We now have unclassified fact sheets from the White House and the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in the United Kingdom.
These guys don’t get it.
Let me be clear: I think a Syrian military unit most likely used chemical weapons in support of an offensive to retake a portion of the Damascus suburbs. I also support a one-off military strike of limited duration to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and to punish the unit or units responsible, as well as the regime as a whole.
These documents, however, do not fulfill the democratic responsibility of either the US President or the UK Prime Minister to make a compelling, public case for the use of force. C’mon people, you can do better than this.
My initial impression is that my government, as well as its counterpart in the United Kingdom, simply does not understand the widespread public cynicism about the competence and integrity of political leaders and the intelligence community. All one has to do is watch Armando Ianucci’s magnificent film In the Loop to understand the damage done by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Perhaps some of this skepticism is unfair. Well, life is unfair.
As I was reading the JIC letter, and then the White House Fact Sheet, I kept remembering lines from In The Loop, and its preceding television series The Thick of It. None of these quotations are remotely safe for work. The closest one to publishable contains two instances of the most useful English word starting with F and a unfavorable scatalogical comparison in order to make the point that, as intelligence trade craft goes, this is rather closer to David Niven than Sean Connery. (The fact that this is the cleanest choice says something about the Caledonian Mafia — the characters of Malcom Tucker and Jamie McDonald, played by Peter Capaldi and Paul Higgins. The phrase I like best, about the quality of a speech to be given, is completely unprintable beyond the fragment “is wearing your appendix.”)
The White House Fact Sheet is 1,455 words and a map. The JIC letter is shorter and, frankly, worse. Both documents exude a sense of smug authority. Judgements are rendered — “We assess with high confidence that …” or have “concluded that it is highly likely that…” — while alluding to the existence of sources and methods –“…streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence…” or a “limited but growing body of intelligence.”
Some of this is simply how the intelligence community writes for policy makers. (That’s another conversation for another day.) But as a public case for military action, these documents are terribly disappointing. They suggest that our relevant organs, as it were, understand neither how little inherent credibility they possess nor the changing expectations of a population that is deluged with information. This sort of fact sheet might have worked a decade ago in 2003. Of course, that’s the problem.
There is very little new evidence in either release beyond the compelling circumstantial evidence already available to anyone with internet access and last week’s leak to Noah Shachtman regarding an intercepted communication.
As best I can tell, there are new assertions that SSRC (aka CERS) personnel prepared chemical weapons over the course of three days prior to the attack, that Syrian forces conducted a rocket artillery barrage, and that forces were ordered to desist with chemical attacks on the afternoon of the 21st. These assertions are said to be backed by firm intelligence that must, of course, be protected from scrutiny. The closest thing to a new, damning detail is the claim of “intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with inspectors obtaining evidence.”
Compare the US and UK fact sheets to the sort of conversation that is occurring in public. Look, for example, at The Rogue Adventurer, the blog maintained by NR Jenzen-Jones, particularly this post and another. Or look at this analysis by Joe Bermudez on the North Korean units involved in the shelling of Yongpyon Island (and my comments). By contrast, neither the US nor UK document even names the unit or units involved in the massacre.
The pair of documents certainly don’t rise to the gold standard set by Adlai Stevenson. They fall short, too, of what we will politely call lesser efforts before the same august body. And dumping a heavily readacted 1985 assessment comes off as comic, although perhaps that’s just a coincidence. (There is much more information in various cables compromised by Wikileaks. Try searching “syria ssrc site:cablegatesearch.net” for a data dump on SSRC procurement practices)
The bottom line is that sentient beings with basic internet access have come to expect much more detailed information to be a click or two away. In fact, they almost certainly believe that there is eve better information behind some firewall. They also think the Situation Room looks likes this, instead of this. To offer these meagre documents is a terrible let down. When the US or UK government together can barely muster a bit more than 2000 words of vague assertions and a map, real people a disappointed. Just like when they see the situation room. It’s no wonder Ed Miliband stuck a knife in David Cameron’s back. The JIC Chairman’s letter was an invitation to do so.
Maybe I’m being to harsh. I am sure that a lot of good people worked really to hard to get as much information as they did into the public domain. There are probably a bunch of secrecy trolls who will claim the collective disappointment only strengthens the case for sharing little or no information. (They are wrong: our elected officials can and must do better.)
Let me close by again stating that I believe Syrian military units murdered more than a thousand people in a brutal chemical weapons attack and that a military response is appropriate. I also believe that the US and UK governments have overhead images detailing the attack preparations as well as all manner of electronic communications that can document who did what to whom, and that to build the case for action they should release a good bit of that yesterday.