The Short-Comings of Pre-Crime Intelligence

The Sunday Express has a report that I consider one of the strongest pieces of evidence to date that Assad’s military was definitely behind the CW strike last week. (John Kerry is on TV citing forensic evidence, but he also said the evidence comes from someone besides the UN, which gives me pause, particularly given the way the Administration has clearly played with casualty numbers.)

According to intercepts collected at Troodos, UK’s listening post on Cyprus, the commander of the artillery unit that launched the attack balked at an order to release the CW at first, but then complied under threat of death.

Last night the senior RAF officer said: “The commander of the artillery battery told the regional commander that he would not comply and there was a heated exchange. He was told in direct language that unless the order was carried out, he would be shot. A total of 27 chemical artillery shells were then fired at the suburb in a 14-minute period.”

The conversation was monitored and recorded by British officers based at the remote mountain-top RAF Troodos Signals Intelligence listening post in Cyprus and within minutes details of the conversation had been relayed to GCHQ, Whitehall and the Pentagon.

But I’m interested in the timing of this leak.

Details of this intelligence don’t show up explicitly in the British case for war, though there are claims in it that might reflect it.

There is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in this attack.


There is no obvious political or military trigger for regime use of CW on an apparently larger scale now, particularly given the current presence in Syria of the UN investigation team. Permission to authorise CW has probably been delegated by President Asad to senior regime commanders, such as [*], but any deliberate change in the scale and nature of use would require his authorisation.

However, the uncertainty as to whom Assad had delegated CW launch authority seems wholly incompatible with Whitehall having this intelligence. If they had this intercept, they would seemingly know fairly precisely the chain-of-command in question.

Nor does the intercept appear explicitly in the US case. Though again, there are claims that might reflect the intelligence.

We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel – including personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC – were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack. In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack.

Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21 near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks.

The one explicit mention of the content of SIGINT intercepts appears to describe the same intercept first reported by Foreign Policy.

We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence. On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations.

Here’s how FP reported that.

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned.

There are several problems with that intercept though. As FP noted, the intercept might be more consistent with a rogue commander releasing the CW as it was with an ordered strike (otherwise, why would the Ministry of Defense official be demanding panicked answers?).

A number of retired intelligence people online also noted that intercepts taken solely after the attack don’t support a premeditated attack.

And many sources suggest this was not an NSA intercept, but a Mossad one, which might not be considered reliable.

For some of those reasons, Craig Murray questioned this intercept. But he focused more on the absence — up to that point — of any news of an intercept from Troodos, which (he says) has much greater capabilities than Mossad.

It is therefore very strange, to say the least, that John Kerry claims to have access to communications intercepts of Syrian military and officials organising chemical weapons attacks, which intercepts were not available to the British Joint Intelligence Committee.

On one level the explanation is simple.  The intercept evidence was provided to the USA by Mossad, according to my own well  placed source in the Washington intelligence community.  Intelligence provided by a third party is not automatically shared with the UK, and indeed Israel specifies it should not be.

But the inescapable question is this.  Mossad have nothing comparable to the Troodos operation.  The reported content of the conversations fits exactly with key tasking for Troodos, and would have tripped all the triggers.  How can Troodos have missed this if Mossad got it?

Murray posted that yesterday morning. And then this morning, the Daily Express piece (dateline today) reports a conversation that happened last night, so after Murray raised this question.

Something else happened in the interim. The rebels complained that the US and UK had all this intelligence reflecting an impending attack but didn’t tell them.

“This is absolutely a blow to many in the opposition on the ground who’ve suffered the brunt of the chemical attacks,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which has long favored American intervention in the conflict. “The feeling now is that this is really an orphaned revolution and that the regime will feel emboldened to continue its shelling of cities and towns around Damascus.”


Razan Zaitouneh, an anti-Assad activist in the town of Douma, one of the towns hit in the Aug. 21 attack, said she’d listened to Obama’s speech, “But [I] don’t care anymore. After learning they [the Americans] knew about the attack three days before it took place and did nothing, what should I expect from them?!” he wrote in an instant message.

When I originally read the White House case, I assumed that preliminary intelligence was inconclusive, largely reflecting the movement of equipment reported elsewhere, but had been presented in the case to be more conclusive than it really was. Which then, of course, led to the problem of seeming to make the US complicit, in its silence, in the deaths of the victims.

Which brings us back to the Express piece. Assuming the intercept really existed, here’s why the UK and US didn’t alert the rebels.

Last night senior Ministry of Defence sources confirmed that the Prime Minister was aware of several intercepts that had been picked up by nuclear submarine HMS Tireless, by RAF spy planes and by the Troodos listening station but they said the messages were initially treated with “caution” by analysts, who feared they might be fakes “planted” by rebels desperate for Western military support.

GCHQ had an intercept involving very specific people, yet judged it might be a fake planted by rebels to spur outside involvement.

On its face, the most logical takeaway here is that GCHQ did get that intercept, but it remained unmentioned in both the UK and the US case for war because the British are simply more serious about keeping secrets than the US are (unless and until Craig Murray starts asking questions). But that the understanding on the part of intelligence officials (at least within the UK) meant that they couldn’t respond to CW pre-crime intelligence because they consider the rebels so untrustworthy.

If that’s the case, it’s a telling detail.

46 replies
  1. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    How easily could the ELINT be faked or spoofed? IOW, someone with a transmitter in the area, creating some chatter that is meant to be heard?

    It would be more convincing if encrypted, in a previously used cipher, that was not known to have been broken.

  2. JThomason says:

    I am going to give Kerry credit on this one. Probably not going to really shake up those advancing the Grand Strategy much too much in receiving sigint drawing focus to the fact that the Opposition Rebels including elements of Al Quaeda are not trustworthy. Or maybe Benghazi is ancient history to the Architects now like the case for war in Iraq. Of course this leaves the question of their utility in tact.

    Edit: Drew focus to the fact more than indicated.

  3. Eureka Springs says:

    What I trust and appreciate most in this post is the reminder that the “rebels” are in fact paid, armed, trained private militia, foreign invaders waging war upon Syria now. And that nobody, including them, should ever trust US.

    The chem weapons would have never been unleashed (no matter who did it, if it happened at all) had these US / Saudi backed mercenaries not been there waging war for years now.

  4. Clark Hilldale says:

    My usual warnings about never accepting any stories or gov leaks that refer IN ANY WAY to “intercepts” must be re-iterated here for the record.

    In years hence, when Marcy becomes Deputy Director of CIA or second in command (hell, head honcho even) at DNI, she may remember that lone voice in the wilderness that urged extra vigilance when SIGINT or COMINT is being cited in media operations.

  5. Valley Girl says:

    Marcy, not sure if what you state in post is in any way attempting to justify an attack on Syria. I would think not, but could you clarify?

  6. Scott Lazarowitz says:

    AP reporter Dale Gavlak has an exclusive article on Mint Press News that Saudi-backed rebels were responsible for the chemical attack. Gavlak’s associate has interviewed several rebels there who assert that the Saudi government has been paying them.

    Here is the cached version of the article (that seems to have been taken down – hmmm, I wonder why anyone would do that)

  7. john francis lee says: tells it like it is … and then asks a question …

    Which Syrian Chemical Attack Account Is More Credible?

    Comparing Kerry’s presentation on Syria and its accompanying document to Colin Powell’s speech to the UN on Iraq, though, one is struck by how little specific evidence was included in the case for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. It gives the strong impression of being pieced together from drone surveillance and NSA intercepts, supplemented by Twitter messages and YouTube videos, rather than from on-the-ground reporting or human intelligence. Much of what is offered tries to establish that the victims in Ghouta had been exposed to chemical weapons–a question that indeed had been in some doubt, but had already largely been settled by a report by Doctors Without Borders that reported that thousands of people in the Damascus area had been treated for “neurotoxic symptoms.”

    Recall that Powell played tapes of Iraqi officials supposedly talking about concealing evidence of banned weapons from inspectors–which turned out to show nothing of the kind. But Powell at least played tapes of the intercepted communication, even as he spun and misrepresented their contents–allowing for the possibility of an independent interpretation of these messages. Perhaps “mindful of the Iraq experience,” Kerry allows for no such interpretation.

    “In order to protect sources and methods, some of what we know will only be released to members of Congress, the representatives of the American people. That means that some things we do know, we can’t talk about publicly.”

    It is not clear, however, why intelligence methods that produced visual and audible evidence that could be shared with the public 10 years ago cannot be similarly utilized today. It does point to why the $52 billion the United States spends on surveillance annually, according to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Washington Post, 8/29/13), provides relatively little information that’s of value to American democracy: The collection of information is considered so much more valuable than the information collected that it rarely if ever can be used to inform a public debate. Instead, as we discuss the dreadful question of whether to launch a military attack on another country, we are offered an undemocratic “trust us” from the most secretive parts of our government–an offer that history warns us to be extremely wary of.

    Then read’s account yourself. They’re presently offline, but their account is widely available.

    It recounts the view of Syrians on site in Ghouta who put the blame on Bandar Bush and his and the CIA’a al Qaeda ‘rebels’.

  8. JTMinIA says:

    I’m sorry, but thinking that the signals several days in advance might be “plants” by the rebels is NOT an excuse not to tell the rebels. The rebels have every right to see the US and UK and complicit and not their friends.

  9. TarheelDem says:

    @Ben Franklin: I don’t think that potassium flouride is a banned substance (or even a scheduled substance) under the Chemical Weapons Convention. So on this one, there seems to be no there there.

  10. TarheelDem says:

    @john francis lee: Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and have made declarations that they possess no Schedule 1 chemical weapons and no one has made claims that that they have plants capable of producing Schedule 1 chemical agents or delivery systems.

    For Saudi Arabia to actually have created and provided chemical weapons to the rebels in Syria would be a huge deal and would likely be outed by countries concerned about Saudi Arabia. And could lead to a Chemical Weapons Organization investigation.

    For the moment, this report suffers from demonstrating that Saudi Arabia actually has the capabilities to equip and train rebels in the use of weapons that delivered the attacks.

    As much as I would like to see Bandar and Saudi Arabia nailed for a false flag operation, I don’t think this is the one.

  11. orionATL says:

    one unsettling thought occurs to me as i stumble thru this mess.

    i do hope the president and closest advisors are not using this opportunity for a (maybe, hopefully) small military action against a “bad guy”, purely to boost sagging presidential public standing in the u.s. it’s a very old and very effective ruler’s trick, but in the current angry, distrustful domestic climate, i fear it could come back to haunt the dem party in next year’s congressional elections.

  12. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    @orionATL: From back in the anti-Clinton prehistory, this is known as ‘wag the dog’.

    You can certainly expect accusations, whether they are justified is harder to say.

  13. emptywheel says:

    @Valley Girl: No.

    IMO Syria is a 3-step question:

    1) Was there an attack and did Syria launch it? Yes, there was an attack (though the US is fluffing the numbers) and it appears to have been launched by someone nominally on the Syrian side, but there are lots of details that raise questions about the chain of command.

    2) Would this attack, as described, change anything? No. And it may make it far worse.

    3) Is the AUMF appropriate to the task, assuming the attack could change things for the better? Absolutely not–it’s is far too broad, and actually authorizes a regional war against both sides (?).

    4) Would a larger war–that regional war–make things better? It might oust Assad and might, perhaps, avoid putting AQ associates in charge. But it will leave an even more chaotic mess in place, and probably not just in Syria.

  14. Snoopdido says:

    While certainly not a scientifically qualified poll, in reading about, viewing, and listening to the discussions about the chemical attack in Syria and what if anything to do about it, I get the sense that 90% of the entire political spectrum is conflicted.

    The only ones it seems who are not conflicted are the 5% at either extreme of the political spectrum.

  15. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    EW, I’m puzzled that Craig Murray’s emphatic conclusion is completely ignored. Is it not a possible explanation?

    “Israel has repeatedly been involved in the Syrian civil war, carrying out a number of illegal bombings and missile strikes over many months. This absolutely illegal activity by Israel- which has killed a great many civilians, including children – has brought no condemnation at all from the West. Israel has now provided “intelligence” to the United States designed to allow the United States to join in with Israel’s bombing and missile campaign.

    The answer to the Troodos Conundrum is simple. Troodos did not pick up the intercepts because they do not exist. Mossad fabricated them. ”

    And if his conclusion is valid, is it not possible Mossad fabricated the conversation described in the Express?

    Interested in your thoughts on this angle as it seems quite possible, and I trust Craig to be forthright, and I might even suggest that it’s possible Mossad launched the CW attack to achieve their desire to get the world involved in this mess.

  16. GKJames says:

    “Mossad have nothing comparable to the Troodos operation.” Is this fact or opinion? As for Murray’s other conclusion about Israel’s part in the equation, what would Israel’s interest be in drawing the US into military action? On suspects, instead, that the Israelis have done well be the Assads over the decades. Their familiarity is likely more preferable than the likely chaos of any alternative.

  17. TarheelDem says:

    @Ben Franklin: That is interesting. The fact that it is not banned does not mean that it cannot be used as chemical weapon; it just means that countries are not as likely to get on their high horse about it. It also means that it is potentially available to more folks than just the Syrian government. It seems to be a common commercial chemical reagent and apparently has appeared in welding accidents with certain types of welding flux (although I couldn’t figure out the connection).

  18. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    @GKJames: Your comments are inconsistent with the facts. Syria and Israel have been at conflict since at least the Golan Heights theft by Israel, and the recent bombing by Israel of Syrian military bases says that conflict is continuing. I suspect Israel’s real desire for Syria though is to draw in the US, and the world, and that will draw in Iran and lead to a regional war, as described in EW’s previous piece on the AUMF Crescent.

  19. emptywheel says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): Oh, I think that’s definitely possible. But you don’t even need to go there. The reported intercepted phone call is what you’d expect if someone at a lower level in the Army decided for whatever reason to use CW when he had been ordered not to.

    We have gotten well upwards of 80 military people to defect in the last year, at least 10 of them senior military people. That means we’re (or someone) is recruiting spies w/in Assad’s regime. That’s why I focused on Idris’ language–he claims to have sources within Assad’s inner circle. If that’s the case then there are plenty of people in Assad’s military who could do it for a price.

  20. JThomason says:

    @emptywheel: OK, I get it now. That’s the “double agent” theory.

    Edit: With the likelihood of multiple release sites which is not necessarily consistent with the Opposition mishandling story, I am beginning to understand where you are coming from on this one.

    Second edit: This also assumes the satellite data in fact correlates to CW attacks. I have not seen this demonstrated conclusively and have thought the multiple release theory was dependent on this satellite intel.

  21. emptywheel says:

    @GKJames: There’s actually been a lot of commentary on this. The Israelis have long been satisfied w/Assad and whatever means he had to stay in power because he kept order. Add in they’re more comfortable w/non-majority sect because they’re less likely to work against them.

    At the same time, Israel wants Iran taken out and the effort to take out Assad has been a part of that strategy for over a year. The US and Saudis have been chipping away at Iran’s only allies.

    I’ve read that what led the Israelis to move from that split goal to intervning to bomb the Syrians bc Assad can no longer guarantee an absence of chaos.

    Frankly, I agree with you. Israel should be happier with the order. BUt I am wondering whether they now what a Balkanized post-Syria.

  22. Orestes Ippeau says:

    But hasn’t that Balkanization of Syria, in all but the formalities, already occurred?

    A prime tenet of Ba’athism is overcoming a given country’s sectarian divides with secular nationalism. Against that is the history that Ba’athist leaders neither gain nor maintain power without the support of at least one of the sectarian groups. The Assad regime has had ‘to death’ support from Alawites, along with less passionate but still practical support from wealthier Sunnis, Christianists and even Shi’a. But together those groups are a mere sliver of the Syrian population, and all concentrated in and about Damascus.

    Except as battlefields, the regime hasn’t paid any attention to or care for the bulk of Syrian territory, to the north and to the east, for years. So, the Ba’athist tenet in the case of Syria and Assad is cheap talk.

  23. CTuttle says:

    Punching another hole in the Administration’s cause célèbre…

    …Even the administration’s casualty estimate was grist for controversy.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization that monitors casualties in the country, said it has confirmed 502 deaths, nearly 1,000 fewer than the American intelligence assessment claimed.

    Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the organization, said he was not contacted by U.S. officials about his efforts to collect information about the death toll in the Aug. 21 attacks.

    “America works only with one part of the opposition that is deep in propaganda,” he said, and urged the Obama administration to release the information its estimate is based on.

  24. sOLbus says:

    Regarding a possible communications spoof attack, any word that these intercepted communications were encrypted? And were there subsequently any attempt to forensically voice print the communicators? If neither, at best I’d give it a “possible” rogue Syrian govt order, but far more likely indeed a spoof, as given the potent outcome of this CW action, it’s hard to believe no resources are spared in authenticating listening post data.

  25. rugger9 says:

    Good evening to all,

    The intel also must include the coming options, not just the various factions but also the current residents of Tarsus (including Putin’s brand new carrier). The thing about this situation is that while Obama hopes that a targeted response will be 1) effective, 2) remain limited to his scope of action, 3) the Russians will not do anything to respond with Putin’s manly-man kick currently in vogue.

    Given the state of affairs, and the already known opinion of the UK parliament Obama did the best thing he could do. Whether the debates in Congress to decide what to do will be rational, or mere grandstanding, we will have to see…

  26. chris harries says:

    At best the “evidence” of the Sunday Express is hearsay. But it is hearsay of a particularly suspect kind.

    Surely, and I am far from being a lawyer, the nature and quality of evidence is something which is generally understood.

    How much of any of what is being proffered as proof of Syrian government involvement meets any of the tests which a competent judge would advise a jury in a criminal case to employ?

    It should not be forgotten that the proprietor of the Sunday Express relies upon the government-as do most media firms- for assistance in license approvals etc. There should always be a strong presumption that stories of this kind have been planted for what is known in the baseball world as future considerations.

  27. rugger9 says:

    The other part of this is something I recall for the Reagan administration, i.e. the concept of “plausible deniability” to protect “St Ronnie” from Congressional investigators. Aside from the Alzheimers later found, it permitted “St Ronnie” to be able to truthfully say he did not know whatever Col. North and the rest of the Iran Contra band (including Rummy, by the way) was doing.

    As POTUS “St Ronnie” was still responsible, anyway.

    I see the same idea in play for Assad, if one can believe Kerry on this evidence. In my prior post I observed the response had to be “effective”, and I’m not sure how a limited response does this unless all or most of the CW are destroyed by it, and hopefully there are no Russian “advisers” guarding them.

  28. John Casper says:

    Could Hague/UN ask Assad to turn over those he thinks are responsible? That ongoing drama keeps the media happy. It reinforces the terror- terror-all-the-time-terror meme that the military-industrial/NatSec complex covets, but it keeps Tomahawks from from punching Shia/Iran. Hague/UN get some badly needed and positive publicity. Congress can avoid a tough vote.

    Jamming and destroying Syria’s air defense systems just gives Russia and China another, better free look at our capabilities. Would be nice if someone in the Pentagon would mention that.

  29. Clark Hilldale says:

    @emptywheel: We have gotten well upwards of 80 military people to defect in the last year, at least 10 of them senior military people. That means we’re (or someone) is recruiting spies w/in Assad’s regime.

    All that means is that a well-funded intelligence agency is running a well publicized defector-inducement program.

    Which is an entirely separate thing than running penetration operations – which aim to leave sources in place – against an enemy.

    Both may be – and probably are – taking place, but one happens to be looking more successful than the other at this point.

  30. justbetty says:

    Even if Assad is responsible for a CW attack, I don’t see how this proposed limited response will help anything. Spend the money on helping the refugees and focus on negotiating peace.

  31. Ben Franklin says:


    It’s a pity one has to search so diligently for nuggets which are not part of the message.

    “Indeed, unprecedented weapons distribution started in all opposition camps in Hatay Province on Aug. 21-23. In the Reyhanli area alone, opposition forces received well in excess of 400 tons of weapons, mainly anti-aircraft weaponry from shoulder-fired missiles to ammunition for light-guns and machine guns. The weapons were distributed from storehouses controlled by Qatari and Turkish Intelligence under the tight supervision of U.S. Intelligence.”

  32. GKJames says:

    @emptywheel. Interesting. Given Israel’s two overarching objectives, demographic and geographic, its policy choices presumably look at Syria through those filters. A unified, stable, but antagonistic (in a cold-war fashion) Syria represents no serious threat, either by deterring potential immigrants to Israel or compelling a change in the territorial status quo on the Golan Heights. A break-up of Syria on tribal/ethnic lines might create some initial instability, but would be immaterial to Israeli security, not least because Israel will kill whatever rolls across the border. And once the dust settled, a fractured opposition would present even less of a threat (though fertile opportunity for playing off the individual pieces against each other). Under either scenario, the purported impact on Israel of what’s happening in Syria is exaggerated.

    With respect to Iran, Israeli rhetoric aside, and as some Israeli officials over time have admitted, Iran—even one with nukes—isn’t and never has been an existential threat. The PERCEIVED threat is that Israel no longer would be seen by the Jewish diaspora as an attractive target for migration, by virtue of Israel’s no longer being seen as the region’s military (and nuclear) hegemon. In turn, this is seen as exacerbating the long-term demographic threat represented by the disparity in birth rates.

    As for the elimination of its ally, Assad, Iran’s likely response would be to continue its diligent nuclear efforts, and to stoke whatever instability followed Assad, albeit without a direct attack on Israel. Which leaves us trying to figure out what Washington’s thinking. One hopes that, ultimately, the US will give up its obsession with regime change in Iran and strive for true regional stability and a balance of power. (With Cuba as precedent, though, it’s probably unrealistic to expect the knuckleheads to fade from the scene any time soon.) Hard to do when Riyadh and Jerusalem, the dynamic duo of Arab-Israeli cooperation, keep yanking your chain.

  33. Bill Michtom says:

    @rugger9: What response COULD be effective? The US has accomplished nothing useful anywhere in the area except for increasing the bottom line of the MIC.

  34. Bay State Librul says:

    Today, Senator Warren supports Obama’s decision for a vote.
    Syria’s actions are reprehensible, she said.

  35. x174 says:


    solve their illegal-NSA-surveillance-for-terrorist-only problem, pin it all on Assad (leader of the other 1/2 of ancient Assyria/Iraq) and trigger a UN condemnation so that bombs can start falling in order to help O with his growing inferiority malady pouring out from the back end of the totally exposed no such agency.

    this is old school stuff. unimaginative. desperate.

    In Ostrovsky’s By Way of Deception (2002), he describes how Israeli intelligence sent a Trojan signal planted inside of one of structures on Qaddafi’s compound. The Trojan signal was picked up by the US (its intended recipient), causing President Reagan to bomb Tripoli.

    “On April 14, 1986, one hundred and sixty American aircraft dropped over sixty tons of bombs on Libya.”

    anyone who believes one word coming out of the Orifice in Chief needs to have his/her head examined. pronto.

Comments are closed.