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Key Members Of Congress Briefed On Syria Intelligence


All right. Well, it looks like parliament is taking Britain out of any active role in possible U.S.-led strikes in Syria. The Obama administration is pressing ahead with preparations.

And we're joined now by NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Good morning, Ari.


GREENE: So Britain, I mean known as a collaborator usually, on American-led military actions. They're not going to be part of this. I presume this might affect the decision of other allies. Is the White House ready to do this alone?

SHAPIRO: White House aides say they would prefer to go down this road with a large international coalition, but they are prepared to go it alone if they have to. Of course, we now know that France is still in - at least according to French President Francois Hollande. But the U.K. was supposed to be a key part of this international alliance. And losing that support of Britain is a serious blow to the United States in this effort.

And frankly, the skepticism that we saw yesterday in London is not so different from the sorts of attitudes we're seeing among the American people. Poll numbers here in the U.S. show very little appetite for intervention in Syria among most Americans. And that skepticism is to some extent reflected in congress as well. It is entirely possible - though we don't know for certain - that if President Obama were to face Congress in public in the same way that David Cameron faced the House of Commons yesterday, the president here could get a similar reception.

GREENE: But they do use a different format on this side of the Atlantic...

SHAPIRO: They certainly do.

GREENE: ...which last night was the telephone. President Obama's team was on the phone with members of Congress. What happened?

SHAPIRO: Yes. It was a conference call where on the White House side there were about half a dozen top officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, the intelligence community and so on. From Congress, there were leaders of both parties as well as the chair and ranking member of the national security committees in the House and Senate. So, a couple dozen lawmakers in all. The White House says the call lasted 90 minutes and 15 members asked questions.

GREENE: Wow. It's a lot of time. Do we know what was said in these exchanges?

SHAPIRO: From the White House we don't know much. The administration provided a description that basically just gave a list of participants and said, quote, "the views of Congress are important to the president's decision-making process," which is something the White House has been saying all week - an assertion some lawmakers dispute. Several members of Congress released statements after the call, and it does not look like anybody's mind was changed. For example, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the White House needs to seek international support for, quote, "limited targeted strikes." And his Republican counterpart, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, opposed intervention before the conference call. Still does now. His statement said no red line should have ever been drawn - even been drawn, that is - without first preparing a strategic plan and assessing our resources; referring, of course, to President Obama's description of use of chemical weapons as a red line in Syria.

GREENE: Right. Well, Ari, has the White House offered any sense of the intelligence that they actually have, that the Americans are using, you know, are relying on to make this case against Syria?

SHAPIRO: They offered some of it on the call last night, though keep in mind that this was an unclassified call, so lawmakers may not have received the full picture and administration officials were limited in what they could say. But some snippets suggest that one key piece of this puzzle is an intercepted phone call between Syrian military officials discussing the attack, perhaps saying that it was more deadly than they had anticipated. It also seems that the Obama administration is relying on some evidence about the Syrian military moving chemical weapons around just before the attack. The White House has yet to lay out this case publicly. It's something that could happen today, but it's something the American people, the international community and lawmakers really want to see it laid out clearly before they go ahead with this kind of a strike.

GREENE: And, Ari, one thing we learned from the debate in Parliament in Britain is that Iraq, the memories of Iraq, and the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction weighed heavily on the minds of lawmakers. Is that playing a role here as the White House tries to make its case with members of Congress?

SHAPIRO: Oh, absolutely. You know, Politico had a great turn of phrase this morning saying that Obama's political career sprung from the ashes of George W. Bush's Iraq policy. The American public is deeply skeptical of reassurances that action in Syria will not go on beyond its intended duration. That's why you see even supporters of military action in Syria insist again and again that there will be absolutely no boots on the ground. But the shadow of Iraq hangs heavily over this. President Obama seems to be inching ever closer to military action in Syria. Aides insist he still has not made a final decision though and we have no timetable as of now.

GREENE: All right. We'll be following this closely as President Obama deals with the question of whether to take military action in Syria. NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.


GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.