The White House’s Syria secrets

WASHINGTON — John Kerry was making his “beyond a reasonable doubt” case against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday when he gave lawmakers a bit of faulty intelligence.

“Just today, before coming in here, I read an email to me about a general, the minister of defense, former minister or assistant minister, I forget which, who has just defected and is now in Turkey,” the secretary of state testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “And there are other defections that we are hearing about because of the potential that we might take action.”

A few minutes later, Kerry revised his account: This official-sounding “email” was actually a Reuters news account about a former defense minister based on a claim by the Syrian opposition. “Reuters has now said the Syrian government is saying the defection has not taken place,” Kerry said. “So who knows whether it has or hasn’t?”

Who knows?

This is the problem with the case the Obama administration is making for attacking Syria.

Officials say the evidence is incontrovertible that Assad used sarin gas against his people. Lawmakers emerging from secret, classified briefings seem to agree. But while members of Congress are coming around to an attack on Syria, the American public remains skeptical. Why? Maybe it’s because the government won’t let them in on the secret.

The public heard about another “slam dunk” case a decade ago and, then as now, Democratic and Republican lawmakers agreed that the secret evidence was compelling. And it turned out to be wrong. Now, administration officials are telling Americans to trust their assurances that the secret evidence is convincing and that their war planning is solid. But they won’t provide details.

Estimates of collateral damage? “Lower than a certain number which I would rather share with you in a classified setting,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers.

Response of the Arab and Muslim countries? “This is something I’d be happier discussing in greater detail with you in the closed session,” Kerry said.

Safeguards to keep military action limited? “We can talk about that in a closed session,” Dempsey said.

How would Russia and other Syrian allies respond to a U.S. strike? “We all agree that that would be best handled in a classified session,” Kerry said.

No, we don’t all agree.

The administration’s case against Assad may well be airtight. Walter Pincus, The Washington Post’s longtime intelligence correspondent, tells me he hasn’t heard the sort of doubts from the intelligence community that he heard during the run-up to the Iraq War. The problem is that the refusal to declassify evidence helps opponents such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin cast doubt on the intelligence. The administration is hiding behind the protection of “sources and methods” — but is any foe still unaware of the National Security Agency’s satellite and intercept capabilities?

Pincus argues for releasing the intercepts that describe the Syrian regime using the weapons and then ending the barrage, and the satellite imagery showing preparations for an attack and the firing of rockets from Assad-controlled territory. But instead of declassifying, administration officials are being ostentatious about their secrecy, as if protecting their club’s secret handshake.

“TOP SECRET/CLOSED,” said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s notice for Wednesday’s hearing. “CLOSED,” said the Senate Armed Services Committee’s notice. In “open” testimony Tuesday and Wednesday, the officials encouraged lawmakers to save their questions for secret sessions.

Arming the Syrian opposition? That “would require a closed or classified hearing.” The broad effects of the military strike? “I would prefer to speak out in a classified setting.” Could Hezbollah have chemical weapons? “We need to talk about that in our classified session.” Would allies join an attack? It “would not be appropriate to speak about in an unclassified setting.” Could an attack make Assad use chemical weapons again? “I urge you to go to the classified briefing.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, Kerry said that “beyond a reasonable doubt, the evidence proves that the Assad regime prepared this attack.” He then dangled this: “In an appropriate setting, you will learn additional evidence which came to us even today.”

But isn’t it “appropriate” for the American public to see some hard evidence? During Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., asked for the administration to “declassify a higher percentage of the information that we have so the American people and the international community can see it.”

Kerry said that the amount declassified is “unprecedented” and that what’s out there now is “sufficient.”

He may think so. But it’s not sufficient until the American public believes it.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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