WHITE HOUSE — As the Obama administration prepared to brief U.S. lawmakers on evidence it says shows Syrian government responsibility for using chemical weapons against civilians, the White House faced more tough questions about that intelligence.
Americans' memories of past conflicts remain fresh, such as the one in Iraq launched by Republican president George W. Bush that raised questions about the reliability of intelligence.
With military action appearing more imminent, the White House is being bombarded with questions about U.S. evidence concerning the August 21 chemical attack in Damascus.
Washington and key allies blame the attack, which killed hundreds, on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian government denies it.
On Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said there is a "clear legal basis" for military action, but also that there is "no single smoking piece of intelligence" that the Assad regime used chemical weapons.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters the United States will rely on its own intelligence assessment to back up the decision President Barack Obama makes.
He also was pressed about the credibility of intelligence, and asked whether Obama believes Syria poses an imminent threat to the United States itself.
"I am not going to parse the president's words any further on this. I think the president has been very clear and I have done my best to describe to you all of the national interests that the president believes are important, that he was elected to protect, that are at stake here."
Obama outlined some of those interests in an interview Wednesday with the Public Broadcasting Service.
"We have got allies bordering Syria, Turkey is a NATO ally, Jordan a close friend that we work with a lot, Israel is very close by, we have got bases throughout the region. We cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows potentially chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks," said the president.
Key Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, were briefing members of Congress late Thursday.
At least 116 lawmakers, most of them Republicans, have signed a letter urging Obama to seek clear congressional authorization before giving the go-ahead for any military strike.
Congressman Scott Rigell asserts the president is required to do so under the 1973 War Powers Resolution and the U.S. Constitution.
“To follow the United States Constitution, he really does need, provided he believes that use of force is both warranted and imminent, he does need to call us into a joint session, make the case before the American people, allow us a reasonable amount of time to deliberate the matter and then to issue specific statutory authority prior to the use of force.“
The 1973 War Powers Resolution reaffirmed Congress' constitutional responsibility to declare war and put a 60-day time limit on the ability of a president to take unauthorized, emergency military action.
Deputy Press Secretary Earnest avoided a direct response when asked if the president believes Congress should have a vote on military action, saying only that Obama is committed to robust consultations.
"What the president believes is that as he considers the appropriate response to this circumstance, it is important for his administration to consult with Congress in a very robust way and that is what we are seeing has happened," said Earnest.
Obama spoke by telephone late Thursday with the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner.
Boehner, according to a spokesman, sought answers about the legal justification for any military strike and the policy and precedent such a response would set, and objectives and strategy.