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Helpful Secure Congressional Briefing, but Key Questions Remain Unanswered

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Location: Washington, DC

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) yesterday attended what she said was the only bicameral and bipartisan security briefing held since she became a member of Congress. She said that the briefing was very helpful, but that she needed more information in order to agree that D.C. residents should again go to war. "They went to war in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, without a vote only to return to the U.S. still without the vote that they had secured for people in these countries," Norton said. She was particularly concerned that the point of the military on Syria seems to be not the national security of the United States, but punishment for Bashar al-Assad and deterrence for other countries in the use of chemical weapons. If so, will a limited strike accomplish that purpose? She noted that chemical weapons have been used before with no such reaction from the U.S. or other countries and that their use has been rare and always widely condemned.

Although the five security and policy administration officials at yesterday's classified congressional briefing answered many questions, they conceded that they had no answer to the questions raised by Norton. Her questions were based on the surprising information from the briefers that Assad's major allies, Iran and Hezbollah, had counseled against using chemical weapons. Norton asked, why then had Assad decided on a massive chemical weapons attack now? Troubled by the scant intelligence on the Assad regime, she asked if the attack indicated that the Assad regime acted out of desperation because it has been weakened, or perhaps the opposite, that Assad feels his position in the war has been strengthened and he wanted to use the weapons to wind it up? To add to actions that do not fit together, Norton asked, why Assad agreed to let inspectors in, with no limitations, to search for evidence of use of chemical weapons? She said it does not add up. The briefers agreed that these actions remain unexplained.

However, the Congresswoman said that the briefing cleared up some issues, particularly in verifying the use of sarin gas and its source from territory controlled by Assad, verified by samples of victims and firsthand accounts from first responders, along with a wealth of other evidence. Briefers also provided a classified document (that had to be returned) showing the chain of command to show the likelihood that Assad gave the order to use sarin gas. Members who attended appeared to be satisfied that chemical weapons were used, removing a major concern lingering from the faulty evidence that led to the Iraq War. The chemical weapons treaty signed by the U.S. provides some legal underpinning for a strike, although not as strong as a UN resolution (which Russia surely would veto), according to Norton. Chemical weapons have a separate treaty, much like nuclear weapons, because they are regarded as outside of even the worst of warfare.

"Still troubling to me is the U.S. view that a brief strike will have a deterrent effect, presumably on the use of chemical weapons and that Assad, who has tons of chemical weapons, is unlikely to retaliate," said Norton. "I am also concerned that the U.S. has only a slim coalition -- Turkey, France and the U.S. -- particularly considering that almost all nations have signed the chemical weapons treaty, including most in the Middle East." Norton wonders why only a couple of the nations among many briefed by the administration said that they believe the U.S. should not proceed. Yet, the great majority who said they approved have not signed on to the coalition. Briefers said they would redouble efforts to broaden the coalition.

The broad language of the authorization bothered many, but there will be a markup, allowing for changes. All of the recent authorizations -- Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan -- have been similarly broad. Norton believes that to get a majority there will be changes, such as no boots on the ground. However, based on the briefing, she expects the administration to push back on attempts to narrow the authorization in ways that could limit the President's flexibility in light of the many unknowns following a strike on Syria. Briefers stressed that the President did not want to proceed without congressional authorization, but they said that the President reserves the prerogative to do so.

Democratic and Republican leaders have said members will not be subject to the usual whip pressure. However, Norton believes that considering existing deep fissures within the Congress on most issues and sharp differences even within each caucus on a strike on Syria, the administration has a lot of work to do ensure a bill passes. In the end, she believes that the President will have to count on the loyalty of Democrats to the President to bring many reluctant Democrats to authorize a strike.


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