Which brings us to the State Department cable. The United States does not have an embassy in Syria at the moment. The cable in question was sent from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, which last I checked was in Turkey. So, who actually went to Homs to investigate these claims? According to portions of the cable reprinted by Rogin, a State Department "implementing partner" called Access Research Knowledge, using a local Syrian group called Basma, talked to three "contacts" in Syria. Stop me if you see where this is going.
We actually know a little bit about Access Research Knowledge (ARK) and Basma. Justin Vela wrote an article for Foreign Policy titled "Holding Civil Society Workshops While Syria Burns," which describes the two organizations:
ARK also provides funds and consulting to a new opposition media outlet founded by a group of liberal-minded Syrian activists called BasmaSyria.
A State Department spokesperson described ARK as "an implementing partner" of the U.S. nonlethal-aid program.
"ARK is currently undertaking activities to support the nonviolent Syrian opposition and Syrian civil society," the spokesperson said. "Project activities involving hundreds of beneficiaries have taken place in Syria and neighboring states since the onset of the Syrian crisis. It shares the inclusive vision of a future Syria for all Syrians where the rule of law is applied equally and the people of Syria are represented by a legitimate, responsive, and democratically elected government."
The activists themselves see the projects as a way to get their message out to the world more effectively.
"They are just helping us. We didn't study media; we didn't study photography," said an activist who works for BasmaSyria, which has distributed videos via YouTube, Facebook, and the Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya since August.
To make it clear: These appear to be U.S.- and U.K.-funded groups that produce anti-regime propaganda. Are we really surprised that they are alleging chemical weapons use? (And don't get me started on these people diagnosing which chemicals were used based on grainy YouTube videos. Two words: Terry Schiavo.) Look, I am no seasoned intelligence professional. But perhaps this is not up to the standard set by Sherman Kent.
That is to say nothing of the leak. Let's face it: Leaks are often dissatisfied officials appealing a decision in the press. The Obama administration has clearly indicated that it does not think chemical weapons were used at Homs. Don't like the president's decision? Let me get you Josh Rogin's email.
Watching a U.S.-funded propaganda group "confirm" claims by Syrian opposition, I am reminded of the first rule of drug dealing: Don't get high on your own supply. (What? I saw Scarface.) The use of the non-existent Agent 15 moniker is too clever by half. What it tells you is that someone got on the internet.
I have no objection to the State Department or intelligence community making up terrible lies about Bashar al-Assad. Maybe we can dust off the old plan to film a Saddam-double screwing a rent boy. Or we can ring up Jerry Post to talk about Bashar's womb issues! All is fair in love and war.
And it may make humanitarian or strategic sense to intervene in Syria. The world would be a better place without the Assads, and vulnerable populations like the sick, elderly, and very young suffer and die disproportionately in protracted conflicts like this. One can certainly make a case for doing more than we are.
But we should not take a decision to intervene on the basis of the disinformation or propaganda we pay Syrian activists to create. I mean, imagine the consequences if the president were to order hundreds or thousands of U.S. servicemen and -women into harm's way to prevent an evil dictator from using weapons of mass destruction that turn out to be completely imaginary?
Oh, nevermind. When do we bomb Damascus?