Then, also, we chose to give President Bush the benefit of the doubt, thinking he was being misled – or, at the least, very poorly advised. Secretary of State John Kerry departs for a Sept. 6 trip to Europe where he plans to meet with officials to discuss the Syrian crisis and other issues. (State Department photo) The fraudulent nature of Powell’s speech was a no-brainer. And so, that very afternoon we strongly urged your predecessor to “widen the discussion beyond … the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.” We offer you the same advice today…”

  9. newz4all says:

    a couple of things non-Syria

    Doubts raised about independence of White House panel on NSA privacy

    NSA Can Spy on Smart Phone Data

    SPIEGEL has learned from internal NSA documents that the usa intelligence agency has the capability of tapping user data from the iPhone, devices using Android as well as BlackBerry, a system previously believed to be highly secure.

  10. newz4all says:

    sounds like Glenn is gonna sh*t all over the nsa / usa / usg / 0 again real soon.

    One big problem the NSA and US government generally have had since our reporting began is that their defenses offered in response to each individual story are quickly proven to be false by the next story, which just further undermines their credibility around the world. That NSA denial I just excerpted above has already been disproven by several reports, but after Sunday, I think it will prove to be perhaps the NSA’s most misleading statement yet.

  11. newz4all says:

    After disclosures about the National Security Agency’s stealth campaign to counter Internet privacy protections, a congressman has proposed legislation that would prohibit the agency from installing “back doors” into encryption, the electronic scrambling that protects e-mail, online transactions and other communications.

    Representative Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who is also a physicist, said Friday that he believed the NSA was overreaching and could hurt American interests, including the reputations of American companies whose products the agency may have altered or influenced.

    “We pay them to spy,” Mr. Holt said. “But if in the process they degrade the security of the encryption we all use, it’s a net national disservice.”

    Google encrypts data amid backlash over NSA spying program

    The Web giant is racing to make it more difficult for outsiders to intercept user information.

  12. orionATL says:

    apparently this article is an effort to take a slap at the nytimes for publishing information on a government program the author, zarate, had been associated with – the swift banking network.

    instead, i find it a detailed, enormously revealing story about how the federal government’s press-secretaries and public information employees go about defending the government from secret activities and manipulating information to the their agency’s advantage.

    i would assume a lot of what we are hearing from the whitehouse, state, and “intelligence” agencies about the syrian situation, or the nsa revelations, has been crafted in a similar way.

  13. newz4all says:

    Yahoo says usa sought data on 40,332 user accounts in 2013

    Yahoo said Friday that it has received 12,444 requests for data from the usa government so far this year that covers the accounts of 40,322 users overall.

    Yahoo Releases Its First Government Transparency Report

    Yahoo on Friday released its first government transparency report showing the number of requests about Yahoo users that it has received from global government agencies.

    The United States led the number of requests, with 12,444 data requests that included 40,322 Yahoo accounts, the report said. Yahoo handed content-related data, including communications in Yahoo Mail or Messenger, photos on Flickr or Yahoo Address Book entries, over to American agencies in 4,604 cases. The company gave the government non-content related information, which includes a person’s name, location or Internet Protocol address, in 6,798 cases. The company declined only 2 percent of the requests to share the information.

    When Yahoo Gives User Data to Governments, Mapped

    The company breaks down the data for each country in which it has a separate presence (excluding those countries where government made fewer than nine such requests).

  14. Frank33 says:


    Eleizabeth OBagy is the lapdog du-jour for the Syria War Hoax. Her war propaganda is supported by us taxpayers. Elizabeth OBagy is a paid shill for the Institute of War. Who would lead an Institute for War? A Kagan of course. All the Kagans are in the secret government and all the Kagans want to be Spymasters. They get taxpayer money for promoting war. They pay OBagy to catapult the propaganda. Sadly, Vickie Nuland Kagan has been thrown away like a soiled dish rag.

    Aces McCain took time from playing computer poker, to read the propaganda of Obagy out loud. We should ask if the Wall Street Journal gets a government subsidy for spreading government disinformation.

    McCain read part of O’Bagy’s piece out loud during a Tuesday Senate hearing and asked Kerry if he agreed with the writer’s findings. Kerry said he mostly did. “The fundamentals of Syria are secular and will stay that way,” he told McCain. The following day, Kerry said it was a “very interesting article” and suggested members of Congress read it.

  15. bell says:


    ot – that yahoo data paints an unfavourable picture of yahoo users in canada! is that a result of canada’s present gov’ts willingness to support the usa’s and nsa’s movement towards no privacy, or?

  16. newz4all says:

    @bell: Canada’s involvement is due to this >

    The United Kingdom – United States of America Agreement is a multilateral agreement for cooperation in signals intelligence between the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The alliance of intelligence operations is also known as Five Eyes (FVEY). It was first signed in March 1946 by the United Kingdom and the United States and later extended to encompass the three Commonwealth realms of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The UKUSA Agreement was a follow-up of the 1943 BRUSA Agreement, the World War II agreement on cooperation over intelligence matters. This was a secret treaty, allegedly so secret that it was kept secret from the Australian Prime Ministers until 1973.

    The agreement established an alliance of five English-speaking countries for the purpose of sharing intelligence, especially signals intelligence. It formalized the intelligence sharing agreement in the Atlantic Charter, signed in 1941, before the entry of the US into the conflict.

  17. newz4all says:

    Activists call on NY Times, ProPublica to release unredacted NSA information

    Several privacy and tech activists are calling on the New York Times and ProPublica to release unredacted documents in the wake of their report about how the National Security Agency is able to break encryption codes.

    After the story broke on Thursday, Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and a senior policy analyst with the ACLU, tweeted out a call to journalists to name the algorithm at risk:

    Christopher Soghoian @csoghoian

    Journalists: if the public’s using broken crypto, name the algorithms. Don’t leave us vulnerable in the name of protecting sources & methods

    4:50 PM – 5 Sep 2013

  18. newz4all says:

    Manipulated by power: What is wrong with the New York Times?

    The government is manipulating facts. There’s no credible evidence on Syria. Why is the Times pretending otherwise?

    well, we are sure that we can think of some answers ….


    isreal, perhaps?

    aipac, to be sure.

    the 51st state once again doing that “Let’s you and him fight” thing that they do so well – worked in Iraq and Libya – why not take another swing at the piñata???

  19. newz4all says:

    Bill Moyers Program: Deborah Amos on Syria’s Refugee Crisis

    The revolt in Syria has created a refugee crisis beyond that country’s borders — a “disgraceful humanitarian calamity” and “the great tragedy of this century,” according to the United Nations. Deborah Amos, a veteran National Public Radio correspondent, joins guest host Phil Donahue for a discussion about the human toll of the Syrian fighting, and the potential impact of millions of displaced people on the region.

    Deborah Amos has reported on the Syrian civil war since it began and has been on the front lines and in the refugee camps. She tells Phil Donahue, “The crisis is so overwhelming. 5,000 people leave every day. Five thousand people in Syria are killed every month. You have an entire generation of Syrians who find themselves displaced in refugee camps. So this is not a crisis that goes on for the next year, but for the next generation. The great powers have got to find a way to stop this war, because the refugee crisis cannot be solved without them.”

  20. John Ellis says:

    Obama — Why no motive?

    Comes now President Putin to state a motive:
    “Rebel forces launched the chemical attack in order to provoke
    an international military strike against Assad’s forces.”

    Whereas, not only Obama but all of his Administration, all of his military generals, all of the corporate funded Democrat and Republican Parties and all of corporate owned or funded mainstream media — all a grand blackout on motive.

    Of course, for it is impossible to state a logical motive for why Assad would use deadly chemicals knowing full will that the whole world including his military would turn against him. From winning his war against terrorists hired by Saudi Arabia, to being bombed back to the stone age by Empire USA, how impossibly insane could any such motive be?

  21. William Rood says:

    It’s worse even than this article admits. In The Daily Caller report, it reveals that when the genera staff called the unit commander in panic, the unit commander replied that he had NOT launched a chemical attack and that all his munitions were intact. I read somewhere, don’t remember if it was The Daily Caller, that the Syrians investigated and found that the unit commander was telling the truth and in fact his weapons had not been used.

  22. Jessica says:

    “Which is why the Administration is invoking on a theory it would never apply to itself: that because Assad is Commander in Chief of his military, he must be held accountable for any actions taken by someone in his military, even if done without authorization.”

    So charge him in the International Court, or whatever the right venue/phrasing is for that process. At what point will someone say that the way to peace is through peaceful means, not weapons. I mean, seriously – what is the plan? To drop bombs on the chemical weapon stores? If they were planning to kill Assad, which I’m not suggesting or endorsing in the slightest, at least that would logically follow the administrations stated grievance. We are never going to find a peaceful solution through violence. It’s insanity!

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