Capitol Hill pounced on the Obama administration’s flailing rhetoric about red lines after a slip of admonition that the Syrian regime most likely used chemical weapons.
“We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama said in August. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my equation.”
That equation, he said, would figure in “contingency plans” about which he did not elaborate.
In a statement delivered in the United Arab Emirates during his Mideast tour, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the White House this morning “delivered a letter to several members of Congress on the topic of chemical weapons use in Syria.”
The letter, Hagel said, “states that the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”
“As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made in the past 24 hours, and I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue,” he continued. “We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime. As the letter states, the president has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups would be unacceptable.”
Hagel said all of the countries he stopped at, from Israel to Egypt, brought up Syria as a chief concern.
“This is serious business – we need all the facts,” he said.
A White House official speaking on background today said the letter was a response to correspondence from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
The senators’ letter asked if the Assad regime or Syrian elements associated with or supported by the Assad regime used chemical weapons in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011.
“What we say in the letter is that our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin. This assessment is based in part on physiological samples. Our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. For example, the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions,” the official said.
“We go on to reaffirm that the president has set a clear red line as it relates to the United States that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line that is not acceptable to us, nor should it be to the international community. It’s precisely because we take this red line so seriously that we believe there is an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria.”
To get that “full investigation,” the White House is not calling on U.S. intelligence services but on the United Nations.
“I think the point here is that given the stakes involved, given how serious the situation is, and what we have learned, frankly, from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments are not alone sufficient,” the official said.
This dance around around the interpretation of red line — “the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups,” the official said, but internationally corroborated to a degree of satisfaction to the president — frustrated lawmakers who worried about how the message of pussyfooting on a publicly declared vow would look to America’s enemies in addition to the idea of WMDs on the loose.
“If the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on the Syrian people, this is an astounding violation of human rights,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).
“I trust and agree with President Obama that the use of chemical munitions or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists would be a red line for his administration, and with it the civilized world. As the commander-in-chief, there is a national security imperative here. As the leader of the free world, there is a deep moral imperative as well,” McKeon added. “Instead, it appears that the president is outsourcing our national security analysis to the United Nations.”
“I do question the utility of red lines if they lack clearly delineated boundaries and meaningful consequences. I am confident the president does not wish for America’s resolve to be called into question.”