So what to do about all of this? Well, one thing we should not do is cram another horrible litany of lies, half-truths, and distortions into a PowerPoint presentation. I don't think many people are going to be persuaded by something that overtly resembles such a low point in U.S. foreign policy. Besides, I don't think we can persuade Colin Powell to agree to star in the sequel. For better or for worse, people don't hold our political leaders in much esteem, nor are they much impressed by the sort of de minimis unclassified statements on offer.
So here is a modest proposal: Why not just release the vast majority of the evidence? We have a transcript of some Syrian army officer being ordered to gas Ghouta? Release it. (Newsflash: The Syrians know we monitor their communications.) We have satellite images of the units in place during the attack? Release them. (Another newsflash: Other countries know we have imaging satellites with very high resolution.) Release the vast majority of data, with basic information and commentary that would allow the rest of us to make up our own minds.
The purpose of such a data dump is to let independent nongovernmental organizations and private citizens to independently assess what happened in Syria. One of the nice things about having a vibrant civil society is that there are experts all over the country who have something to add to this conversation. I know people at the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Council on Foreign Relations, Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, and, of course, the Monterey Institute of International Studies who would read every word, look at every picture, and listen to every audio recording. Of course, so might old ladies in Dubuque and unemployed Frank Zappa fans in Leicester. That's okay -- you might be surprised by how much they know.
This shouldn't be so difficult for the "most transparent administration in history" right? Yes, that's sarcasm. I know how hard and long American officials fought each other before the Obama administration declassified the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile in 2010. The administration tied itself in knots over the release of one measly number -- something it did once and never again. The bureaucratic barriers to transparency remain significant, almost comically so. The administration, for example, just released a heavily redacted intelligence report on Syria's chemical weapons capabilities -- from 1985. (I suppose the good news is that we can send Airwolf to take out the sites.)
The point of a significant data dump -- excluding, of course, information from human sources who are still in Syria and therefore could be put in danger -- is that it would be the opposite of a sales job. What the administration needs at this point isn't more overwrought language about the horrors in Syria, but credible and independent validators. There are a fair number of people who'd like to turn their eyes away from what's happening in Syria. These people won't openly endorse the various conspiracy theories floating around the Internet, but they wave their hands about seemingly minor differences in the data -- or claim inconsistencies that don't exist -- as an excuse to air deeper suspicions that the government might be making all this up.
That seems pretty irresponsible to me, but it goes to a deeper problem. After Iraq, lots of people do worry the government might be making this all up. That's paranoid, of course, but there has long been a streak of the paranoid in American politics. Building a consensus behind acting in Syria requires more than the government saying "trust us." It requires engaging civil society and the public at large to demonstrate the depth and strength of the intelligence. My suspicion is that doing so -- by releasing the data -- would not disappoint but instead mobilize a significant number of independent voices that would support the administration's case for acting in Syria.