In the course of interviews with The Atlantic Obama admits US intelligence told him Assad's responsibility for August 2013 Ghouta attack was not a "slam dunk"
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Obama has given a gigantic interview or more properly series of interviews to The Atlantic obviously as a first step in securing his foreign policy legacy.
Most of the attention has focused on the extraordinary arrogance Obama exhibits in the interview and the fantastically indiscreet way he talks about foreign leaders and his own officials whom he still has to work with in the remaining 10 months of his Presidency.
Thus we learn that Obama dislikes Netanyahu, has no time for the Saudis, thinks Erdogan is a “failed authoritarian”, continues to see Iran as a threat and was prepared to attack it, thinks Pakistan is “dysfunctional”, feels Cameron “got distracted” and failed to deal with Libya properly, is bored by the Castros, has a low opinion of Sarkozy and thinks Europe and the Middle East generally are a waste of his and the US’s time.
Putin if anything comes off lightly. He is “not completely stupid” and is actually “very polite” and “businesslike” and doesn’t keep the Great Man (ie. Obama) waiting.
As for the entire foreign policy establishment of the US - including both his Secretaries of State - Obama quite obviously thinks it basically useless - unable to comprehend his Great Thoughts, much less act on them.
By no means all of Obama’s criticisms are wrong, and much of what he says about foreign leaders and the US foreign policy establishment is not only true but actually very interesting, and it explains a great deal about what has gone wrong during his Presidency.
However the uproar these comments have caused has distracted attention from the details of some of the things Obama has said.
This is unfortunate because the interview is in fact packed with information about the three great foreign policy crises of Obama’s Presidency: Syria, Libya and Ukraine.
Though Obama is very far from completely truthful about any of them, what he has said has settled some outstanding questions, and in a number of articles I will discuss what they are (doing so in one article would take too long).
In my opinion the most important revelation of all - one that has gone completely unreported - is that Obama has finally admitted that the US intelligence community did not report that Assad was definitely responsible for the chemical attack on Ghouta in August 2013.
Here is what the article in The Atlantic which is based on Obama's interviews says:
“Obama was also unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a “slam dunk.”
He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a “slam dunk” in Iraq.”
That the US intelligence community was unable to confirm that Assad was definitely responsible for the chemical attack on Ghouta was suspected by some at the time.
The clue was that in order to justify the proposed bombing the Obama administration published what it called a “Government Assessment” which said that it was Assad who was responsible for the attack.
A “Government Assessment” is a relatively new device whereby the administration - ie. Obama and his advisers - give their opinion on an intelligence question.
It is to be contrasted by the much more authoritative - and traditional - “Intelligence Assessment”, which is signed off by the US intelligence services themselves, and which sets out their views.
In other words an “Intelligence Assessment” sets out the opinions of the intelligence professionals, whilst a “Government Assessment” is the opinion of the amateurs in the White House.
A discussion of the difference between a “Government Assessment” and an “Intelligence Assessment” can be found here, and in a scathing comment on the whole affair produced by US intelligence veterans, which can be found here.
That the US intelligence community was unsure that Assad was definitely responsible for the chemical attack on Ghouta was absolutely not the impression Obama gave at the time.
On the contrary Obama then and since has insisted Assad was definitely responsible and in a speech to the UN General Assembly he even ridiculed anybody who suggested otherwise.
Had the US and world public been told at the time that there was some doubt that Assad was in fact responsible for the Ghouta attack it would have changed the terms of the whole debate.
The possibility of an attack on Syria would in that case never have arisen.
As it is Obama’s suppression of the truth has allowed the belief Assad was definitely responsible for the attack to fester, and it is routinely repeated as if it were an indisputable truth in neocon articles about the Syrian war.
It even finds its way into the article by The Atlantic that is based on Obama’s interviews, which takes Assad’s responsibility for the Ghouta attack for granted.
Since the time of the attack a great deal more information has come to light, which is summarised by the excellent website Who Attacked Ghouta?
This website also has thorough and objective discussions of the evidence provided in an interesting series of articles about the attack by the US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, and it also looks at and refutes various claims about the attack made by the British bloggers Bellingcat.
It is now possible to say with confidence that the attack was almost certainly carried out by a jihadi faction amongst the Syrian rebels who it is now known with reasonable certainty did possess sarin gas at the time of the attack.
It might have been a deliberate false flag attack intended to provoke a US attack on Syria. It could however also have been a mistake, with the intended target being the Syrian military, and with residential areas of Ghouta hit in error.
Obama’s suppression of the truth, and the misleading impression of Assad’s definitely established guilt he has given, means that all this is almost entirely unknown to the general public.
Not only does that mean that a likely innocent party - President Assad - continues to be blamed for the attack with all the immense damage that does to his reputation, but it also means that those who probably were responsible for the attack - the jihadi rebels - have been allowed to walk free.
That is a shabby outcome by any measure.
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