The Cable

U.S. investigating two possible chemical weapons attacks in Syria

The U.S. government is scrambling to collect information on not one but two deadly events in Syria that opposition forces claim were chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.

Leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their advocates in Washington claim to have identified the chemical agent used in what they say were two Scud-like missile attacks launched by the Syrian regime against civilians on March 19. The Syrian Support Group (SSG), the only American organization licensed by the U.S. government to send money directly to the FSA, issued a press release Wednesday claiming the gas that killed civilians in separate events near Damascus and Aleppo was Echothiophate, a chemical agent simulant found in insecticides.

Echothiophate is not technically a chemical weapon but causes similar effects in victims, including muscle, nerve, and respiratory damage resulting in death if not treated quickly.

Several administration officials told The Cable that the U.S government does not yet know what caused the deaths in Damascus and Aleppo, but administrations officials did confirm that the two incidents seem to be related and are both part of an ongoing inquiry. The Cable is not able to independently confirm the FSA and SSG claims.

"Because we cannot yet state with certainty that chemical weapons have been used in the last days, I cannot tell you what happened," Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said Wednesday. "I can tell you that we have a large team of people working on it right now."

The SSG said that doctors who treated the initials victims from a Scud-like missile attack in the al-Oteiba neighborhood near the Damascus International Airport confirmed the chemical was Echothiophate and that the doctors had treated the victims with Atropine and other drugs. The FSA claims that there were 60-70 victims of this particular attack.

The second apparent Scud attack was launched from Damascus toward Aleppo, but due to what was assumed to be mechanical problems, the missile fell short of its target and landed one kilometer from the Infantry Training Academy in Khan Asal in the western Aleppo suburbs, in an area occupied by regime forces and civilian regime supporters, FSA leaders told the SSG. Sixteen people were killed immediately, and an unknown number of poisoned people were taken to the Aleppo University Hospital, which is in the hands of the regime, according to FSA reports.

"FSA forces are not in possession of delivery systems capable of carrying chemical warheads," the SSG said in its press release.

In his speech before a crowd of Israeli university students in Jerusalem Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama again stated that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would have dire consequences, but declined to specify what any of those consequences might be.

"I've made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists," Obama said. "The world is watching. We will hold you accountable."

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice welcomed Thursday U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's announcement that the U.N. would conduct its own inquiry into the incidents.

"The United States supports an investigation that pursues any and all credible allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, and underscores the importance of launching this investigation as swiftly as possible," she said. 

The Cable

Corker calls for more congressional oversight of drone strikes

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Bob Corker (R-TN) Wednesday added his name to the growing list of senators who want to change the law to boost congressional oversight of drone strikes and targeted killings by the U.S. government. 

Corker called for Congress to update the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) at a Wednesday hearing and said that he wants the SFRC to take the lead on revising the law that was passed in the wake of the original 9/11 attacks. He prodded SFRC Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to hold a hearing on the issue and consider marking up legislation in their committee.

"For far too long, Congress has failed to fully exercise its constitutional responsibility to authorize the use of military force, including in the current struggle against al Qaeda, so I urge the committee to consider updating current antiterrorism authorities to adapt to threats that did not exist in 2001 and to better protect our nation while upholding our morals and values," Corker said. 

Congress should amend the law to specify exactly how and when the president can use drones and kill or capture missions to kill people and Congress must "restore the appropriate balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of government while maintaining flexibility for the president to respond swiftly under threat of attack," Corker said.

Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center under both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, urged the committee to revise the 2001 AUMF in testimony before the committee. 

With the continued evolution of the terror threat and most notably its increasing distance from the 9/11 attacks and core al Qaeda, I believe it is the time to re-evaluate the AUMF to better fit today's threat landscape," Leiter said.

Former Bush administration senior counterterrorism official Kenneth L. Wainstein also testified that congressional oversight and transparency were necessary to bring legitimacy to the covert programs. 

"Congressional action has provided one other very important element to our counterterrorism initiatives -- a measure of political legitimacy that could never be achieved through unilateral executive action," he said. "That legitimizing effect -- and its continuation through meaningful oversight -- is critical to maintaining the public's confidence in the means and methods our government uses in its fight against international terrorism."

Wednesday's hearing was a follow-up to a classified hearing on counterterrorism last week that included testimony from Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen

The issue of using military force to kill Americans on U.S. soil was front and center in Congress earlier this month and featured both in Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's March 6 filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan and a March 6 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee with Eric Holder, during which the attorney general said clearly that the targeting of Americans for killing on U.S. soil, in absence of an immediate threat, would be unlawful.

Corker's Wednesday announcement included an assertion that the SFRC, not the Judiciary Committee, has "exclusive jurisdiction" over any efforts to change the AUMF.

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