Marc Caputo: Want truth about Syria? That’s ‘classified’

09/08/2013 4:56 PM

09/08/2013 7:35 PM

The Obama Administration, in media-marketing parlance, is trying to “sell” a war.

But the American public and its caveat-emptor Congress aren’t buying.

The administration’s so-called product — a bombing campaign in Syria — has a series of non-disclosure clauses bound up with an implicit government promise: “trust us.”

Umm?

No.

Last week, at hearings of a U.S. House and Senate committee, the administration and some backers talked compelling evidence against Bashar Assad’s regime.

But the most compelling information about chemical weapons use in Syria was classified. When it was about to be made public or skeptics asked good questions, Barack Obama’s team said answers needed to be reserved for closed-session briefings.

This happened at least 36 times in two days, according to committee hearing transcripts.

Again, for emphasis: “classified” or “closed session” meetings were invoked or referenced 36 times in a debate about literal life-and-death policy, war.

Thirty-six times.

“The Administration has got to make more evidence public,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a hawkish Miami Republican who listened to the presentation before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, told The Herald.

“They’re coming to us always classified and classified and classified. And it drives us crazy,” she said. “You’ve got to be open. You’ve got to convince the American people.”

But rather than speak openly or line up public or congressional support before he started talking about Syria crossing a “red line,” Obama appears to be doing it after the fact, almost in reverse.

This is no way to make a “sale.” And it shows.

Poll after poll after poll show considerable percentages of people from right, left and center just don’t want to get involved in Syria. A majority of Florida’s congressional delegation, reflecting sentiment in the U.S. House, is ready to vote against authorizing a strike.

Ros-Lehtinen is one of the few Republicans on the fence, but leaning yes. Fellow Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart says he’s “reluctant.”

Miami Democrats such as Joe Garcia and Frederica Wilson haven’t clearly said how they’d vote. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose congressional district includes parts of Miami Beach, is the only definite yes in Miami-Dade.

The concern, even among Democrats, is a reflection of the fact that we’re a war-weary public and we’re a public wary of the trust-us-we’re-from-the-government salesmen of the military-industrial complex.

There are reasons for caution: from the 1898 explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor that began the Spanish-American War to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident that helped escalate the Vietnam War.

And of course there’s the faulty and manipulated intelligence the Bush Administration used to invade Iraq. The Bush administration also used budgeting gimmickry to help hide the costs, all with the help of some big-spending saber-rattling Republicans made dovish and budget-conscious in the era of Obama.

How much would a bombing campaign of Syria cost?

The Pentagon and White House won’t say how much it is.

That’s classified.

It could cost as much as $3 billion, which supporters say is nothing compared to the size of the federal budget. But compared to Obama’s campaign rhetoric, where he pushed for eliminating a corporate-jet tax break valued at $3 billion over a decade, it could be considered a lot.

In the end, it’ll cost something. We’re not being told just what we’re buying.

But we’ll pay, and some could do so with their lives.

The Obama administration has promised “no boots on the ground.” But that leaves people wondering how effective airstrikes will be and whether troops will eventually get sucked into a bigger war.

War begets war.

War is particularly important in Florida, home to 20 major Air Force and Navy installations in addition to about 1.7 million veterans who receive $8 billion in services.

At Wednesday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, Ros-Lehtinen was joined by Orlando Rep. Alan Grayson, a Democratic congressman who pressed Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey for more information.

Grayson has called some of the administration’s claims over Syria “flatly false” and questions whether and who used chemical weapons if at all. He questioned the administration over leaked transcripts intercepted allegedly from Syrian commanders appearing to indicate they ordered the attack.

“You will agree that it’s important that the administration not mislead the public in any way about these reports, won’t you?" Grayson asked Hagel.

“I’m not aware of the administration misleading the American public on this issue or any other issue,” Hagel said.

"Well, you agree that the only way to put that matter to rest is to release the original reports in some redacted form,” Grayson said. “Will you declassify it for this purpose?”

Hagel: “I just gave you my answer. I have no idea what exactly you’re talking about. I’d have to go back and look at it, I’d have to confer with others — our intelligence community — that’s all I can tell you.”

That’s all your government can tell your elected representative publicly.

Attention government shoppers: Caveat emptor.

About Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo

@MarcACaputo

Marc Caputo is the Miami Herald's political writer. Hailing from Key West, he graduated from the University of Miami.

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