Will Social Media Get Obama Off the Hook on Syria?

U.S. intel report relies heavily on messages from the public and on videos to overcome America’s credibility problem.

Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement about Syria at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Kerry said the U.S. knows, based on intelligence, that the Syrian regime carefully prepared for days to launch a chemical weapons attack. 
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Michael Hirsh
Aug. 30, 2013, 10:32 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama was well aware that he had a cred­ib­il­ity prob­lem in mak­ing the case against Syr­ia over its al­leged chem­ic­al-weapons use be­cause of the bad in­tel­li­gence on Ir­aq a dec­ade ago. The Brit­ish Par­lia­ment re­minded him of this prob­lem Thursday when it shock­ingly re­jec­ted mil­it­ary ac­tion in a close vote. And in his power­ful in­dict­ment of Syr­i­an dic­tat­or Bashar al-As­sad on Fri­day as a “thug and a mur­der­er,” Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry said the ad­min­is­tra­tion was “more than mind­ful of the Ir­aq ex­per­i­ence. We will not re­peat that.”

So it was not sur­pris­ing, per­haps, that both in Kerry’s present­a­tion and in the heav­ily re­dac­ted in­tel­li­gence sum­mary re­leased by the ad­min­is­tra­tion ahead of ex­pec­ted air strikes against Syr­ia, U.S. of­fi­cials re­lied greatly on so­cial-me­dia and In­ter­net videos to sup­ple­ment the evid­ence gathered from more-tra­di­tion­al sources.

That was a strik­ing con­trast to the Ir­aq ex­per­i­ence, when it was re­vealed only later that much of the shoddy in­tel­li­gence used to jus­ti­fy that war re­lied on su­per-secret sources such as “Curve­ball,” the code name for an Ir­aqi de­fect­or who falsely claimed that Sad­dam Hus­sein had bio­lo­gic­al weapons.

Fri­day’s in­tel­li­gence sum­mary refers to “mul­tiple streams of in­tel­li­gence,” in­clud­ing satel­lite de­tec­tions, as back­ing up the claim that the Syr­i­an re­gime killed more than 1,400 people, in­clud­ing at least 426 chil­dren, in a chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack on Aug. 21. But as part of that the sum­mary refers in de­tail to “loc­al so­cial-me­dia re­ports” that in­dic­ated the chem­ic­al at­tack began at 2:30 a.m., and “with­in the next four hours there were thou­sands of so­cial-me­dia re­ports on this at­tack from at least 12 dif­fer­ent loc­a­tions in the Dam­as­cus area,” the re­port says. “Mul­tiple ac­counts de­scribed chem­ic­al-filled rock­ets im­pact­ing op­pos­i­tion-con­trolled areas.”

The re­port goes on to say that the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­munity has “iden­ti­fied one hun­dred videos at­trib­uted to the at­tack, many of which show large num­bers of bod­ies ex­hib­it­ing phys­ic­al signs con­sist­ent with, but not unique to, nerve-agent ex­pos­ure.” It ad­ded that “the Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion does not have the cap­ab­il­ity to fab­ric­ate all of the videos, phys­ic­al symp­toms veri­fied by med­ic­al per­son­nel and NGOs, and oth­er in­form­a­tion as­so­ci­ated with this chem­ic­al at­tack.”

Kerry, in his state­ment, said that just 90 minutes after the at­tack, “all hell broke loose on so­cial me­dia”¦. It was or­din­ary Syr­i­an cit­izens who re­por­ted all of these hor­rors.”

It re­mains to be seen wheth­er the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s case against As­sad will stand up well in world opin­ion. But taken to­geth­er with the re­mark­able way that, back in April, Bo­ston po­lice and fed­er­al au­thor­it­ies col­lec­ted private video im­ages and called upon the pub­lic to re­lay in­form­a­tion about the Bo­ston Mara­thon sus­pects on cell phones and so­cial me­dia, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­tel­li­gence case amounts to a new kind of evid­ence for the age of om­ni­present data col­lec­tion.


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