Last week, when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, reading from a letter sent from the White House to members of Congress, announced that the U.S. intelligence community believed that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons against its own people, the Obama administration wasn't quite ready for the round-the-clock cable-news frenzy that followed.
Back in August, and on multiple occasions since, President Obama laid out his "red line" for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: Don't use chemical weapons. But now, reports had been trickling out of Syria for weeks of rebel fighters claiming they had been attacked with mysterious chemical gases. Videos emerged that appeared to show victims foaming at the mouth, in agony. Officials from Britain, France, Israel, and Qatar all said they believed chemical weapons had been used. With Hagel's remarks, the Obama administration seemed to be confirming that the president's red line might indeed have been crossed.
But officials told me that as late as Thursday morning, the White House had yet to assemble talking points for the State Department on the subject, a rarity for a White House famously adept at managing 23rd St.'s messaging from Pennsylvania Ave. Just minutes before Secretary of State John Kerry went to brief members of Congress in a closed-door session on Syria, his team was still scrambling to prepare talking points based on the White House letter.