The White House tried to fend off a mini press rebellion Thursday by decrying any comparisons between the rush to strike Syria with the lead-up to the Iraq war, which was opposed vigorously by President Obama, who was especially critical of the intelligence claims used to justify the invasion.
During a Thursday briefing with reporters, White House spokesman Joshua Earnest was grilled over an Associated Press story that said U.S. intelligence agencies have not provided a “slam dunk” when it comes to laying the groundwork for a military strike into Syria, which Washington is expecting to come soon.
Earnest tried to push back by pointing out the the AP report was based on anonymous sources and was less credible because of it.
“You’ve got a handful of anonymous individuals who are quoted in that story,” he said. “And I have on-the-record statements from the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, an on the record-statement from the vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. I have on-the-record statements from the president of the United States, the vice president, the secretary of state…”
The press quickly pounced on the comment, pointing out that administration officials, including Earnest, frequently talk to reporters on an anonymous basis.
“You guys talk to us anonymously all the time and expect us to believe it’s credible,” AP reporter Julie Pace said, a comment that drew knowing laughter and words of affirmation from many gathered for the briefing.
More broadly, Earnest discounted any parallels to intelligence assessments before the Iraq invasion, arguing “there are very important differences” between the two situations.
“What we saw in that circumstance that an administration was searching high and low to produce evidence to justify a military invasion, an open-ended military invasion of another country, with the final goal being regime change,” he said. “That was the articulated policy of the previous administration.”
But Obama and top administration officials have made it clear that any military action in Syria is not designed to topple President Bashar Assad or even change the dynamics of the two-and-a-half-year civil war.
Obama was explicit about his desire to avoid getting mired in another long war in the Middle East during an interview with PBS on Wednesday.
Instead, he said he supports “limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition, of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about.”
The White House indicated earlier this week that it planned to release a public intelligence assessment, but has so far has held back on making it public. Internal administration divisions about the lack of evidence tying the chemical attacks to Assad and his top lieutenants could be contributing to the delay.
According to the AP, the administration has not kept close track of the Syrian government’s movements of chemical weapons so it is unable to know where all of the stockpiles are, making it difficult to know where and where not to strike.
Earnest said Thursday that the document would likely be released later Thursday before National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper brief congressional leaders at 6 p.m.
The call, which will not contain classified information, is part of an “ongoing, robust consultation that this administration believes we need to have with Congress,” Earnest said.
He declined to say whether the president would seek congressional approval before ordering a military action in Syria, as many in Congress have demanded.
“It is important for this administration to consult with Congress in a fairly robust way,” he said.
But he called questions about whether Obama would seek congressional approval hypothetical, arguing that he would be “presupposing a decision that has not been made” about military action.