On April 7, President Trump committed his first “act of war,” attacking Syria with missiles in response to what he said was a poison gas attack by the Syrian government that killed dozens. But the White House’s subsequent intelligence report offering its proof of Syria’s role was “false” and “fraudulent,” suggesting a “coverup” by a president acting without any intelligence and intentionally lying to the public.
These are the characterizations of two longtime experts in war studies and missile systems, which—along with coordinated comments by Vice President Mike Pence in South Korea and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Russia that America’s “strategic patience” is ending—suggest Trump may be seeking a war of choice, even if it involves fabricated intelligence.
President George W. Bush’s White House fabricated intelligence concerning Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction before his April 2003 invasion of Iraq. What seems to be unfolding at the top ranks of the Trump administration is similar to Bush’s pronouncements and evidence following the 9/11 terrorist attack.
This latest outburst of militarism began April 4, when it appears that poison gas, possibly the nerve agent sarin, killed dozens of Syrian civilians in the town of Khan Shaykhun. These deaths, among them women and children, are uncontested and documented on videos. Which poison gas was used, how it was delivered and who was behind the incident remain unanswered questions, said Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, though United Nations scientists and Turkish doctors who did autopsies have pointed to sarin.
“The Syrian government may well be responsible for the attack, or others may have been involved,” she said. “But without an independent, international investigation, we simply don't know. That means the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) [an international body with 192 member countries] must be given a full and complete and open mandate to follow all leads and report fully.”
“Similarly, we have reports from Turkey that autopsies on some of the bodies indicated the gas was sarin; reportedly OPCW and/or U.N. scientists were present,” Bennis continued. “But the reports come only from the official Turkish medical/forensic authorities. Again, without a full and thorough independent investigation, all of the unknowns remain just that.”
What’s not unknown, however, is three days after the attack, on April 7, Trump ordered a cruise missile attack on a Syrian military airfield.
“This was an act of war,” Bennis said. “Even if we already knew, even if there was a credible source finding the Syrian government was responsible, that would not give the White House and the Pentagon the right to unilaterally attack Syria without U.N. authorization, when the U.S. was not attacked, without consultations with or authorization from Congress, in violation of the War Powers Act.”
On April 11, under mounting criticism, the White House issued a four-page report squarely blaming the Syrian regime for the gas attack, saying it was delivered by a plane from the airport that was hit by U.S. missiles and accusing Russia of lying by claiming that the poison gas was in the hands of guerrilla armies fighting the regime.
“The United States is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent sarin, against its own people in the town of Khan Shaykhun in southern Idlib Province on April 4, 2017,” the report began. “Our information indicates that the chemical agent was delivered by regime Su-22 fixed-wing aircraft… Our information indicates personnel historically associated with Syria's chemical weapons program were at Shayrat Airfield in late March making preparations for an upcoming attack in Northern Syria, and they were present at the airfield on the day of the attack.”
The report continued, “We have confidence in our assessment because we have signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence, laboratory analysis of physiological samples collected from multiple victims, as well as a significant body of credible open source reporting, that tells a clear and consistent story.”
But these assertions are not clear, consistent or convincing, said Theodore Postol, a professor of Science, Technology, and International Security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Postol, who has received numerous awards for his work on missile systems and has worked for the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, looked at the same information sources cited by the White House and concluded in a 14-page analysis that, first of all, whatever happened in Khan Shaykhun was not the result of an air attack.
“It’s important to be clear about what I’m saying,” he told AlterNet. “I’m saying that a so-called White House intelligence report issued on April 11 is totally inconsistent with the claims it’s making. I’m not so much saying that I know what happened, because actually I don’t. What I do know is that this report was, to be blunt, fabricated without the intelligence methodologies that it claims to have used. Because I have data that I have been poring over... for example, there’s video data of this crater that they allege was the source of an air attack, an air munitions. It was not an air munition. You could see that very easily.”
“So the issue is that the White House issued a false intelligence report and the reasons [why] I don’t know,” Postol said. “But one possibility is they are trying to cover up their tracks because they didn’t know what was going on and they attacked a foreign power. And that is not good.”
Bennis agreed that the White House intelligence report doesn’t prove what it claims.
“The four-page white paper released by the White House, purporting to prove that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical weapons attack, does not provide any of the actual evidence they claim to rely on,” she said, commenting by email. “It makes a set of assertions, describes the kind of information they have, and essentially then says ‘trust us.’ It appears to be a White House (that is, political) document, not the official position of intelligence agencies themselves. It does not provide anything close to proof, or even evidence, of the who, the what or the how of the chemical attack.”
Postol’s analysis is not the first time he has examined White House claims about poison gas use in Syria or weapons of war in Iraq. What he suspects may be happening in the Trump White House is alarming on its own terms and is different than what happened when President Obama was considering attacking the Syrian regime for a purported poison gas attack in 2013. In the case of Obama, Postol said the president was initially given bad intelligence blaming the Syrian regime and called off the attack because there was insufficient proof.
“The Obama administration had another incident like this in August of 2013,” he said. “It’s somewhat different. The president was incorrectly told that Syria was the perpetrator of the attack in Ghouta on August 21, 2013, and he was preparing to attack Syria when he was finally told, as he proceeded, that the intelligence did not solidly support that conclusion. That’s when he backed down. He didn’t back down because he didn’t have the courage to take the action.”
In contrast, it appears that President Trump is ordering military action without any intelligence confirmation beforehand, Postol said.
“The indication I now have, on April 11 the National Security Council put out a fraudulent—to be very clear—a fraudulent intelligence report, a report that could not possibly be what it claims to be,” he said. “That tells my bureaucrat’s nose that somebody in the White House wants to cover up something. And I think probably—again I don’t know—probably what I think they’re trying to cover up is that they took all these risks to the nation’s security without any intelligence to support it."
That prospect is as alarming as it is well informed, and has serious ramifications.
“There’s something going on with our intelligence apparatus and the politics of operating it. And it’s not acceptable as far as I’m concerned,” Postol said. He added, “what needs to happen is not going to happen. What needs to happen is there has to be a full investigation of how this fraudulent report was produced. Who was involved? And who ordered it… It’s pretty clear to me at this point that an important decision was made, a decision that had potentially grave consequences for our national security without any intelligence at all. It was done, probably, for political purposes.”
The biggest risk in impulsively ordering a missile attack in Syria, he said, is “there was a risk that he [Trump] would inadvertently come into a military confrontation with Russia. He certainly caused a deep problematic reaction with Russia. And he has probably undermined our ability to defeat the Islamic State because we need Russia to defeat this entity. So it was a pretty important decision.”
Postol’s observations and reflections on a White House that is ordering military attacks without intelligence input, or issuing orders without a systematic check on its battle plans and targets (and subsequently “fabricating” intelligence reports for propagandistic media and public consumption), is eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush’s presidency. Some members of Bush's intelligence team fabricated a case to invade Iraq based on Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction. Bush later said publicly that he had been misinformed about evidence that Iraq had a substantial weapons store. Journalists like James Fallows of the Atlantic have documented how Bush’s decision to launch a war of choice in Iraq came rapidly on the heels of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
What Trump and his top aides are doing now echoes Bush’s pre-war rhetoric and moves. Since the Syrian missile attack, Secretary of State Tillerson has repeatedly said, “our policy of strategic patience has ended.” Vice President Pence, speaking in South Korea on Monday, not only repeated those words, he suggested that the U.S. missile attack in Syrian was a sign of an America willing to use its military arms.
“Strategic patience has been the approach of the last American administration and beyond,” Pence said at a joint press conference with South Korean Acting President Hwang Kyo-Ahn, referring to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. “Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan. North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the Armed Forces of the United States in this region.”
Less than 100 days into Trump’s presidency, the White House has failed to pass a single major piece of legislation. Instead, beyond placing a right-wing justice on the Supreme Court with the GOP-majority U.S. Senate’s help, Trump has already committed an act of war: an unauthorized attack on a foreign power. And his administration has fabricated the evidence for that attack, an intelligence report that doesn’t prove what it purports.
As Postol said, something is going on with the nation’s intelligence apparatus and the politics surrounding it, and it’s not making the world a safer place.