John Kerry was making his "beyond a reasonable doubt" case against Syria's Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday when he gave lawmakers a bit of faulty intelligence.
"Just today, before coming in here, I read an email to me about a general, the minister of defense, former minister or assistant minister, I forget which, who has just defected and is now in Turkey," the secretary of state testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "And there are other defections that we are hearing about because of the potential that we might take action."
A few minutes later, Kerry revised his account: This official-sounding "email" was actually a Reuters news account about a former defense minister based on a claim by the Syrian opposition. "Reuters has now said the Syrian government is saying the defection has not taken place," Kerry said. "So who knows whether it has or hasn't?"
This is the problem with the case the Obama administration is making for attacking Syria.
Officials say the evidence is incontrovertible that Assad used sarin gas against his people. Lawmakers emerging from secret, classified briefings seem to agree. But while members of Congress are coming around to an attack on Syria, the American public remains skeptical. Why? Maybe it's because the government won't let them in on the secret.
The public heard about another "slam dunk" case a decade ago and, then as now, Democratic and Republican lawmakers agreed that the secret evidence was compelling. And it turned out to be wrong. Now, administration officials are telling Americans to trust their assurances that the secret evidence is convincing and that their war planning is solid. But they won't provide details.
Estimates of collateral damage? "Lower than a certain number which I would rather share with you in a classified setting," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers.
Response of the Arab and Muslim countries? "This is something I'd be happier discussing in greater detail with you in the closed session," Kerry said.
Safeguards to keep military action limited? "We can talk about that in a closed session," Dempsey said.