When the White House first publicly announced in late April its belief that the Assad regime in Syria had used chemical weapons on its own people, it stressed that this was only a strong suspicion -- not a certainty. Yes, they had blood samples that indicated exposure to deadly sarin gas. But they couldn't say for sure who handled those samples in the two weeks it took to get the blood into Western hands. "The physiological examples are compelling but without being able to determine the chain of custody, that's the key to confirming the use," one unnamed U.S. official told the New York Times earlier this week.
That chain of custody still hasn't been nailed down, an American intelligence source tells The Cable. But U.S. spy agencies nonetheless now feel confident that chemical weapons were used in Syria. And that, in turn, prompted the White House to make its more sure-footed announcement Thursday that Assad had, conclusively, gassed his opponents in Syria's civil war.
After an alleged chemical attack on the city of Aleppo in March, the U.S. and United States came into possession of at least three physiological samples that tested positive for indicators of sarin gas. Now, Western intelligence services have at least twice that number of blood, urine, and hair samples coming from a variety of battle zones around the country.
"The big thing that changed is an increase in the number of incidents," the source says. "It's impossible that the opposition is faking the stuff in so many instances in so many locations."
When the samples were combined with information from signals intercepts, overhead surveillance, and human tipsters, the intelligence community felt it had a powerful case. And once the intelligence community made its conclusion, the White House was, in a way, compelled to act.
It wasn't just that President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" (although, of course, that was vitally important for all sorts of geopolitical and strategic reasons). An obscure 1991 law, 22 USC 5604, states that the president shall notify Congress within 60 days if the executive branch determines that a foreign government "has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals."
Yet the White House's decision to announce the chemical weapons findings -- and the decision to provide "direct military support" to the rebels -- came rather quickly. "We had less than a week to prepare," the source says. "Nothing indicated a decision before this week."
And that quick move to announce may partially explain why the Obama administration's proclamation was so oddly short on specifics. There was that declaration of direct military support. But what shape that support would take, the administration wouldn't say, at least not on the record.
"Can't you even say small arms, RPGs, heavier weapons?" a reporter asked Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, during Friday's press briefing.
He answered: "We're just not going to be able to get into that level of detail about the type of assistance that we provide publicly here."
A State Department briefing with spokeswoman Jen Psaki added little clarity.
"So the United States has agreed to increase its support and aid to Syria, including direct military assistance," said a reporter. "Are you able to help us in any way explain exactly what is meant by that?"
"I cannot," Psaki said.
The CIA, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Pentagon directed all questions to the White House. ("Please feel free to report the CIA declined comment," one spokesman emailed.) The White House, in turn, refused to verify any order for small arms, ammunition, or any other kind of military support for the Syrian opposition.
One reason for the secrecy could be that the shipment of arms to rebels would fall under the CIA's classified purview. (Providing arms to rebel groups within another nation's sovereign borders presents legal issues in the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution.) But another reason for the veiled statements and the lack of interagency coordination could be that the rollout of the chemical weapons announcement was done in haste.
Regardless, the U.S game plan in Syria has yet to be explained in full by U.S. officials on record. That reveals a conundrum of American security policy in 2013. Our wars are technically fought in secret. Yet they're announced to the world.
Editor's note: This piece was originally published by Foreign Policy magazine.