The White House’s warning to the Syrian regime about chemical weapons on Monday night was part of a concerted effort between the White House and defense officials, according to a Washington Post report published Tuesday that described the preparations as a “fast-moving train.”
Pentagon spokesmen said the US received news that aircraft stationed in Shayrat air base — the same base that was struck by the US with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles in April — were being outfitted with chemical weapons, The Post reported.
The White House sought to issue the warning amid reports that personnel from a special Syrian unit that deals with chemical weapons were allegedly seen visiting known and suspected facilities that produce chemical weapons.
President Donald Trump’s warning came Monday evening, after hasty talks with top level officials took place in between meetings with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Politico reported. Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National security adviser H.R. McMaster were briefed on the developments, tweaking the White House’s statement between meetings with Modi.
The “fast moving” plan to issue the statement — cleared by several key agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, State Department, and the Defense Department, according to sources cited by Politico — was met with little opposition among the top military officials, according to sources cited by Politico.
The process; however, appeared to move so quickly that only a handful of the most senior officials had knowledge of the developments. Others, according to some reports, were caught off guard by the statement.
The White House took issue with the assertion that some people were kept out of the loop:
“In response to several inquiries regarding the Syria statement issued last night, we want to clarify that all relevant agencies — including State, DoD, CIA and ODNI — were involved in the process from the beginning,” a statement from the White House read. “Anonymous leaks to the contrary are false,” the White House said.
Tom Donilon, former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, also played down the apparently limited communication between top military channels.
“There’s a broader issue here of effective coordination and communication — sometimes the president contradicts his own people,” Donilon said. “But I don’t think that’s the most important issue here. If, in fact, the United States has evidence that they’re preparing a chemical attack, laying down a warning that you intend to follow through on is an appropriate thing to do.”
However, Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow and director at the Center for a New American Security, indicated that the lack of broad communication across the US government on direct warnings to an enemy state “hurts American credibility.”
“When the Syrian regime sees a report that [government officials] have no idea, the message to them is that these guys don’t have their act together,” said Goldenberg. “And if nobody at State knows, it hurts your ability to follow up and have a diplomatic game-plan.”