U.S. Had Intelligence on Syria’s Attack Preparations, Didn’t Decipher It in Time

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John Kerry.Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

In a speech at the State Department last week, Secretary of State John Kerry declared, "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," adding, "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." Kerry's remarks were meant to assure the world that the Assad regime was responsible for the reported attack near Damascus on Aug. 21, but it also raised questions about why the U.S. failed to issue a warning if it saw signs of a pending chemical attack. Officials tell the AP that the U.S. already had many of the key pieces of evidence the Obama administration is using to justify a strike on Syria, but they had yet to be "processed."

As recent reporting on the NSA revealed, the U.S. intelligence community is collecting an almost unfathomable amount of information, and officials suggested that they didn't know to focus on the area until reports of an attack began to emerge. "Let's be clear, the United States did not watch, in real time, as this horrible attack took place," Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said 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."

They first concluded that Assad was to blame based on satellite images and signals that the Syrian military was preparing chemical weapons, then backed up the intelligence with an intercepted phone call from a senior Syrian military official discussing the attack. The call was picked up shortly after the strike, but according to the AP, "current and former intelligence officials said analysts were stretched too thin with the multiple streams of intelligence coming out of multiple conflict zones, from Syria to Libya to Yemen."

The image makes the Washington Post's report on Syria's possible biological weapons capabilities even more chilling. Officials say Syria is believed to have a collection of lethal bacteria and viruses, but it's ability to weaponize those materials is debatable. Still, its neighbors are concerned. "We are worried about sarin, but Syria also has biological weapons, and compared to those, sarin is nothing," said a senior Middle Eastern official. "We know it, and others in the region know it. The Americans certainly know it." Whether U.S. officials can piece together what Syria will do with those weapons is another story.