The State Department's head spokeswoman said Wednesday that the State Department cannot corroborate reports that the Syrian military used chemical weapons against its own people in the city of Homs last month.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland commented extensively at Wednesday's briefing on The Cable's exclusive Tuesday report that a secret cable sent last week from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul had relayed evidence that chemical weapons were used in Homs on Dec. 23. The cable, signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, outlined the results of the consulate's investigation based on a series of interviews with activists, doctors, and defectors, and made what an administration official who reviewed the cable called a "compelling case" that Assad's military forces had used a deadly form of poison gas.
On Tuesday, State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell told The Cable, "As you know, the United States closely monitors Syria's proliferation-sensitive materials and facilities, and we believe Syria's chemical weapons stockpile remains secured by the Syrian government. We have been clear that if Assad's regime makes the tragic mistake of using chemical weapons or failing to secure them, it will be held accountable."
On Tuesday evening, after the report was published, National Security Spokesman Tommy Vietor issued a statement that said, "The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program."
Today, Nuland publicly acknowledged the existence of the secret cable for the first time but said that The Cable's report "did not accurately convey the anecdotal information that we had received from a third party regarding an alleged incident in Syria in December."
"At the time we looked into the allegations that were made and the information that we had received, and we found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used," she said.
The Cable's report said that the cable in question had conveyed information from internal sources inside Syria claiming that the chemical Agent 15, also known by its NATO term BZ, was responsible for the deaths and injuries in Homs. The Cable also interviewed two doctors who treated victims on the scene, both of whom said that they were not claiming the gas was Agent 15 but that they were sure it was a chemical weapon, rather than tear gas, based on the severity of the effects and the nature of the symptoms.
Nuland said that the State Department receives reports from embassies and consulates on such incidents regularly, but that in this case, the department could not confirm the reports of chemical weapons use and therefore determined there was no evidence of such use.
"It is a responsibility of our embassies and consulates around the world, no matter what kind of anecdotal information you have, to report it. That doesn't necessarily mean that either at the time or over the longer term it is considered credible by us," she said. "When this particular message came in from consulate Istanbul, we took it seriously as we do with all such anecdotal reporting, and concluded at the time that we couldn't corroborate it; we haven't been able to corroborate it since either."
Reporters at the briefing pressed Nuland on why the State Department was able to say today it believed no chemical weapons were used in Syria but Tuesday they were unable to make that assertion. Nuland said it took the government time to deal with the information because much of it was classified.
Nuland also asserted that The Cable didn't give the State Department enough time to respond to a request for comment.
"Sometimes we ask for more time to get our ducks in a row, and sometimes we are granted that by members of the fourth estate, and sometimes we are not. So we were able to give the response that we had last night, but I am able to give a more full answer today. And had the journalist waited for a more full answer, he would have had it," Nuland said, referring directly to your humble Cable guy. "We had asked for some time. We didn't get that time."
In fact, The Cable gave the State Department as much time as it needed to respond to our request for comment, even extending our deadline at the request of the State Department public affairs shop. Ventrell's comment for the original report was sent more than 6 hours after our initial query.
Syrian activists say that the circumstances surrounding the deaths in Homs make it impossible to be sure if or what chemical weapons were used, because of the horrible conditions there, the lack of access, and the lack of medical forensic equipment.
"It's difficult to know for sure what was used so all you have is whatever people saw and the symptoms," said Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. "If it is true that the regime used chemical weapons, they did it smartly by doing it in Homs, where it's hard to get to and hard to verify anything."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.