Keep Us in the Loop

The White House should release the evidence of Syria's chemical weapons attack.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty Images
Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty Images
Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty Images

Well, that doesn't seem to have gone very well.

Well, that doesn’t seem to have gone very well.

Over the past week, the United States and its allies have begun to make their case for a limited military strike against the Syrian government.

The United States, the United Kingdom, and France have all released documents claiming that the Syrian army conducted a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which the United States claims killed more than 1,400 men, women, and children. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron, and President François Hollande have all given speeches (although Cameron’s did not have quite the effect he anticipated). And on Sept. 3, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey trudged up to Capitol Hill to persuade reluctant senators of the merits of a military response.

In light of these developments, I believe two things — and suspect a third. First, that the Syrian government gassed its own people on Aug. 21. Second, that the United States should conduct a limited military strike to degrade Syria’s ability to launch further attacks and to punish the Assad regime. But third and most importantly, I suspect that all these documents and speeches haven’t persuaded anyone who did not already believe the first two things.

After the United States and Britain released documents claiming that Assad used chemical weapons, I complained that they were disappointing. The approach of the documents, as well as senior officials, has been one of smug assertion, livened up with purple prose about the horrors taking place in Syria. The United States asserts that the Syrians have chemical weapons, used them on Aug. 21, and killed more than 1,400 people. In some cases, U.S. officials deign to assert that certain types of evidence exist to support these claims. What the United States has not done is provide the evidence itself — the satellite images, communications intercepts, and other data that would allow a fair-minded observer to reach the same conclusion on more than blind faith in the competence and integrity of our political leaders and intelligence services.

On the whole, the United States and its allies have failed to provide new evidence beyond the awful videos available on YouTube and the testimony of nongovernmental groups such as Doctors Without Borders — evidence that, I hasten to add, I find compelling, if circumstantial. If anything, the recent performance by Kerry, Hagel, and Dempsey convinces me that the administration’s approach will not change despite growing complaints that the evidence is too thin to convince reluctant interventionists. (And, no, curating these inadequacies at a little website doesn’t count.)

The Obama administration does not understand the two important ways that public opinion has changed since 2003.

First, the sales job that preceded the Iraq War generated a level of popular cynicism about our political leaders and the intelligence community that is astonishing. (And, over the past decade, our political leaders haven’t exactly behaved in ways that might have restored a sense of public trust.) It is hard to demonstrate how fundamentally the invasion of Iraq damaged our collective faith in our political institutions. One way is to ask, "What do we find funny?" There is a strong relationship between humor and those truths that are hardest to express plainly, which is why we describe both as being painful. There haven’t been many films in recent years funnier than Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop, which recounts the madness of the effort to sell the Iraq War from a British perspective. In the Loop is funny precisely because we suspect our political leaders are crass and venal, even on questions as important as war. Yet, I don’t think our political leaders understand that is how many people view them. You should watch the real Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor, confront his fictional alter ego, Malcolm Tucker, in a special viewing arranged for him. As Tucker spins Britain into war, much to the horrified delight of moviegoers, Campbell sits stone-faced. He does not find Tucker nearly as funny as the rest of us, which I think is very telling. The truth hurts.

The second problem relates to the amount of information we have at our fingertips. We have become accustomed to a deluge of open source information, not the dribs and drabs offered by intelligence communities worried about sources and methods. The press is agog over a fellow named Eliot Higgins, who blogs under the name Brown Moses. Higgins has been documenting the appearance of a new Syrian artillery rocket that seems to be linked to many purported chemical weapons attacks. The Guardian, Channel 4, and CNN International have all carried stories on this man, who started blogging about Syrian armaments when he "knew no more about weapons that the average Xbox owner." (That’s his description, by the way.) Other sites maintained by N.R. Jenzen-Jones and Jean Pascal Zanders, independent researchers in Australia and Europe, also offer a level of detail that goes well beyond what the security trolls allow to appear in official documents. Most readers expect that the "real" intelligence paid for by tax dollars will be much more compelling than the stuff they get for free on various blogs. When the official stuff doesn’t measure up, readers can get sort of surly.

So what to do about all of this? Well, one thing we should not do is cram another horrible litany of lies, half-truths, and distortions into a PowerPoint presentation. I don’t think many people are going to be persuaded by something that overtly resembles such a low point in U.S. foreign policy. Besides, I don’t think we can persuade Colin Powell to agree to star in the sequel. For better or for worse, people don’t hold our political leaders in much esteem, nor are they much impressed by the sort of de minimis unclassified statements on offer.

So here is a modest proposal: Why not just release the vast majority of the evidence? We have a transcript of some Syrian army officer being ordered to gas Ghouta? Release it. (Newsflash: The Syrians know we monitor their communications.) We have satellite images of the units in place during the attack? Release them. (Another newsflash: Other countries know we have imaging satellites with very high resolution.) Release the vast majority of data, with basic information and commentary that would allow the rest of us to make up our own minds.

The purpose of such a data dump is to let independent nongovernmental organizations and private citizens to independently assess what happened in Syria. One of the nice things about having a vibrant civil society is that there are experts all over the country who have something to add to this conversation. I know people at the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Council on Foreign Relations, Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and, of course, the Monterey Institute of International Studies who would read every word, look at every picture, and listen to every audio recording. Of course, so might old ladies in Dubuque and unemployed Frank Zappa fans in Leicester. That’s okay — you might be surprised by how much they know.

This shouldn’t be so difficult for the "most transparent administration in history" right? Yes, that’s sarcasm. I know how hard and long American officials fought each other before the Obama administration declassified the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile in 2010. The administration tied itself in knots over the release of one measly number — something it did once and never again. The bureaucratic barriers to transparency remain significant, almost comically so. The administration, for example, just released a heavily redacted intelligence report on Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities — from 1985. (I suppose the good news is that we can send Airwolf to take out the sites.)

The point of a significant data dump — excluding, of course, information from human sources who are still in Syria and therefore could be put in danger — is that it would be the opposite of a sales job. What the administration needs at this point isn’t more overwrought language about the horrors in Syria, but credible and independent validators. There are a fair number of people who’d like to turn their eyes away from what’s happening in Syria. These people won’t openly endorse the various conspiracy theories floating around the Internet, but they wave their hands about seemingly minor differences in the data — or claim inconsistencies that don’t exist — as an excuse to air deeper suspicions that the government might be making all this up.

That seems pretty irresponsible to me, but it goes to a deeper problem. After Iraq, lots of people do worry the government might be making this all up. That’s paranoid, of course, but there has long been a streak of the paranoid in American politics. Building a consensus behind acting in Syria requires more than the government saying "trust us." It requires engaging civil society and the public at large to demonstrate the depth and strength of the intelligence. My suspicion is that doing so — by releasing the data — would not disappoint but instead mobilize a significant number of independent voices that would support the administration’s case for acting in Syria.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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