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Using intel, Congress presses White House on Syria

March 19, 2013, at 7:37 PM

Congress and the White House battle often about the control of national security information. The executive branch insists it has the only legal right to control what constitutes national security information and who gets to release it. Congress claims an independent right based upon the implied powers of oversight. Often, sniping over leaks is how this debate unfurls publicly.

Today, something very different happened. The heads of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence both said in public something that the White House will not: That there is a strong probability that Syria has used chemical weapons. Sen. Dianne Feinstein noted how "highly classified" the information was, and did not want to get into details. But Rep. Mike Rogers essentially said that the U.S. government wanted to make triply sure its information is correct before being able to confirm this. The White House says nothing.

Why would Congress go on a limb? Lawmakers want to force the White House to more rapidly evolve its policy. There is apparently a bipartisan agreement that the use of chemical weapons is not just a red line in rhetoric but one in fact, and that the longer the White House delays the inevitable, the more difficult any sort of U.S. or Western military intervention will be. 

I'm with the White House to a degree: For one thing, the availability bias I have with regards to recent U.S. interventions is such that I am skeptical that lives will be improved by our military footprint. Also, intelligence like this can be wrong; the consequences of acting on the basis of intelligence that is wrong (versus incomplete or partial, which it always is) can be devastating. To the administration's credit, it has briefed Congress, knowing that Congress would use the intel to pressure Obama into a response.

My guess is that whatever the U.S. has planned for Syria, it needs to happen quickly and surgically, without giving Syria a chance to prepare.

Here's something else to think about. The Obama administration has laid down red lines for Iran, too, about its nuclear weapons capability. If Syria crosses ITS red line and the U.S. responds with force, Iran will notice. If the U.S. dithers, Iran will notice, too.

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