WASHINGTON — The evidence of a massacre is undeniable: the bodies lined up on hospital floors, those of the living convulsing and writhing in pain, and a declaration from a respected international aid group that thousands of Syrians were gassed with chemical weapons last week.
And yet the White House faces steep hurdles as it prepares to make the most important public intelligence presentation since February 2003, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made a dramatic and detailed case for war to the UN Security Council using intelligence — later discredited — about Iraq’s weapons programs.
A decade later, the Obama administration says the information it will make public, likely on Thursday, will show proof of a large-scale chemical attack perpetrated by Syrian forces, bolstering its case for a retaliatory military strike on Syria.
Yet with the botched intelligence about Iraq still casting a long shadow over decisions about waging war in the Middle East, the White House faces a US public deeply skeptical about being drawn into the Syrian conflict and a growing chorus of lawmakers from both parties angry about the prospect of a US president once again going to war without specific congressional approval.
US officials said Wednesday there was no “smoking gun” directly linking Syrian President Bashar Assad to the attack, and they tried to lower expectations about the public presentation. They said it will not contain specific electronic intercepts of communications between Syrian commanders or detailed reporting from spies and sources on the ground.
But even without hard evidence tying Assad to the attack, administration officials asserted, the Syrian leader bears ultimate responsibility for the actions of his troops and should be held accountable.
Administration officials said that communications between military commanders intercepted after Wednesday’s attack provided proof that the assault was not the result of a rogue unit acting against orders. It is unclear how much detail about these communications, if any, will be made public.
In an interview Wednesday with PBS “Newshour,” President Obama said he still had not made a decision about military action. But he said that a military strike could be a “shot across the bow, saying ‘stop doing this,’ that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term.’’
Despite the Obama administration’s insistence that the graphic images of the attack go far in making a case for military action in Syria, some experts said that the White House had its own burden of proof.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that whatever evidence the administration puts forward would be the US intelligence community’s “most important single document in a decade.”
The Obama administration, Cordesman said, needs to use intelligence about the attack “as a key way of informing the world, of building up trust in US policy and intelligence statements, and in moving US strategic communications from spin to convincing truth.”
And yet it appears that the public presentation of the Syria evidence will be limited. US officials said the assessment they are preparing will be similar to a modest news release they issued in June to announce the Assad government had used chemical weapons “on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.”