Analysis: US spy agencies stil in the dark about Syria

Regional map of SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS| intelNews.org |
It has been almost a year since the ongoing anti-government uprising erupted in Syria. But intelligence agencies in the United States are still struggling to make sense of most aspects of the spiraling conflict. In February, the US Department of State closed down its embassy in the Syrian capital Damascus and recalled all of its diplomatic personnel, including US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, to Washington. Since then, the Central Intelligence Agency, which conducted its operations in Syria largely out of the US embassy there, has been forced to rely on scattered fragments of its agent network in Damascus, as well as on the work of a handful of allied intelligence services, including those of Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Naturally, the closure of the US embassy in Syria has boosted the role of the signals intelligence collection and satellite reconnaissance. But, none of these intelligence collection channels have been able to compensate for the lack of adequate human intelligence collection from inside Syria. As a result, according to The Washington Post, which cites “senior US officials”, US intelligence-gathering on the situation in Syria is currently “fragmentary [and] out of focus”. Specifically, the US intelligence community remains unclear about the tactical and strategic intentions of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has limited information about the makeup and strength of the opposition forces in the country. Perhaps more importantly, American intelligence analysts have little evidence on which to base any sort of firm conclusions about the extent of involvement of militant Islamists in the funding and operations of the Syrian opposition. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #0281

  • US intel director confirms CIA can kill US citizens abroad. It’s official; speaking before the House Intelligence Committee, US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair acknowledged that President Obama is continuing a Bush-era policy authorizing the killing of US citizens if they are considered “a terrorist threat to the United States”.
  • Funny sign at CIA gift shop. Actual notice displayed at a CIA gift store inside the Agency’s Langley, VA, headquarters: “Don’t forget! If you are undercover, you cannot charge! It will blow your cover”. Good point.
  • Gordon Thomas’ Secret Wars out in paperback. IntelNews has received the new paperback edition of Gordon Thomas’ Secret Wars: 100 Years of British Intelligence. Joseph Fitsanakis reviewed the hardback edition last May.

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Analysis: US spy turf-war flares up on Capitol Hill

Dennis Blair

Dennis Blair

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Wednesday’s testimony by US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, received plenty of media coverage. But few have examined the ongoing public hearings by three separate Senate committees on the Christmas Day bomb plot in light of the turf battles taking place between US intelligence agencies. An excellent article by Politico’s Kassie Hunt does just that, by pointing out that the hearing proceedings should be viewed in light of the “three-way turf war among Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter”. Capitol Hill lawmakers appear to be aware of this: Hunt’s article quotes Peter King, the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s senior Republican member, who warns that US intelligence agencies will use the public hearings to place blame about the Christmas Day bomber fiasco on each other. Read more of this post

Comment: Is CIA Lying About its Blackwater Contacts?

Blackwater logo

Blackwater logo

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
After CIA director Leon Panetta revealed last summer that private contractor Blackwater was part of a covert CIA hit squad, tasked with summary killings and assassinations of al-Qaeda operatives, the CIA vowed to sever its contacts with the trigger-happy security firm. But did it do so? It doesn’t look like it. Last November, it became known that the company, (recently renamed Xe Services) remains part of a covert CIA program in Pakistan that includes planned assassinations and kidnappings of Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects. More recently, it was revealed that two of the seven Americans who died in the December 30 bomb attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, were actually Blackwater employees subcontracted by the CIA.

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FBI still lacks translators, eight years after 9/11, says report

Report cover

Report cover

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
An internal audit by the US Justice Department’s inspector general has found that the FBI faces a critical shortage of foreign-language specialists, eight years after 9/11. The audit report (redacted version available in .pdf here) issued last Monday by inspector general Glenn Fine, reveals that the lack of translators prevented the FBI from accessing 31 per cent of the foreign-language material it collected in counter-terrorism operations from 2006 to 2008. This means the Bureau, which serves as America’s primary counterintelligence and counterterrorism force, has been unable to read tens of thousands of pages and listen to or review 1.2 million hours of audio intercepts in the last two years alone. Remarkably, despite the well-understood need for foreign-language specialists in the post-9/11 security environment, the audit found that the total number of FBI translators dropped from 1,338 in March 2005 to 1,298 in September last year. Read more of this post

CIA misled, lied to Congress several times since 2001, say lawmakers

Jan Schakowsky

Jan Schakowsky

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The two Democrats chairing the US House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence have accused the CIA of misleading Congress on at least five instances during the last eight years. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Representatives Jan Schakowsky (CA, photo) and Anna Eshoo (IL.) said an investigation by the Committee had uncovered several examples “where the committee actually has been lied to” by the CIA. The two chairwomen described the investigation findings as “symptom[s] of a larger disease” involving the routine practice of “incomplete and often misleading intelligence briefings”. However, commenting on Schakowsky and Eshoo’s allegations, Robert Litt, the senior attorney in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the conduct of all 16 US intelligence agencies, said Congress was not adequately briefed on “a small number of intelligence activities”, but “has since been brought up to date”. Read more of this post

Senator says Obama employs Bush tactics on spy secrecy

Russ Feingold

Russ Feingold

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A Democratic senator has alleged that the Obama Administration is copying the Bush Administration’s tactics by “stonewalling and road blocking” Congress on intelligence issues. Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), the only Senator to vote against the USA PATRIOT Act during its first vote, said during a nomination hearing on Tuesday that he suspects the White House is still withholding information from Congressional intelligence panel members. Feingold voiced the allegation during the nomination hearing in Congress of David Gompert, incoming deputy director of national intelligence, who will serve under director of national intelligence Dennis C. Blair. In recent months, Senator Feingold has emerged as one of the most vocal Democratic critics of the Obama administration’s policies on intelligence and security. Read more of this post