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World Waits for ‘Slam Dunk’ Evidence That Assad Regime Used Chemical Weapons

August 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The world is waiting for United Nations inspectors to announce their findings over the alleged use of chemical warfare in Syria. What are inspectors looking for? And how would they be able to tell if the weapons came from the Assad regime? Jeffrey Brown gets analysis from former UN and U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just minutes ago, the British House of Commons rejected using force against Syria. The vote was nonbinding, but Prime Minister Cameron pledged not try to override the wishes of Parliament.

And we turn now to an experienced weapons inspector who’s also investigated and written about what went wrong with intelligence in the past.

Charles Duelfer was a top U.N. inspector in Iraq during the 1990s. After the U.S. invasion in 2003, he led the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, which continued to look for weapons of mass destruction. He’s author of “Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq.”

And welcome to you.

CHARLES DUELFER, former Chief U.S. Weapons Inspector: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to get right to this question of what they’re calling a slam dunk. How definitive can inspectors, can the intelligence community, and, therefore, government officials, ever be?

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CHARLES DUELFER: There’s an important distinction between what the inspectors can do and what the intelligence community can do.

And there’s an important difference in the category of the information. The U.N. weapons inspectors will derive information which they gather, and it will be seen as unbiased. They will very credibility. And that’s important in and of itself.

They may not have the full range of access to secret sources, to potential defectors and so forth that the intelligence community may have, but their word is considered unbiased. They have access to victims. They’re able to take environmental samples, biological samples. They’re able to do a lot, and they will be able to make a judgment about whether chemical weapons were in fact used.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, OK, so, stay with the inspectors. What can we tell? What do we know about what exactly are they looking at right now? What’s your assessment of what they’re seeing?

CHARLES DUELFER: They have had limited time.

There aren’t that many of them. But they are able to interview a range of people who were in each of these areas, to the extent that they can, about what happened, what types of munitions were used. They may be able to collect remnants of the munitions, which could tell you quite a bit about the type of agent.

JEFFREY BROWN: What will that tell you? And will it tell you about who used it?

CHARLES DUELFER: If it is a sophisticated kind of a rocket or an artillery shell, such as the Syrian army would have, you can tell.

There’s different reservoirs for the components of the sarin gas if they’re there which are made to mix when it’s fired. They’re able to look at the type of gas, the sarin gas. Some of it is more sophisticated than others. For example, if it were just made up by insurgents, an ad hoc group, as some are suggesting as one alternative, they wouldn’t have something called stabilizers or preservatives in it.

Serious Syrian army stuff has been on the shelf for a long time. It’s like Wonder Bread. It has got something in the agent which will keep it active for years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, come back to the intelligence community. And I say that because the British intelligence just put out a report today saying it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attack on 21 August.

Based on?

CHARLES DUELFER: Presumably, the British and Americans have very similar sets of intelligence. They have got presumably agents on the ground. Presumably, they can hear what’s going on.

One would think that the NSA, which is so prominent in the news these days, is listening carefully to the types of communications going on. Now, that communication can sometimes be ambiguous. But if you put all that together, it can clearly point in the direction of one actor in this, and I think there’s probably, as has been said, the preponderance of evidence, public or nonpublic, does fall on the side that it’s the Syrian government that did this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the important context here, of course, is what happened in Iraq, where you were involved, where you looked at what happened afterwards. To what degree has what happened there affected how these kinds — how this kind of work is done?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, the weapons inspectors, it turned out, did a much better job than anyone thought.

Their techniques and methods have improved a fair amount. On the other hand, the intelligence community, they have had their fingers burned. They got it massively wrong in 2002 and 2003. So they are going to be very reluctant to make categorical statements like slam dunk to the policy-makers.

They will caveat their language, and that in effect is going to make policy-makers’ life a little bit more difficult. It’s also interesting that, like 2002-2003, Washington in a way is now seeing the U.N. processes as a bit of a problem. They’re teed up and ready to go, and you hear language coming out of the White House which in a different time you could equally hear coming out of Bush White House, where they’re seeing the U.N. process, well, it’s slow, it’s ponderous, and people can slow down the process. It’s an encumbrance.

So there are many similarities, but I would finally say the evidence is much stronger in this case than it was in 2003. There’s much more data.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you look at something like — there was an article earlier this week in Foreign Policy about an intercepted phone call supposedly between Syrian army officials talking about this attack.

Does that feel helpful, either on the intelligence side? Does that remind you of things from Iraq, where you might wonder about it?

CHARLES DUELFER: What disturbs me about that is that it suggests that there’s a lot of confusion on the part of the Syrian government.

One of the nightmare scenarios we have in all this is that all these weapons, which we know that they have, can fall out of their control. The one positive thing that anyone can say about Bashar is that he had control over these weapons. If that’s coming apart, then we have got a problem that’s even bigger than we thought.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much does that play into any potential punitive strike as to the — who has control of the weapons at this point?

CHARLES DUELFER: This is a huge dilemma for the White House. Do you want to make the problem worse? People are thinking of target sets, in the military jargon. What are you going to blow up?

Well, you can blow up the weapons, but wouldn’t — maybe it will just disperse them. Maybe you won’t be able to incinerate them. You might create a bigger mess. You can blow up so-called command-and-control, but then doesn’t that make the thing even worse? Then who is going to control the system?

It’s a real dilemma. And it depends on how you define the problem that the solution is going to fit.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, a lot of questions.

Charles Duelfer, thanks so much.

CHARLES DUELFER: Thank you, Jeff.