Building case for lawmakers, U.S. says sarin gas used in Syria attack

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday tests showed that sarin nerve gas was used in a deadly August 21 chemical attack near Damascus as he sought to build the case to convince skeptical lawmakers to authorize a military strike against the Syrian government.

He invoked the crimes of Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and the potential threat to Israel from Syria and Iran in a round of television interviews a day after President Barack Obama delayed imminent military action in Syria to seek approval first from the U.S. Congress – a decision that puts any strike on hold for at least nine days.

It became apparent on Sunday that convincing Congress of atrocities committed by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces was only one of the challenges confronting Obama as he seeks their approval.

Lawmakers raised a broad array of concerns, including the potential effectiveness of limited strikes, the possible unintended consequence of sparking a wider Middle East conflict, the wisdom of acting without broader international backing to share the burden and war-weariness of the American public.

Many in Congress have been able to avoid taking a position on the merits of a military strike, focusing instead on demands that Obama consult them and seek their approval.

Now that Obama has put lawmakers on the spot by demanding that they take a position, many appeared to be hedging.

While Kerry predicted Obama would win the endorsement he wants, a growing cacophony of congressional critics – ranging from liberal Democratic doves to Republican Tea Party conservatives – illustrated just how hard that will be.

“This is squarely now in the hands of Congress,” Kerry told CNN, saying he had confidence “they will do what is right because they understand the stakes.”

Kerry declined to say whether Obama would go ahead with military action if Congress rejects the president's request, as British parliament did last week to derail London's role in any Syria military operation. Echoing Obama's comments in the White House Rose Garden on Saturday, he insisted that the president had the right to act on his own if he chooses that course.

Obama is taking a gamble by putting the brakes on the military assault that he considers essential to maintain U.S. credibility after Assad crossed the “red line” set against the use of chemical weapons.


With lawmakers due to be briefed later on Sunday by Obama's national security team on the administration's rationale for military action, Kerry used the television appearances to provide further evidence backing its accusations against the Syrian government.

“I can share with you today that blood and hair samples that have come to us through an appropriate chain of custody, from east Damascus, from first responders, it has tested positive for signatures of sarin,” Kerry told CNN's “State of the Union.”

It was the first time the administration has pinpointed what kind of chemical was used in the attack on a rebel-held area, which U.S. intelligence agencies said killed more than 1,400 people, many of them children.

“So this case is building and this case will build,” Kerry told NBC's “Face the Nation.”

Obama's efforts are sure to be hampered by his dismal relations with congressional Republicans, who rarely miss an opportunity to oppose him. Another bitter face-off on government spending is looming this fall.

Lawmakers for the most part welcomed Obama's decision to consult them but looked in no hurry to come back to Washington early from their summer recess, which lasts until September 9.

Comments from leading Republicans and Democrats indicated how complex the debate will be – and raise doubts whether Obama will win their authorization.

Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of House of Representatives intelligence committee, told CNN: “I think there are some real challenges. I think that at the end of the day Congress will rise to the occasion. This is a national security issue.”

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, speaking on NBC, took a more skeptical view.

While saying that he was “proud” of Obama for coming to Congress for authority, Paul said: “It's at least 50-50 whether the House will vote down the involvement in the Syrian war.”

“I think the Senate will rubber stamp what he wants,” he said. “The House will be a much closer vote.” The Senate is controlled by Obama's Democratic Party, the House is in the hands of the Republican Party.

Republican Senator John McCain said he was not sure Obama's request would pass but made clear his view that tougher military action was needed than the limited cruise missile strikes that the Obama administration is now preparing.

Republican congressman Peter King of New York said it was unclear if lawmakers would sign off on an attack on Syria but he warned Obama may have to overcome “the isolationist wing” of the Republican Party to prevail.

Seeking to lay the groundwork for what is expected to be a heated congressional debate, Kerry tipped his hand on one tactic the administration will use – linking the congressional vote to safeguarding U.S. ally Israel from the Syrian chemical weapons threat.

“I don't think they will want to vote, ultimately, to put Israel at risk,” Kerry said.

Lawmakers of both major political parties recognize how important it is to be seen as defenders of Israel, especially at election time, when they compete to show voters who is a better friend of the Jewish state.

Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Patricia Zengerle, David Brunnstrom; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Jackie Frank and Fred Barbash

New evidence photos from Boston Marathon bombing

FBI report calls Demjanjuk evidence a forgery

A secret FBI report from 1985 suggests a key piece of evidence in the trial of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk in Munich may have been a KGB forgery.

The German court announced Thursday that it would not suspend the trial over the document, and critics say the old report reflects outdated information.

“The facts show that the report of the Cleveland office are an irrelevant—and dangerous—basis for any consideration in the Demjanjuk case,” Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said in a statement April 13.

Steinberg said those who wrote the report in 1985 had not even examined the ID card. But in subsequent years, “the original ID has been subjected to the most intense scrutiny by courts and investigators on three continents”—including in the current case.

The Associated Press obtained the formerly classified Cleveland FBI report from the National Archives in Maryland suggesting that ID card 1393, which allegedly indicates Demjanjuk was transferred from the SS Trawniki training camp to the Nazi death camp Sobibor, might be a forgery by the KGB, the Soviet-era secret service.

Last year, a technical expert from the Bavarian Criminal Police Office testified that he had compared the ID with four other original cards and determined it was authentic. The same card reportedly also was analyzed by U.S. and Israeli authorities in earlier trials of Demjanjuk.

The FBI statement had not been seen by the defense or prosecutors in the Munich case, or in the trials in Israel and the U.S., according to the AP. Demjanjuk’s attorney, Ulrich Busch, requested a pause in the trial, which is supposed to conclude with a verdict in mid-May.

Demjanjuk, 91, is charged as an accomplice to the murder of 27,900 Jews in Sobibor in Poland in 1943.

Busch maintains that his client, a Ukraine native, was taken prisoner by the Nazis and was forced by them to become an SS guard.

Demjanjuk immigrated to the United States after the World War II and lived in suburban Cleveland. He was later stripped of his citizenship for lying about his Nazi past. A death sentence against him was overturned in Israel after its Supreme Court found reasonable doubt that he was the notorious guard “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka death camp.

In May 2009, Demjanjuk was deported from the United States to Germany. His trial on the Sobibor charges began late that year.

VIDEO: Duke professor searches for ‘kohanim’ genetic marker

Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his news book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.

Arafat’s Paper Trail

These battleground spoils cannot explode or kill, but Israel considers them important benefits of its military operation in the West Bank: Thousands of documents, pamphlets and posters that provide written evidence of the Palestinian Authority’s massive involvement in terrorism. The documents were captured at places like Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah and other P.A. offices, offices of the P.A.’s Preventive Security Service and Arafat’s Tanzim militia, Palestinian organizations throughout the West Bank and the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Jerusalem headquarters at Orient House.

Israeli intelligence officers are just beginning to analyze the abundance of material, but the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) rushed to publicize parts to bolster Israel’s argument that Arafat himself has been directly involved in terrorist operations and stands at the head of an enormous terror entity. Israeli officials were said to be shocked by the extent of P.A. complicity in terrorism.

"In the West Bank, the more we enter, the more we understand," an Israeli military official told the New York Times. "This is coming directly from Arafat personally."

Some of the documents were publicized by the IDF spokesman in their original form in Arabic. The Palestinians claim that the documents are part of an elaborate Israeli fabrication operation, pitting their word against the IDF’s. The most important finding is that senior P.A. officers were actively involved in terrorism, providing logistical and financial assistance even to supposedly oppositionist elements such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Within the more mainstream Palestinian organizations, Arafat oversees two parallel and competing structures, each with its own funding, chain of command and capability for directing bombing attacks, the IDF told the Times. The cells that carry out the attacks are located in eight regions — Jenin, Tulkarm, Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah, Kalkilya and Gaza. Both structures report to Arafat and receive his financial backing.

"One of the most telling revelations of the documents, is that the broadly accepted view that Arafat leaves the details to others is completely incorrect," said Michael Widlanski, a Hebrew University researcher who monitors the Palestinian press. "The documents repeatedly show that Arafat is in day-to-day control of the details of all his organizations, relaying the information for comment to the senior members of his military branches."

Arafat signed off on various operational invoices for the Tanzim, the militia of Arafat’s Fatah Party that has been responsible for a large number of terrorist attacks, including the bombing near Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market April 12 that killed six. The IDF exposed documents showing that Arafat personally signed checks for Tanzim activists involved in terrorism. This, according to the IDF, contradicts Arafat’s usual denial that he has any control over the Tanzim. Other documents show militants within Arafat’s Fatah requesting money for bomb and weapons parts, itemizing the cost of each component and how many bombs per week the organization plans to use.

Moreover, evidence from documents and captured terrorists indicates, according to the IDF, that the P.A.’s West Bank intelligence chief, Tawfik Tirawi, helped recruit, arm and dispatch terrorists for attacks inside Israel.

When given lists of "Most Wanted" terrorists — whom the Palestinian Authority is obligated to arrest, under its agreements with Israel — Tirawi allegedly used the lists to warn the terrorists, so they could evade arrest. According to the IDF, Jamal Sawitat, the deputy head of the P.A.’s Preventive Security Service in Jenin, also constantly informed Islamic Jihad of the names of terrorists Israel was after.

Mortars and heavy machine guns, as well as kippot and other disguises for suicide bombers, were found even at the headquarters of Jibril Rajoub, the head of Preventive Security in the West Bank, who often is praised as a Palestinian moderate. However, Israeli military officials were careful not to assert that Rajoub himself had directed specific attacks. Prior to the recent escalation of the situation, Rajoub often was mentioned as a possible successor to Arafat. However, the fact that his security compound surrendered to Israeli soldiers — and that Rajoub did not join Arafat in his besieged headquarters in Ramallah — may have damaged his political prospects.

Some of the documents were found in the office of Fuad Shubaki, Arafat’s financial aide. Shubaki allegedly masterminded the Palestinian attempt to smuggle arms from Iran on the Karine A weapons ship that Israel seized in January. Palestinians had claimed that Shubaki’s was a rogue operation and that he was under investigation for his role, but he is currently believed to be holed up with Arafat in his headquarters, along with several of Arafat’s closest aides and a host of wanted terrorists. The army charged that members of Palestinian security services were directly involved in planning, and in some cases even perpetrating, attacks against Israelis. Uzi Landau, Israel’s minister of internal security, used the momentum to publish documents seized last year at Orient House, the Jerusalem headquarters of the PLO. Landau convened a press conference in early April at which he exposed documents reinforcing the link between Arafat and the Tanzim. The documents show that Faisal Husseini, the late PLO official in charge of Jerusalem, was updated by Tanzim leaders — such as Atef Abayyat, who was later killed by the IDF — on attacks against Jews, and was asked to intervene to get more money for Tanzim operations. Police confiscated a letter sent by Husseini to his lawyer on Sept. 28, 2000, the day Ariel Sharon made his controversial visit to the Temple Mount that the Palestinian Authority says provoked spontaneous riots that grew into the intifada. Husseini’s letter, however, mentions the "Al-Aksa Intifada" — before it had even begun. According to Landau, this proves that the intifada was preplanned. "These documents, many of them signed by Arafat, are more than a smoking gun," Landau said. "They are a smoking pen, a pen dripping blood held by Arafat."

Landau said the Palestinian leader "cannot deny these documents, that show he and his top aides planned and financed acts of terror."

But the Palestinians have done just that, challenging the documents’ authenticity and hoping that the world will not take too much notice — as, indeed, it hasn’t.

"No one can say they are 100 percent authentic," Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Washington representative of the PLO told the Times. "And in the past, Israel was able to take many expressions out of context and distort their meaning."

The IDF has posted some of the documents on its Web site, The documents and intelligence provided to the Bush administration are more comprehensive. Other major findings include:


Focus on Forensics

Barry Fisher, director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department crime laboratory, showed up in Jerusalem this week, invited by the Israeli Police Department to give a couple of lectures and the benefit of his 30 years’ experience to the forensics people of the Jewish state. In a wood-paneled room at National Police Headquarters, along with about 25 Israeli police officers, I caught his second lecture, “Forensic Science After O.J. Simpson.” (I will assume that, despite so many breathlessly absorbing high-profile murders and sex scandals since then, you still vaguely remember O.J. Simpson.)

O.J.’s prosecution was the job of the City of Los Angeles, which runs its own forensics laboratory; Fisher and the county crime lab had nothing to do with it, though Fisher’s forensics textbook was quoted (“largely out of context,” he says) as the Dream Team worked to demonstrate that the police had mishandled the evidence. For his part, Fisher thinks the LAPD “did not do a very bad job.”

The O.J. trial was what Fisher called a “jumping-off place” for the Los Angeles City and County forensics authorities to examine how to do their work more effectively, especially in high-profile cases. Here’s what Fisher says his department learned from O.J. My surprise was that almost none of it has to do with forensics:

1) To maintain an appearance of professionalism at the crime scene. Officers arrive at the scene in business clothes, then change into police jumpsuits and are under orders not to eat and drink at the crime scene (looks bad to the public, Fisher said — “too cavalier”).

2) To explain technical information to the jury by the “K.I.S.S.” method — “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Especially with highly technical details of DNA investigations, jury members have been known to doze off during expert-witness testimony.

3) To train expert witnesses to testify, using mock courts, videotapes of their practice runs, encouragement to use graphs and charts, and reminders that they don’t have to answer only yes or no, no matter what the examining lawyer demands.

4) To prepare for an attack, not only on the findings of forensic science, but on how the crime scene was managed and how the evidence was collected and handled. “If collection and handling was done badly, science can’t help,” Fisher said, recommending to Israel’s forensics teams to develop clear written procedures and clear accountability for their use.

5) To utilize trained, skilled crime-scene investigators, especially in a high-profile case.

6) To work hard to overcome the belief of minorities that they are treated poorly by the police — that is, to build confidence that justice is administered equally. (A couple of the Israeli officers acknowledged that this item, a sociological rather than forensic issue, is a real problem in Israel, too.)

As part of its attempt to sensitize its staff to the multicultural realities of life in Los Angeles, Fisher noted, all Sheriff’s Department employees are required to tour the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance. Knowledge of cultural differences can be crucial, he explained. For example, in the Western World, eye contact generally connotes honesty. But Asians, Fisher said, look down as a sign of respect — that doesn’t mean they’re hiding anything.

There was a non-forensic subtext to Barry Fisher’s visit, as well. Fisher is the current president of the International Association of Forensic Sciences, whose 15th triennial conference is scheduled for Los Angeles this August. He is also one of the eight people who will decide the venue of the next conference, in 2002. The forensic authorities of China, France, England and Australia all want to host the conference, and so does Israel’s chief of police.

Fisher, a member of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge and the somewhat baffled, not-so-religious father of two sons who have chosen to study at the Orthodox Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem (one son in current residence there), seemed sympathetic to having the next conference in the Holy City. But he wasn’t making any promises. In fact, he implied a fair amount of resistance to such a plan among his colleagues. It turns out that a lot of these tough crime-scene guys are scared to come to Israel, which Fisher blamed (rightly, I think) on television’s selective coverage that shows Israel as a dangerous place.

So here’s a relevant statistic for American forensic workers: Los Angeles County has a population of 10 million, a bit more than half again as great as Israel’s 6 million. But it has 10 times as many murders annually — 1,500 in Los Angeles County, compared with Israel’s 150 (and that includes victims of terrorism).

No wonder the kids want to study over here.