In December 1997, an Egyptian agent who had been vetted and polygraphed by his CIA handlers collected a soil sample 60 feet in front of the entrance to the El-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, which the agency believed was connected to Osama bin Laden. The soil sample -- apparently taken from land not belonging to El-Shifa -- was analyzed and found to contain two-and-a-half times the normal trace of O-ethyl methylphosphonothioic acid, or Empta, a chemical precursor used in the production of VX nerve gas. Throughout 1998, intelligence analysts debated what to conclude from the soil sample, since it did not demonstrate whether the plant actually manufactured nerve gas. In July, the CIA recommended collecting an additional sample (that never happened), while on August 6, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research concluded that "the evidence linking El-Shifa to bin Laden and chemical weapons was weak." The following day, two truck bombs planted by al Qaeda cells killed 213 people -- including 12 Americans -- at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and 11 more people outside the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
A small group of senior Clinton administration officials debated a military response, which included five targets in Khartoum nominated by the CIA. Eventually, those five were whittled down to two and then to one. On August 20, two U.S. Navy warships launched 13 cruise missiles -- extra missiles were added to assure all the toxins would be incinerated -- at El-Shifa, destroying it and killing its night watchman. When it quickly became apparent that bin Laden had no controlling interest in El-Shifa, Clinton administration officials settled on the single soil sample as being the strongest evidence to justify the attack. Six weeks later, President Clinton told historian Taylor Branch that the supporting intelligence included "soil samples, connecting an element in nerve gas found there and in Afghanistan at similarly high concentrations."
The Obama administration now faces its own self-imposed decision-forcing point about whether to respond militarily to the reported evidence that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons against the armed opposition, an action interpreted as crossing an administration red line. The administration's position on whether Syria used chemical weapons reached the height of opacity two weeks ago when James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "That's a policy question and not one for intelligence to comment on." The intelligence community eventually sifted through what one official called the "shreds and shards of information" (soil samples, body tissue, photographs), with the normal dissension between agencies leaking into the press. Given the latest report from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria -- which found countless crimes against humanity, war crimes, and gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law -- the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons would not be surprising, though it has so far provided limited battlefield advantage.
President Obama and White House officials quickly emphasized that they were deliberating potential military responses with prudence, in consultation with partners, and with no deadline. Before using force in Syria, President Obama must articulate his intended political and military objectives, and explain how military force could plausibly achieve them. Policymakers and pundits routinely provide multiple objectives -- but they tend omit the crucial second consideration. Consider some recent justifications offered for intervening in Syria's ongoing civil war.
Prevent additional use of chemical weapons. Rep. Mike Rogers called for "action to disrupt [Assad's] ability to deliver chemical weapons," while Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared last week: "It is clear that ‘red lines' have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use. Syria has the ability to kill tens of thousands with its chemical weapons." The objective here is to deny Assad reliable access to one of his lethal military capabilities, reportedly used in small amounts, but to ignore the artillery, airstrikes, and sniper fire responsible for the vast number of civilian deaths. Some scholars and analysts also contend that a stronger U.S. response is mandated to maintain and reinforce the long-standing international taboo against the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The difficulty with preventing the use of chemical weapons, or securing and consolidating the several dozen sites where they are held, is that it is a resource-intensive military mission, requiring up to 75,000 troops. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in January: "The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable. You would have to have such clarity of intelligence, persistent surveillance -- you'd have to actually see it before it happened. And that's unlikely." Dempsey recently declared that the Pentagon had completed the planning to secure Syria's chemical weapons caches, but that he was not confident of success "because [Syrian security forces have] been moving it and the number of sites is quite numerous." However, while some White House officials warn that "all options are on the table in terms of our response," others vow "no boots on the ground," even though ground forces would be required to secure the chemical agents.