Identifying an attack with a nerve agent (organophosphate) is not at all difficult. The symptoms are characteristic: pinpoint pupils, increased secretions from all orifices, suffocation. They are the same symptoms experienced by agricultural workers accidentally sprayed with organophosphate insecticides. (I treated one such case 30 years ago.)
This is said to be the poison in the school lunch that killed children in India last month. Blood levels of cholinesterase are markedly reduced, and increase as those affected recover. Dead bodies have no signs of physical trauma. Autopsies of dead bodies or blood tests from the living provide the answer.
Recovery is often incomplete, however.
There are several reasons a perpetrator may choose to use chemical or biological weapons, not least of which is the difficulty identifying who used it. Unlike a bullet, it does not come from the direction of the enemy. The cost is relatively low, there are many methods for dissemination, and use of a weapon of mass destruction gets peoples’ attention. These features can make it an ideal weapon to use when your goal is to implicate–loudly–an innocent party.
Nerve agents were first developed by Germany before and during World War II. They are in the same chemical class as organophosphate pesticides, so their method of manufacture is well known, and they can be produced or purchased by nations or by subnational groups.
Examples of use of organophosphate nerve agents include the sarin attack on Tokyo’s subways in 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo cult; attacks on Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and on Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988; and contamination of clothing worn by black rebels during the Rhodesian civil war in the late 1970s. Frank Chikane, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, experienced a failed assassination attempt by organophosphates in 1989, while visiting the US.
In none of these cases was there initial clarity about who perpetrated the attacks.
How does one get clarity regarding the source of the attack, especially in a situation (like Syria) where more than one actor may have reasons to use the agent or to cast blame on an enemy?
- The agents should be identified, and evidence that the putative perpetrator had access to this agent should be sought.
- The delivery system (probably missiles in the case of Syria) is more likely to be identifiable in terms of its source than the agent itself. What type of missile, where built, what markings does it contain? News reports suggest missiles have been identified.
- Communications are being monitored by NSA and others. What is known about orders to use the agent(s)? Noah Shachtman, writing in Foreign Policy, suggests this evidence may be contradictory in the case of Syria.
- Syria is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention and is known to have stockpiles of chemical agents at various sites. Satellite photos and other intelligence may provide information regarding movement and launching of these weapons.
- Whoever the perpetrator, they always have a logical motive for using chemical weapons. In the case of the Assad government, it is difficult to see any rationale for a chemical weapons attack on civilians, given the anticipated US response.
…American officials said Wednesday there was no “smoking gun” that directly links President Bashar al-Assad to the attack, and they tried to lower expectations about the public intelligence presentation. They said it will not contain specific electronic intercepts of communications between Syrian commanders or detailed reporting from spies and sources on the ground…
Administration officials said that communications between military commanders intercepted after Wednesday’s attack provided proof that the assault was not the result of a rogue unit acting against orders. It is unclear how much detail about these communications, if any, will be made public…
There is also the issue of international law. The US has not been attacked. It has no legal right to unilaterally decide to “punish” Syria for using chemical weapons on its people. The Chemical Weapons Convention and other United Nations precedents provide the current legally approved regime for dealing with allegations of chemical weapons use.
… Yet with the botched intelligence about Iraq still casting a long shadow over decisions about waging war in the Middle East, the White House faces an American public deeply skeptical about being drawn into the Syrian conflict and a growing chorus of lawmakers from both parties angry about the prospect of an American president once again going to war without Congressional consultation or approval…
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that whatever evidence the administration put forward would be the American intelligence community’s “most important single document in a decade.”
The Obama administration, Mr. Cordesman said, needs to use intelligence about the attack “as a key way of informing the world, of building up trust in U.S. policy and intelligence statements, and in moving U.S strategic communications from spin to convincing truth.”
The Washington Post says,
…But the Obama administration’s efforts to build a legal case are encountering skepticism from U.N. officials and other experts, including former Republican and Democratic State Department lawyers, who argue that the use of force against the Syrian regime, absent a U.N. Security Council resolution, would be illegal…
And then the final question: how would US military action actually advance US objectives in the area? Again today’s NY Times and (surprisingly) Rep. Boehner cut to the chase:
As the White House now considers direct military action in Syria, something it has resisted for two years, Speaker John A. Boehner wrote a letter on Wednesday to Mr. Obama asking the president to provide a “clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action — which is a means, not a policy — will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy.”
The WSJ noted:
Separately, 116 House lawmakers—98 Republicans and 18 Democrats—signed a letter to Mr. Obama, demanding he seek congressional authorization for a military strike.
The markets knew at 9 am Wednesday EDT that the rush to war had run up against roadblocks. Silver dropped by 2% before 10 am and gold also fell sharply. It took the newspapers a few hours longer to figure out that the imminent US offensive strike had been halted.