If We Collect Warning of CW Attacks But Nobody Notices, Does It Do Much Good?

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 10.01.53 AMAlmost a week after the rebels first complained that the US had warning of the chemical weapon attack before it happened on August 21, James “Too Cute by Half” Clapper’s office is offering an explanation: They had collected, but not analyzed, that information when the attack occurred.

One of the key pieces of intelligence that Secretary of State John Kerry later used to link the attack to the Syrian government — intercepts of communications telling Syrian military units to prepare for the strikes — was in the hands of U.S. intelligence agencies but had not yet been “processed,” according to senior U.S. officials.

That explains why the White House did not warn either the regime or the rebels who might be targeted as it had done when detecting previous preparations for chemical strikes.

“We know that for three days before the attack the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations,” Kerry said as he presented the evidence in a State Department speech last week. “We know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.”

But the Obama administration only uncovered the evidence after Syrians started posting reports of the strike from the scene of the attack, leading U.S. spies and analysts to focus on satellite and other evidence showing a Syrian chemical weapons unit was preparing chemical munitions before the strike, according to two current U.S. officials and two former senior intelligence officials.


“Let’s be clear, the United States did not watch, in real time, as this horrible attack took place,” Shawn Turner said in a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday. “The intelligence community was able to gather and analyze information after the fact and determine that elements of the Assad regime had in fact taken steps to prepare prior to using chemical weapons,” Turner said. [my emphasis]

For what it’s worth, I’ve always been mindful of Administration use of the term “Syrian regime elements” in this formulation, which seems like a euphemism for something, though I’m not sure what. Add in the likelihood that the admission we didn’t notice these signs in real time, taken at face value, suggests we were less carefully monitoring some collection facilities than you might think, which may say as much about our how our understanding of critical players in the regime ended up not matching the critical players in the attack.

But I’d like to take a step back and consider what it might say about the efficacy of our dragnet.

In reviewing the budget details released last week, I and others wondered whether we were investing enough in the analytical part of the intelligence process. As the chart above shows, our consolidated cryptologic budget allocates 14% to analysis. That’s actually higher than other kinds of intelligence (and some of the warning we got would have been satellite imagery).

The WaPo visualized the investment in analysis across agencies in interactive and PDF form, showing that the NSA only spends $654.6 million on analysis and $824.5 million on analysis enabling, out of a budget of $10.8 billion, which works out to be even less than 14%.

Given opacity around budgetary issues, I’m not really sure whether that’s an appropriate response or not (as I said, I and others just raised the question; we didn’t offer answers).

But given what happened with this intelligence — with both claimed intercepts and satellite images — I really do wonder whether we’re aiming for total collection, without the analytical capacity to make it worthwhile.

13 replies
  1. peasantparty says:

    Exactly! What are they collecting and saving all this info for?

    Let’s see now, they couldn’t catch 9-11, the Boston Bombers, or any of the ongoing attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. If that is true, then the tax payer money is being wasted on a huge oppressive machinery that is completely illegal in all aspects.

  2. LBJ says:

    “The intelligence community was able to gather and analyze information after the fact….”

    Maybe Team Clapper was too busy checking out our web surfing habits to put a timely effort into the Syrian problem. But honestly, can anything the Obama Administration says be truthful?

    A bit off subject: Has anyone taken a close look at Kerry recently? Maybe it’s the makeup he wears for TV appearances, but he doesn’t look healthy. His face appears puffy. It looks as though he could be on prednisone or some other anti inflammatory steroid drug.

  3. lefty665 says:

    Suppose it’s like law enforcement. No guarantee of individual protection against all crime, but the ability once something has happened to look at the pieces, id and go after the bad guys.

    Domestically is that worth gutting the Bill of Rights for? Never.

    Externally it will not protect us from all threats, but it will net some, hopefully most. There is too much data to individually look at everything that has been collected, so it is a judgement call on what has eyeball priority.

    There is always the hope that our resources were focused on real threats to the US rather than on Syria which is not. But that would represent a rational allocation of resources that is entirely absent in the hysteria to go to war. Wag the f***ing dog.

  4. lefty665 says:

    @LBJ: Kerry on steroids may be the hope for defeat of the aumf. It could take his bloviating to a personal best. That could be a deal killer.

  5. jerryy says:

    It takes some time for the NSA to schedule meetings with the DEA and build those parallel constructions out of leaked survelliance data. Not to mention, the legal assistants still have not quite found the language to intimidate the Syrian judiciary. So they were not able to warn anyone.

  6. M.Black says:

    Isn’t all this contradicted by the (admittedly suspicious) newspaper report — Britain’s Sunday Express? — that you commented upon last week: The Brits were claiming that through the Troodos monitoring station on Cyprus they had, and shared, real time awareness of the August 21 attack itself, but that they weren’t sufficiently convinced they could trust that the rebels weren’t involved in what they were picking up. And so they chose not to act upon it.

  7. Jim White says:

    Aw now, there’s that word again: “collect”. You know that the gummint doesn’t believe it has collected information until it is actually accessed. So they didn’t collect information about the attack until after it occurred.

  8. orionATL says:

    @Jim White:

    “we collected* the data, but didn’t collect** it.”

    * normal english meaning of “collect”

    ** special icon psyops meaning of “collect”.

  9. What Constitution? says:

    OK, so now the “utility” of this $52 Billion per year [albeit largely unconstitutional] collection and review apparatus is plain: it will allow the government to go back and sift through the rubble to find evidence to reconstruct the plot. To what end? To try a terrorist in Federal Court? Tell that to the people languishing in Gitmo. Plainly a goal worthy of eviscerating the Constitution, destroying fundamental principles of our society and replacing them with a 1984 mentality, infuriating America’s former allies and generally cementing a reputation as a lawless and despotic, but undoubtedly really powerful, rogue nation. How’s that workin’ out for us?

    I particularly am impressed with the show we’re working on now — imperiling the civilians of a sovereign nation by insisting upon a unilateral military strike against a country whose leaders appear to have engaged in conduct illegal under international law, with nothing but the UN, the Pope and most every civilized nation but France (the country not-so-long-ago reviled as the home of Freedom Fries) aligned against us — while we continue to harbor our own international war criminal leaders for their petty and inconsequential use of torture and aggressive warfare. Smooth. Nothing to ponder here.

  10. Clark Hilldale says:

    FWIW, the majority of COMINT collected by the NSA is never translated into English.

    The procedure is to go back after a significant event and take a look at what had been collected then translate it and see if any clues, conclusions or insight can be drawn from the intel.

  11. orionATL says:

    @Clark Hilldale:

    as i have said before, retrospective, not prospective.

    it facilitates autopsies, but provides little real-time protection.

    nsa data collection is basically a policing tool to catch horse thieves and bank robbers ex post.

  12. seedeevee says:

    “The intelligence community was able to gather and analyze information after the fact . . . .”

    Not “factual information”, but “information after the fact”.

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