White House Presses On With Plans To Strike Syria

From 'Morning Edition': NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

The Obama administration says action is necessary because Syria's government used chemical weapons against its own people last week — killing hundreds. What evidence is there that Syria's government was behind the attack?

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Preparations for a military strike against Syria continue. The Obama administration says action is necessary, because the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people last week, killing hundreds.

WERTHEIMER: All week, the administration has been claiming their case is open and shut.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATEMENTS)

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There is no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks. We have concluded that the Syrian government, in fact, carried these out.

WERTHEIMER: You just heard from the president, from Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to discuss the evidence that Syria's government was behind the attack. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So is the evidence as strong as the statements we just heard would lead you to believe?

BOWMAN: Well, what we're hearing from people who've seen the evidence collected so far that it's very likely it was the Syrian regime. But at the same time, they're not saying it's 100 percent. Now, some members of Congress who were briefed last night by administration officials say they're still waiting to see more forensic evidence. Now, that could be blood or tissue, soil samples that experts say would prove what chemical agent was used.

Now, the belief is that it was a nerve agent, but it seems people are waiting for more evidence. Now, another piece of forensic evidence, for example, could be remnants of rockets or missiles near the site that delivered the chemicals, rockets that only the Syrian government could have used. We expect the administration will provide more detailed intelligence information to Congress, maybe some of that forensic evidence, and then publicly release a declassified version of that report as early as today.

WERTHEIMER: OK. Well, let's break it down a little bit. The first thing that should be established is that chemical weapons were used. Does the administration have any of that physical evidence yet?

BOWMAN: Well, a lot of so far is circumstantial. For example, there were videos of the victims showing symptoms. A British report yesterday said the symptoms in those videos were consistent with a nerve agent, such as sarin. Those symptoms are convulsions, muscle spasms, constricted pupils. But, again, the blood, soil and tissue samples could conclusively answer that question.

And that was the mandate of the U.N. inspectors, to determine whether chemical weapons were used. And they're scheduled to leave Syria Saturday morning.

WERTHEIMER: So does the evidence show that the Assad regime directed the attack? Does it matter whether it came from the top, or was perhaps launched by someone lower down the chain of command?

BOWMAN: Well, at this point, they're saying we don't know. But the State Department spokesperson earlier said that it doesn't matter, that President Assad is the one who's ultimately responsible for what his military does.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this is 10 years after Iraq invasion and the mistaken assertions about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. How much do you think this weighs on the intelligence agencies who are trying get it right, prove their case, this time?

BOWMAN: I think it weighs quite heavily on them. You know, members of Congress, again, want as much detail as possible, because of recent history. Remember the term they used in Iraq, that the intelligence that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical weapons and perhaps nuclear weapons was definitive, that it was a slam-dunk case. And that, of course, turned out to be completely false. So I think they want to make sure they have all the information possible.

They're saying, you know, right now what they have is circumstantial, but that detailed information, forensic evidence - there's also talk of phone intercepts that they have between military officials. That would be a key piece of information. But, again, at this point, they're still compiling some of that information, and we expect to have a little bit more of that perhaps as early as today.

WERTHEIMER: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Linda.

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