By Mick Krever, CNN
What do we know about Western Nations’ intelligence on the Syrian chemical weapons attack, and who was behind it?
It’s a question that many people in and out of government have – whether for or against intervention – ever-mindful of the Iraq weapons of mass destruction fiasco.
On Monday, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour examined the issue with two experts: Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert, and Greg Thielmann, former chief of the nonproliferation analysis office in the State Department's intelligence bureau.
“Right now we seem to be in a spiral of confirmation bias on the part of the number of Western leaders,” Zanders told Amanpour from Geneva. “Much more can be put on the table – without compromising intelligence sources – about the nature of the investigations undertaken, how many samples were investigated, how widespread were those samples.”
Thielmann agreed that more information should be made available, especially because of the Iraq experience, but said that he personally found the case against Assad persuasive.
“I find two pieces of this extremely convincing,” Thielmann told Amanpour. “One is the remote sensing data on the muzzle flashes and rocket flashes that show where the attack was launched from.”
That data, he said, indicated that the flashes all originated from “government-held” areas.
“Ninety minutes later,” he said, “we started getting reports of the victims. So that’s very convincing to me about who was responsible for this attack.”
The second piece of evidence Thielmann cited were intercepts between Syrian commanders discussing the chemical weapons attack, reportedly provided by Israeli intelligence.
But both Zanders and Thielmann said that the public deserved to see those transcripts, which as of yet have remained secret.
“I think there are quite a number of intercepts that could be published in full,” Zanders said.
Zanders, the chemical weapons expert, urged the governments to be “very honest,” and put all of their evidence – for and against chemical weapons use – on the table for all to see.
This evidence could include, he said, “physiological samples from victims. One could indicate where they come from, they could be indicated how they have been analyzed in the laboratories.”
Germany has added a new element to the evidence mix; over the weekend, a German newspaper reported that German intelligence intercepted communications that indicated al-Assad had repeatedly denied his military approval for chemical attacks. They still, however, believe that his regime was responsible for the August 21 attack that gripped the world’s attention.
“In his dictatorship, and given the understanding of his tight control over chemical weapons use, one would presume that he had a role to play in this,” Thielmann said. “If he did not have a role to play, one would like to see evidence of his arrest of the generals and others who committed this atrocity.”
The aftermath chemical weapons attack, and President Obama’s subsequent pledge for military action, has proven to be a fast-moving and surprising story – and Monday was no exception.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that his country was urging Assad to turn over its chemical weapons to international control.
Syria, while neither confirming nor denying its chemical weapons stockpile, said it “welcomes” the proposal.
“The Russians are obviously influential with the Syrians,” Thielmann told Amanpour. “If they can actually get the Syrians to agree to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which they have been disinclined to do for decades, that would also be a very positive step. But this is a testable proposition.”
In other words, it will all come down to whether Assad actually hands over control.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified Greg Thielmann as the "former director of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence." He is in fact the former chief of the nonproliferation analysis office in the State Department's intelligence bureau.