Though officials at the highest levels of US government—including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama himself—have gone public this week to announce the certainty of U.S. intelligence that links an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria last week to the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, the Associated Press reports on Thursday, citing both intelligence officials and anonymous government sources, that the evidence so far compiled is by no means "a slam dunk".
According to AP:
multiple U.S. officials used the phrase "not a slam dunk" to describe the intelligence picture — a reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet's insistence in 2002 that U.S. intelligence showing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk" — intelligence that turned out to be wrong.
A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining that evidence against Syria includes a few key caveats — including acknowledging that the U.S. intelligence community no longer has the certainty it did six months ago of where the regime's chemical weapons are stored, nor does it have proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use, according to two intelligence officials and two more U.S. officials.
Though all the officials AP spoke with did so "on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence report publicly," the internal intelligence report referred to is the one that will be presented to members of some members of Congress on Thursday as the intelligence committees from both the House and Senate are expected to be briefed on what the U.S. government says it knows, and at least to some extent, what it doesn't know about what happened in Syria.
Among the deficiencies in that knowledge, the report continues:
Intelligence officials say they could not pinpoint the exact locations of Assad's supplies of chemical weapons, and Assad could have moved them in recent days as the U.S. rhetoric increased. But.that lack of certainty means a possible series of U.S. cruise missile strikes aimed at crippling Assad's military infrastructure could hit newly hidden supplies of chemical weapons, accidentally triggering a deadly chemical attack.
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.
In addition, an intercept of Syrian military officials discussing the strike was among low-level staff, with no direct evidence tying the attack back to an Assad insider or even a senior Syrian commander, the officials said.
These insights—as difficult tp corroborate for the general public as the administration's public claims perhaps—herald back to more fundamental to more fundamental questions about the rush to intervene in Syria with so many "what ifs" still circling, especially when the regional stakes are so high and the standing and widely shared belief that a US military strike—with or without quality intelligence or all the right information—will only make matters worse in the region, not better.