German Intelligence Officer: 'Syria's President Ordered Chemical Attack'

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. The Obama administration's effort to gather support for a military strike in Syria is in high gear. Today, the president himself made the case for a strike while on a visit to Sweden. He said it wasn't his red line that Syria crossed by using chemical weapons, but the world's red line. Obama and his aids say they have plenty of evidence to back up the charge against Syria, but there's still skepticism about that. Against that background, intelligence officials this week held a secret briefing for lawmakers in Berlin, and at that briefing the head of Germany's foreign intelligence agency said his agents intercepted a telephone call that implicated Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the poison gas attacks. Matthias Gebauer is a correspondent for the German publication Der Spiegel. He's written about that briefing. Matthias, who was apparently talking in this intercepted conversation?

Matthias Gebauer: Well, as far as we know, the German intelligence briefed lawmakers about this call and he said that a high ranking member of Hezbollah, the Lebanese military organization, was in the phone conversation with someone in the Iranian embassy. He gave no details about names, but he said it was a high ranking commander who is known to the intelligence service as someone with knowledge of the developments in Syria.

Werman: Right, and what did they say in that conversation?

Gebauer: Well, in abstract he said the Hezbollah official admitted that the order fro the attack came from the Assad administration and he added in that phone conversation that Assad lost "his nerves" because he felt so under pressure because of the situation, the military situation around Damascus. And he also added interestingly enough that the order for the chemical attack was a big mistake. So apparently even in Hezbollah there's a good piece of doubt now if this move from the Assad regime was the right step.

Werman: Did German lawmakers at this briefing have an opportunity to actually hear the conversation, hear the tape?

Gebauer: No, no, I mean it was just he basically gave that phone interception as something, which like the German intelligence service intercepted by themselves because most of the other indications which we know are like let's say collaborated by various intelligence services–the French have a little bit, the Americans have a lot. So that was just saying we are something on our own, which is going in the same direction. And he mentioned that "he would not see it as a smoking gun" but he certainly, you know, it's another piece in the puzzle, which is certainly pointing into the direction that Assad is responsible for that attack.

Werman: As far as the reliability of this telephone intercept, are you skeptical at all?

Gebauer: Well, as someone who's dealing with intelligence for quite some years, I'm always skeptical. I would not really doubt that they intercepted that phone call. How far you can go with the interpretation, if like someone who is with Hezbollah talks to the Iranian embassy, of course you know, you can have doubt if this guy has really evidence or if it was more like his opinion, you know, if he was interpreting information he's hearing…or if he was repeating something very concrete which he knows. The German government though was quite clear in the last couple of days that they are pretty strongly convinced that the Assad regime is responsible for that attack, but at the same time they do not want to get involved in any kind of military action with the Americans, as like the foremost player in that game did not ask them for support so far.

Werman: Matthias Gebauer, correspondent with the German magazine Der Spiegel, thank you.

Gebauer: Thanks for having me.