Monday’s White House statement said the activities “are similar to preparations the regime made before” the April attack. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., tweeted:
The White House insisted Tuesday “all relevant agencies—including State, DoD, CIA and ODNI—were involved in the process” leading up to the statement “from the beginning.” But as BuzzFeed News reported Tuesday, the manner in which the White House released its statement—the Pentagon’s clarification notwithstanding—only raises more questions about what the White House was referring to. Here’s more:
[F]ive US defense officials reached by BuzzFeed News Monday night said they did not know where the potential chemical attack would come from, including one US Central Command official who had ‘no idea’ about its origin. The officials said they were unaware the White House was planning to release its statement; usually such statements are coordinated across the national security agencies and departments before they are released.
In Damascus, Ali Haidar, the minister for national reconciliation, rejected the White House’s claim. He told the Associated Press the statement suggested a “diplomatic battle” at the U.N. against Syria. Russia, which backs the Assad regime, also rejected the allegation. “I am not aware of any information about a threat that chemical weapons could be used,” Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said. Assad’s record on this issue is clearly damning, however: During the more than six-year civil war in his country, he has used chemical weapons multiple times despite an agreement involving the U.S. and Russia that aimed to remove his ability to do so; and he has found other ways to kill hundreds of thousands of his people. Syria and Russia have repeatedly rejected overwhelming evidence that Assad’s forces carried out the chemical-weapons attack in April, instead blaming rebels for the deaths. So it’s hardly unexpected that they would both reject any evidence the White House presents for its latest claim—even if it is accurate.
But the saga of the statement so far highlights the White House’s own credibility problems—and why Russia and Syria are in a position to exploit them.
It’s plausible, as the Times suggests, that the White House made its announcement based on intelligence that was not widely shared within the administration. Neither the Times nor Buzzfeed identified which specific officials had been surprised by the Monday night statement; maybe those officials weren’t in a position to know about it ahead of time anyway. On the other hand, it’s no less plausible that this White House would make a pronouncement without consulting the relevant national-security agencies— despite the administration’s claims to the contrary—and that the president has once again left his own government scrambling to catch up and coordinate. We’ve seen this happen on several significant occasions since Trump’s inauguration: He repeatedly described NATO as “obsolete” and appeared to make U.S. support for its partners in the alliance conditional upon their military expenditures, only to have James Mattis, his defense secretary, undertake a European tour in an attempt to reassure allies of America’s commitment. He publicly alluded to military action against North Korea, in apparent contradiction of the public statements of his own secretary of state.