State Dept.: We do not believe chemical weapons used in Syria

The State Department's head spokeswoman said Wednesday that the State Department cannot corroborate reports that the Syrian military used chemical weapons against its own people in the city of Homs last month.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland commented extensively at Wednesday's briefing on The Cable's exclusive Tuesday report that a secret cable sent last week from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul had relayed evidence that chemical weapons were used in Homs on Dec. 23. The cable, signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, outlined the results of the consulate's investigation based on a series of interviews with activists, doctors, and defectors, and made what an administration official who reviewed the cable called a "compelling case" that Assad's military forces had used a deadly form of poison gas.

On Tuesday, State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell told The Cable, "As you know, the United States closely monitors Syria's proliferation-sensitive materials and facilities, and we believe Syria's chemical weapons stockpile remains secured by the Syrian government. We have been clear that if Assad's regime makes the tragic mistake of using chemical weapons or failing to secure them, it will be held accountable."

On Tuesday evening, after the report was published, National Security Spokesman Tommy Vietor issued a statement that said, "The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program."

Today, Nuland publicly acknowledged the existence of the secret cable for the first time but said that The Cable's report "did not accurately convey the anecdotal information that we had received from a third party regarding an alleged incident in Syria in December."

"At the time we looked into the allegations that were made and the information that we had received, and we found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used," she said.

The Cable's report said that the cable in question had conveyed information from internal sources inside Syria claiming that the chemical Agent 15, also known by its NATO term BZ, was responsible for the deaths and injuries in Homs. The Cable also interviewed two doctors who treated victims on the scene, both of whom said that they were not claiming the gas was Agent 15 but that they were sure it was a chemical weapon, rather than tear gas, based on the severity of the effects and the nature of the symptoms.

Nuland said that the State Department receives reports from embassies and consulates on such incidents regularly, but that in this case, the department could not confirm the reports of chemical weapons use and therefore determined there was no evidence of such use.

"It is a responsibility of our embassies and consulates around the world, no matter what kind of anecdotal information you have, to report it. That doesn't necessarily mean that either at the time or over the longer term it is considered credible by us," she said. "When this particular message came in from consulate Istanbul, we took it seriously as we do with all such anecdotal reporting, and concluded at the time that we couldn't corroborate it; we haven't been able to corroborate it since either."

Reporters at the briefing pressed Nuland on why the State Department was able to say today it believed no chemical weapons were used in Syria but Tuesday they were unable to make that assertion. Nuland said it took the government time to deal with the information because much of it was classified.

Nuland also asserted that The Cable didn't give the State Department enough time to respond to a request for comment.

"Sometimes we ask for more time to get our ducks in a row, and sometimes we are granted that by members of the fourth estate, and sometimes we are not. So we were able to give the response that we had last night, but I am able to give a more full answer today. And had the journalist waited for a more full answer, he would have had it," Nuland said, referring directly to your humble Cable guy. "We had asked for some time. We didn't get that time."

In fact, The Cable gave the State Department as much time as it needed to respond to our request for comment, even extending our deadline at the request of the State Department public affairs shop. Ventrell's comment for the original report was sent more than 6 hours after our initial query.

Syrian activists say that the circumstances surrounding the deaths in Homs make it impossible to be sure if or what chemical weapons were used, because of the horrible conditions there, the lack of access, and the lack of medical forensic equipment.

"It's difficult to know for sure what was used so all you have is whatever people saw and the symptoms," said Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. "If it is true that the regime used chemical weapons, they did it smartly by doing it in Homs, where it's hard to get to and hard to verify anything."

The Cable

House Foreign Affairs Democratic leadership set

The Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have chosen their leaders in a process that featured a dramatic behind-the-scenes battle for the Middle East subcommittee.

Ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) alluded to the controversy only obliquely in his statement following Democratic members' closed-door membership meeting Tuesday. "The Democratic members of the Foreign Affairs Committee represent a wide range of views and experiences, and we will work together to help ensure that U.S. foreign policy best serves our national interests," Engel said. "I especially want to offer a warm welcome to our new members who will play a prominent and vital role on our committee. I also look forward to working with Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) in a spirit of bipartisanship to address the important foreign policy challenges facing our nation."

But Engel might have some diplomatic work to do within his own caucus first. The battle for the Middle East subcommittee was between Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA),  Sherman, the third ranking Democrat on the committee, seemed in line to take over the Middle East and North Africa subcommittee., having recently defeated longtime HFAC stalwart Howard Berman in a bitterly contested Democrat-on-Democrat race.

As of Tuesday morning, Sherman seemed to think he had the position. When subcommittee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said Sherman would be the new ranking Democrat on the subcommittee at a Tuesday morning news conference, Sherman agreed with her. But by the time the committee meeting was held, Sherman realized he didn't have the votes.

"Deutch pulled off a coup and unseated Sherman," one source inside the meeting told The Cable. "Sherman had no idea Deutch has been mounting a whip operation to take the subcommittee from him."

Two sources confirmed that Deutch called Sherman before the meeting to tell him he had the votes. At the meeting, Sherman tried to lobby committee members anyway. But he soon realized he would not win, so when time came to officially bid for the post, Sherman demurred.

"He knew he didn't have the votes so he decided to head off the humiliation of a vote by taking his old subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade," the source said.

Sherman's Chief of Staff Don MacDonald said that Sherman was genuinely conflicted about which subcommittee to bid for and that his staff was giving him different advice on how to proceed.

"Brad spent little time lobbying colleagues. Deutch lobbied very hard. Brad is not unhappy with the terrorism subcommittee," McDonald said. "Brad has not held himself out as ranking member for the Middle East subcommittee. We may have said it was likely he would bid for that. In the end, it was a tough decision."

Deutch, whose chief of staff happens to be named Josh Rogin (no relation), issued a statement after the meeting setting out his broad agenda as the new subcommittee ranking member.

"There is no region of the world more significant to the national security of the United States than the Middle East, and to have earned the confidence of my colleagues to serve as Ranking Member is truly humbling," he said. "We face enormously consequential foreign policy challenges in the Middle East, from how we eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat and combat terrorism to how we strengthen Israel's security and support Israel's ongoing quest for peace, to how we advance democracy, gender equality and human rights in the region. I am honored to have this opportunity to help shape our responses to these challenges, and I look forward to working with my friend and Subcommittee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen."

Ros-Lehtinen has been working with Sherman on a number of Iran related bills and seemed to have preferred him as her subcommittee leadership partner.

The other ranking Democrats chosen Tuesday were Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) for the subcommittee on Africa, global health, global human rights, and international organizations, Rep. William Keating (D-MA) for the subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and emerging threats, Rep. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (D-Samoa) for the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) for the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

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