On that Acknowledged Covert Op in Syria

The NYT has a tick-tock of Obama’s Syria policy. I find it fascinating for two reasons.

Obama uses “covert” status as a legal fiction, nothing more

First, consider the coverage of the covert op — one acknowledged explicitly by Chuck Hagel in Senate testimony. NYT says President Obama actually signed the Finding authorizing arming the rebels in April, not June, as Hagel claimed, but Obama did not move to implement it right away.

President Obama had signed a secret order in April — months earlier than previously reported — authorizing a C.I.A. plan to begin arming the Syrian rebels.

Indeed, the story may have been driven by CIA types trying to blame Obama for indolence after first signing that finding.

As to the decision to do this as a covert op, NYT describes it arose — first of all — out of difficulties over using the Armed Forces to overthrow a sovereign government.

But debate had shifted from whether to arm Syrian rebels to how to do it. Discussions about putting the Pentagon in charge of the program — and publicly acknowledging the arming and training program — were eventually shelved when it was decided that too many legal hurdles stood in the way of the United States’ openly supporting the overthrow of a sovereign government.

Those difficulties, of course, were the same ones present that should have prevented Obama from considering bombing a sovereign government in August, which of course weren’t the ones that ultimately persuaded Obama not to bomb.

The big reason to do it as a covert op, however, came from the need to be able to deny we were arming al Qaeda-linked rebels.

Besides the legal worries, there were other concerns driving the decision to make the program a secret.

As one former senior administration official put it, “We needed plausible deniability in case the arms got into the hands of Al Nusra.”

Yet in spite of this explanation — one which you’d think would demand secrecy — the NYT notes that Ben Rhodes went and announced this policy publicly.

But, the NYT notes (perhaps in anticipation for the inevitable FOIA), the President didn’t say anything about it himself.

Where the hell was the IC getting its rosy scenario about Assad’s overthrow?

The other striking thing about the story is how it portrays Obama’s policies to have been driven by (unquestioned by the NYT) overly rosy assessments of Assad’s demise.

It starts by portraying the 2011 belief Bashar al-Assad would fall as a near certainty (note the NYT doesn’t mention the other regimes — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, among others, that haven’t fallen either).

At first, the future of Syria did not seem so complicated — nobody believed that Mr. Assad would survive.

In the summer of 2011, the momentum of the Arab uprisings appeared to be sweeping all before it. Gone were the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt, and in Libya, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi would fall later in the year.

American intelligence agencies gave regular briefings at the White House and the State Department concluding that Mr. Assad’s days were numbered, and on Aug. 18, 2011, Mr. Obama released a statement declaring that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Then, in summer 2012, NYT says, intelligence services got word Assad was moving his CW (note, no mention here of whether that influenced the IC judgment on Assad’s longevity or whether they explained why he hadn’t fallen in the interim year, nor is there mention of NYT’s earlier reporting that the IC thought this might reflect dissension in Assad’s ranks).

By late summer 2012, however, American intelligence agencies began picking up communications with ominous signals that Mr. Assad’s military was moving chemical weapons and possibly mixing them in preparation for use.

There’s also no mention — even though it discusses the Libya intervention generally — of the chaos that had already overtaken Libya by that point, to say nothing of the way Benghazi and its politicization might have made Obama think twice of arming rebels to overthrow a dictator. That is, Libya is presented as an example solely of mission creep, not as an example of how a David Petraeus-led scheme had failed to achieve stability and may have fostered terrorism.

By that point, at least, folks in State were beginning to wise up about Assad’s longevity.

Much of the department’s time was now being devoted to what was called the “post-Assad project,” the planning for political transition in Syria. Many State Department officials began to dismiss the project as a useless academic exercise. They believed that its premise — that Mr. Assad’s government was on the verge of collapse — was becoming outdated.

It took until the beginning of 2013 — at least as portrayed by NYT — before the IC copped on that Assad was actually doing better than the rebels.

But a new American intelligence assessment at the beginning of 2013 revived the discussions about whether to give arms to the rebels.

In a reversal from what spy agencies had been telling administration officials for more than a year, the new assessment concluded that Mr. Assad’s government was in no danger of collapsing, and that Syrian troops were gaining the upper hand in the civil war. The pace of Syrian Army defections had slowed, and Iranian munitions shipments had replenished the stocks of army units that had once complained of shortages in arms and ammunition.

The opposite was true for the rebels, who were running out of ammunition and supplies. Morale was low, American spy agencies concluded, and Qaeda-linked groups like the Nusra Front were becoming increasingly dominant in the rebellion.

The key development that persuaded Obama to act, however, was a June State Department report. In its specific reference, the NYT highlights the plight of Salim Idris, who never really had the chance of being the moderate leader the Americans wanted him to be, but the NYT doesn’t admit that.

The rebellion was collapsing, and a classified State Department briefing paper on June 10, which mentioned the rebel commander Gen. Salim Idris, painted a grim picture.

“We are headed toward our worst case scenario: rebel gains evaporating, the moderate opposition — including Salim Idriss — imploding, large ungoverned spaces, Asad holding on indefinitely, neighbors endangered, and Iran, Hizbollah, and Iraqi militias taking root,” the paper concluded.

But this seems to be the same document cited in the lede of the article, one which the NYT has apparently been coached to use to suggest Obama could have prevented the CW attack of August 21.

With rebel forces in Syria in retreat and the Obama administration’s policy toward the war-ravaged country in disarray, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived at the White House Situation Room one day in June with a document bearing a warning. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had used chemical weapons against his people, the document said, and if the United States did not “impose consequences,” Mr. Assad would see it as a “green light for continued CW use.”

That is, this progression mainly serves in this tale as the basis to blame Obama for the CW attack. Not as further evidence the IC was woefully late in figuring out the rebels they had invested in weren’t as strongly situated as they had claim (and, indeed, as the entire narrative would need them to be to make sense).

Now, I’m not saying I wrote a treatise in June 2011 predicting Assad would outlast the rebels. But there were clear signs the west — largely led by credulous press — was overestimating the strength of the rebellion in Syria. Seeing them, however, required challenging rebel propaganda and accessing sources outside of the US bubble.

Did no one in the intelligence establishment do that? Has the US been so entranced by the propaganda of those aiming to use the Arab Spring as an opportunity to expand their influence that no one questioned the rosy assumptions until far into the plan?

What the NYT pitches as a story of Obama’s failure is, rather, a picture of continued failures by our intelligence community (including those close to David Petraeus, who is a likely source for the pitched narrative).

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. lysias says:

    Did they really believe that Assad’s government was the one that had used the poison gas, or was that just a convenient excuse for going ahead with the bombing that they had already decided on for other reasons?

  2. orionATL says:

    do these ic folk ever get anything right? (thinking all the way back to the estimates of soviet missle and h-bomb strength)

    52 billion samolians a year and they’re always wearing the wrong pair of spectacles for the job.

    could it have been that our supposedly clear and gimlet-eyed ic was working from an ideological viewpoint?

    no wait. i got it. it was like sept 2001 – not enough sneakers ( :)) on the ground in syria.

    more samolians needed.

  3. harpie says:

    NYT:

    As one former senior administration official put it, “We needed plausible deniability in case the arms got into the hands of Al Nusra.”

    It seems that there is very little that is plausibly deniable by the government.

  4. Clark Hilldale says:

    From your excerpt of the NYT piece:

    “President Obama had signed a secret order in April — months earlier than previously reported — authorizing a C.I.A. plan to begin arming the Syrian rebels.”

    It would be awesome if the NYT reporters bothered to read their own past coverage of CIA’s Covert Action in Syria.

    You see, this NYT piece from March of this year states clearly – right at the beginning – that CIA is providing arms to the Syrian rebels and had been doing so since “early 2012.”

    The CIA does not conduct Covert Actions, of which providing arms to rebel groups is a textbook example, without having obtained a signed presidential finding.

    And, towards the topic of this post, for the CIA to consider some matter or another “a covert op”, is not exactly a legal fiction as you claim, but an absolute requirement when dealing with certain activities (foreign election tampering, certain propaganda ops, and others) which are not intelligence collection and are called “Covert Actions.”

    My criticism here is not towards you EW, but towards the NYT which is trying to pull some shit here.

  5. Don Bacon says:

    –On Dec 14, 2011, State Department official Frederic Hof told Congress that Assad’s repression may allow him to hang on to power but only for a short time. “Our view is that this regime is the equivalent of dead man walking,” said Hof, the State Department’s pointman on Syria.

    –US aid to anti-Syria forces to this day has been labeled by the government as “nonlethal.”

  6. EH says:

    @orionATL:

    Do they ever get anything right? Does it even matter, when their counterparts aren’t listening?

    In a reversal from what spy agencies had been telling administration officials for more than a year…

  7. janinsanfran says:

    When Assad didn’t fall quickly (within 6 months?), his survival probably became inevitable. That was pretty clear to this detached observer.

    These IC guys get too close to events and people and become unable to see.

  8. GKJames says:

    It’s remarkable how the (in)competence of the national security apparatus is never even a topic. And it’s not for a shortage of information, either. There’s simply a willful insistence on ignoring the facts. Worse, there are blithe acceptance and benefit of doubt without the least factual justification for either. One assumes this is so because to pull back the curtain is to reveal an empire run by the truly clueless, and the reality that, contrary to what we love telling ourselves, we have (and always have had) precious little control over outcomes in other countries.

  9. klynn says:

    Thank you for your last paragraph and for noting the likely pitch for the narrative.

    Perhaps some updated information on “all the generals caught in the light,” will come out real soon.

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