WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Thursday gave American lawmakers what it called fresh evidence that Syria's government was behind a chemical weapons attack, but faced strong resistance to military action from both U.S. political parties and a stinging rejection from Britain, a key ally.
During a conference call at the end of a difficult day for the White House, U.S. officials told members of Congress there was "no doubt" that chemical weapons were used in Syria last week. Obama aides cited intercepted communications of Syrian officials and evidence of movements by Syria's military around Damascus before the attack that killed more than 300 people, said U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The administration's 90-minute briefing on Syria for senior members of Congress was conducted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and other high-ranking U.S. officials.
Several lawmakers in both parties said they were impressed by the briefing and that it made a convincing case for military action. But many were not persuaded, including several key lawmakers in both parties.
Among them: Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Levin, normally a strong supporter of fellow Democrat Obama, appeared to suggest after Thursday's briefing that the White House should tap the brakes on any timetable for military action at least until United Nations inspectors complete their examination of the attack area.
Levin also said that White House should secure international support for intervening in Syria - a condition that seemed increasingly distant after Britain's House of Commons rejected military action in a symbolic vote on Thursday.
Meanwhile, other U.S. lawmakers brought up a range of complications for Obama. They included questions of whether the "limited" military action Obama has suggested would really discourage Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from again using chemical weapons on civilians, and even whether the Pentagon could afford to attack Syria after the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that Congress imposed on the federal government earlier this year.
The increasing doubts about Obama's call for action against Syria appeared to increase the likelihood that the United States would have to act alone if it wants to launch a missile strike to punish Assad's government for violating international law by using chemical weapons.
After Parliament's vote against military action in Syria, British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said Britain would not take part in any strike but added: "I don't expect that the lack of British participation will stop any action."
Obama has left little doubt in recent days that the choice was not whether, but when, to punish Assad's government for last week's chemical weapons attack against Syrian rebels outside Damascus. It was one of the most gruesome assaults in a 2 1/2-year civil war that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 100,000 people.
Obama administration officials said Thursday that the president was willing to launch a limited strike against Syria even without specific promises of support from allies because U.S. national security interests were at stake.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said after the British Parliament vote that Obama's decision-making on Syria would be guided by "the best interests of the United States."
"The U.S. will continue to consult with the UK government - one of our closest allies and friends," she said in a statement. She added that Obama believes "there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable."
A 'PAPER TIGER'
Some Republican lawmakers and even some of Obama's fellow Democrats have complained that the White House has not kept them sufficiently informed on Syria.
After the briefing, some said the administration still had work to do to convince the public that the United States should take action in Syria.
Several said that Obama created a problem for himself and the United States by claiming that Assad would cross a "red line" and spur a strong U.S. response if Syria used chemical weapons.
"The president is going to have to make his case to the American people before he takes any action. The problem that he finds himself in and has placed us in is that if he does not take action now after making these statements, then we become a paper tiger to the rest of the world," said Republican Representative Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, said late Thursday that the administration's briefing had not been convincing.
"Tonight the administration informed us that they have a 'broad range of options' for Syria but failed to lay out a single option," Inhofe said. "They also did not provide a timeline, a strategy for Syria and the Middle East, or a plan for the funds to execute such an option."
The timeline for possible U.S. action also has been complicated by the continued presence in Syria of U.N. weapons inspectors who are there to verify that chemical weapons were used. The United Nations said its inspectors would leave the area on Saturday and issue a report on their findings afterward.
Levin, the Democratic senator from Michigan, said efforts to increase pressure on Assad should be conducted "while U.N. inspectors complete their work and while we seek international support for limited, targeted strikes in response to the Assad regime's large-scale use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people."
U.S. ACTION 'JUSTIFIED, WARRANTED'
Some of Obama's fellow Democrats offered support for his call for a U.S. operation in Syria.
"Tonight's briefing reaffirmed for me that a decisive and consequential U.S. response is justified and warranted to protect Syrians, as well as to send a global message that chemical weapons attacks in violation of international law will not stand," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said in a statement.
The briefing for senior lawmakers initially was meant to be classified, but did not contain any top-secret information after many members of Congress were unable to get to secure telephone lines.
It was called to address concerns about Obama's plans that had been expressed by increasingly vocal Republicans and several Democrats in Congress.
Letters circulating among members of Congress in both parties have called for more consultation from the White House on Syria. One, signed by 54 Democrats in the Republican-led House of Representatives, urged Obama to seek congressional approval before pulling the trigger on any U.S. military action.
"While the ongoing human rights violations and continued loss of life are horrific, they should not draw us into an unwise war," wrote the House Democrats, none of whom are members of the senior leadership.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said any military operation would be "very discrete and limited" and not open-ended, and said the United States would not get caught up in another war like the one in Iraq.
He noted that the British foreign secretary had made clear the United States had the right and ability to make its own foreign policy decisions.
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Steve Holland, David Alexander and Jeff Mason in Washington, and Alex Dobuzinskis in California; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by David Lindsey and Lisa Shumaker)TOKYO (Reuters) - A U.S. envoy was set to leave Japan on Friday to secure the release of an imprisoned and ailing American missionary in North Korea, a move that could signal the start of a gradual thaw in relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, is scheduled to return from Pyongyang on Saturday after a one-day trip, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said. The official was unable to specify exact times.
The State Department has termed the trip a "humanitarian mission" and played down any connection between Bae's release and the North's sanctioned nuclear weapons programme, although the planned release follows a pattern of previous periods of tension and thaws.
King secured the release of another Korean-American missionary, Jung Young Su, in 2011 as part of a trip to assess North Korean pleas for food aid.
Relations between Washington and Pyongyang have been in deep freeze since the collapse of a food deal in early 2012, when North Korea broke its promise to end its long-range rocket launches and prevented nuclear inspectors from examining its nuclear stockpiles and production.
Bae, 45, was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for attempting to overthrow the North Korean state by spreading anti-government propaganda, according to North Korean media. His health has deteriorated since he was jailed and he has diabetes.
North Korean state media said Bae started his plot to "topple" the country's government in 2006, a date that coincides with his own testimony about his arrival in China.
It accused him of infiltrating 250 students into the country, spreading "false propaganda" and of bribing North Korean citizens in a bid to bring down the government.
Bae lived in a Chinese town that borders North Korea and worked for a tour company while undertaking missionary work inside North Korea.
North Korea says it practises religious freedom but religious expression is in effect tightly controlled in a state that acknowledges total loyalty to the Kim dynasty that has ruled for three generations. North Korea features at the bottom of most independent surveys of freedom.
In online postings of one of his speeches on his missionary work, Bae described himself and a party he took to North Korea as "warriors for Christ" and told of holding a prayer meeting on a beach.
The postings have since been removed, as have all traces of Bae's involvement with a tour company operating out of China.
In a videotaped sermon, also removed from the Internet, Bae talked of bringing 300 people to a coastal town in North Korea to emulate the biblical destruction of the walls of Jericho.
Bae's family has acknowledged his deeply held religious beliefs but have suggested that his sympathy for North Korean orphans may have been behind his arrest.
(Writing by David Chance; Editing by Paul Tait)WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. intelligence community has pledged to disclose more data about government surveillance programs by reporting annually how many secret court orders are issued to telecommunications companies under certain legal rules.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Thursday announced a plan to release the total number of legal orders issued every 12 months to telecom companies by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and the number of targets affected by those orders.
The court orders, under authority granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and National Security letters, allow collection of information about subscribers and call records, both for past communications and ongoing wiretaps. But only the aggregate annual numbers of these court orders will be made public.
The move is part of President Barack Obama's response to criticism about a lack of transparency in government surveillance programs following leaks by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Earlier this month, the government for the first time released opinions, previously labelled Top Secret, from the FISA Court. In the past its decisions involving electronic surveillance and communications collection by the National Security Agency had not been made public.
Privacy advocates have been urging the government to start shedding light on the FISA court and its surveillance operations and offered a tempered welcome to Thursday's news.
"This is a good start as it pulls back the covers a bit on the government authorities, but we still need more information," said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center advocacy group. It urged further disclosures about the cost and effectiveness of the surveillance.
Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney at the data privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, expressed concerns that the pledge to release the number of affected investigation targets could severely limit the amount of data to be actually released.
"The number of targets affected isn't as much the issue on the public's mind as the number of innocent people affected," he said, pointing to the leaked secret FISC order to Verizon Communications Inc that did not address any targets.
Obama and other U.S. officials have said the NSA surveillance programs are lawful, have been approved by Congress and the FISA Court, and are aimed at detecting and disrupting terrorist plots.
"FISA and national security letters are an important part of our effort to keep the nation and its citizens safe, and disclosing more detailed information about how they are used and to whom they are directed can obviously help our enemies avoid detection," Clapper said in a statement announcing the new plan on Thursday.
The FISA court has said the NSA may unintentionally have collected as many as 56,000 emails of Americans a year from 2008 to 2011 and may have violated the Constitution before adjustments were made.
(Editing by Ken Wills)
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