Obama Should Reveal Secret Syria Intercepts

Now is the time to release intelligence—but not act on it.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell delivers his address to the UN Security Council February 5, 2003 in New York City. Powell is making a presentation attempting to convince the world that Iraq is deliberately hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Secretary of State Colin Powell making the case for Iraq’s WMDs in 2003. What have we learned about strategically revealing secret intelligence since then?

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Here we go again. Maybe. Ten years ago Colin Powell publicly presented the United Nations with formerly top-secret information about a Middle East tyrant and weapons of mass destruction to justify military action against him. The tyrant was Saddam Hussein and the briefing turned out to be a concoction of misinterpretation, wishful thinking, and, in the case of information from a German spy codenamed “Curveball,” complete fabrication. In a memoir published last year, Colin Powell wrote that this presentation would forever be a blot on his reputation. The same could be said for U.S. efforts at creating global support for armed action.

Reports from various sources this week suggest that the Obama administration has hard evidence—communications intercepts—proving Syrian government involvement in the recent chemical weapons attack on civilians that left at least 350 dead. Although the Los Angeles Times is reporting that some of this information comes from Israel, other reports suggest that the information is the product of CIA eavesdropping. It also appears that Washington is preparing to release some of it. How can we do it right this time?

There are only two officials in the U.S. government who can declassify information on their own authority: the president and the director of the CIA. During the Bush years Dick Cheney argued that the vice president could, too, but no one hears Joe Biden making that argument these days.

Presidents have used this power to influence policy. Leaving aside the Bush administration’s great fail, the efforts have brought mixed results, and these efforts don’t happen often. The two most famous examples took place in 1962 and 1986. During the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy decided to show the world photographic evidence that the Soviets were placing offensive missiles on Cuba. In 1986, Ronald Reagan revealed intercepts from the Libyan government to make his case that Muammar Qaddafi was involved in targeting U.S. service members in Europe and bombing the LaBelle discotheque in Berlin, which killed three people and wounded scores more.

The U.S. intelligence community does not like this kind of declassification. The eavesdroppers, in particular, worry that once you blow a communications source by revealing intercepted information, the target country will react by improving its communications security. The favorite example in NSA-world is ULTRA, the information obtained by breaking Nazi ciphers during World War II. Had Hitler learned how vulnerable his communications were, ULTRA could have been lost and the battle for Europe would have lasted considerably longer.

But presidents are elected to make the bigger call and overrule intelligence security officers when necessary. There are times when international reputation requires giving up an intelligence source to show that the United States is not engaged in some imperial adventure. In light of recent events in Syria, this is one of those times.

Kennedy decided to reveal actual U-2 photographs of Cuba, in the process giving away some tradecraft secrets, such as the resolution of these spy photographs. Reagan was a little more circumspect. In his televised speech on April 14, 1986, he provided paraphrases of the intercepted information and not the raw reports themselves.

[indent] “On March 25th, more than a week before the attack, orders were sent from Tripoli to the Libyan People’s Bureau in East Berlin to conduct a terrorist attack against Americans to cause maximum and indiscriminate casualties. Libya’s agents then planted the bomb. On April 4th the People’s Bureau alerted Tripoli that the attack would be carried out the following morning. The next day they reported back to Tripoli on the great success of their mission.”[end indent]

Nevertheless, Tripoli learned enough from this revelation to improve its security.

There was, however, a big difference between President Kennedy and President Reagan’s motives: Kennedy released the information to build international support for the removal of the missiles. Reagan released the information after the U.S. Air Force had bombed Tripoli, to justify unilateral action.

President Obama needs to be thinking along the lines of building international support for action, but not necessarily military action. A unilateral military attack by the United States—or one by NATO-light involving the addition of only the United Kingdom and France—is a bad idea. Unless cruise missiles or gravity bombs kill him, an attack will not unseat Assad. Instead it will be manipulated by the Syrian regime and others—Russia—to further inflame anti-American passions. And if history is a fair judge, it will not have a deterrent effect. The 1986 attack on Libya did not end Qaddafi’s sponsorship of terror. He immediately retaliated by having his secret service “buy” one of the U.S. hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon—Peter Kilburn, a librarian at the American University in Beirut—and kill him. Two years later, Qaddafi ordered the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103, which crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland and killed 270 people. Unless the U.S. attack kills Assad, the madness will continue.

It is not really clear why this is our fight. What did President Obama really mean last August when he apparently drew a red line over the use of WMDs by the Syrians? Obama said that his reluctance to intervene would change if he received evidence of a “whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” He never made clear what a “whole bunch” meant or why this made the issue a U.S. military rather than a humanitarian issue. If he were thinking about civilian deaths as a threshold, why would it matter whether the deaths were caused by unconventional weapons? Until historians have at the entrails of the Obama administration in 40 years (or before then if the Obama team produces better than average memoirs), we may not be able to figure out whether the president just goofed. It is hard to believe that he thought a statement would deter a desperate tyrant. Moreover, the statement seems too uncharacteristically inarticulate to have been planned.

In any case, there is an opportunity here to help Syrians attacked by their own government and strengthen international ethics. If the Obama administration were just to release the information it has and not act as if it wanted permission for a decision already made, it might be able to transform this situation from Assad vs. Obama into what it ought to have been all along: a case of Assad vs. the conscience of the world.

Assuming that the intelligence is of the Kennedy/Reagan and not the George W. Bush standard, the release would encourage a welcome global discussion of Assad’s criminal behavior without the distraction of yet another annoying and self-righteous “Why must Americans act like the world’s policeman” gripe session among European elites. Some will claim that the information is deception from the United States and Israel, but if the actual intercepts are released the case will be harder to dispute. (If there is audio, the accents and vocabulary would give the Syrians away.) At the same time, this release would expose Assad’s international supporters to the condemnation that they deserve. The Soviet Union finally acknowledged what the photographs showed, that it put missiles in Cuba. And this time, U.S. intelligence evidence would similarly complicate Russia’s ability to help a troublesome ally.

As human beings, we ought to be concerned about the plight of Syrian civilians. But this crime against humanity should not be viewed as an American policy challenge—that’s a bit arrogant, isn’t it? It is the world’s problem. Obama has the opportunity to shame the world into doing the right thing. If that’s what he meant by saying during the 2012 campaign that we are “the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” great. Let’s use some of the products of the many billions we probably spend on intelligence each year to force international action to deal with yet another Middle East tyrant. The raw intelligence should be shared with the United Nations, with Doctors Without Borders and with the International Court of Justice at the Hague without being processed into a sanitized U.S. government white paper. Let those organizations, helped by social media, spark a global conversation over what the world community ought to do about it.

Meanwhile, we could join the British and the French (and I would expect, the Canadians) in working behind the scenes with some newly developed nations to demand action in the U.N. General Assembly. Among the responsibilities of being the sole global superpower is the obligation to use restraint when prudent.

However, if what is meant by “indispensable nation” is that we ought to launch tomahawks at Damascus to send a message (because we can), everyone should take a deep breath and be reminded of yesterday’s news from Baghdad, where a rash of car bombs has delivered yet more death and destruction to the civilian population of a former foreign policy project of ours.