Intelligence Integration and the Syrian CW Threat

In 2011 the US intelligence community launched a major effort to characterize and counter the Syrian chemical weapons threat.  This effort supported two primary policy objectives: 1) preventing the diversion of Syria’s massive chemical weapons stockpile to those who might use it to target the United States and our allies and 2) preventing the catastrophic use of chemical weapons inside Syrian territory.

The emergence of the Syrian chemical weapons threat coincided with the 10-year anniversary of the faulty pre-war assessment of Iraq’s WMD programs. The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction concluded that the principal causes of this failure had been the intelligence community’s inability to collect good information about Iraq’s WMD programs, serious errors in analyzing the information it did collect, and a failure to make clear how much of its analysis was based on assumptions, rather than evidence. In response, the commission called for sweeping changes aimed at creating a more integrated and more innovative intelligence community.  The events in Syria would provide a dramatic real-world test of these institutional reforms as implemented under the leadership of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

The tragic fact is that many Syrians have died from exposure to chemical warfare (CW) agents and a far greater number have perished by more conventional, but no less brutal, means. There is cause to believe, however, that the death toll would have been much higher if the intelligence community had not acquired intelligence that enabled the United States and international community to intervene and stop some chemical attacks from occurring. U.S. intelligence agencies also played a pivotal role in enabling the international effort to remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile and monitoring Syria’s implementation of its international obligations.

Safeguarding CW Stockpiling Security

The Syrian chemical warfare program has been the subject of intense scrutiny from the U.S. intelligence community for many years. The program began in the late 1970s as a strategic deterrent to Israel. Throughout the 1990s, intelligence agencies reported Syria’s efforts to acquire CW-related equipment, expertise, and chemical precursors. By 2011, when opposition to the Assad regime boiled over into armed conflict, Syria had a large, complex, and highly active CW program with the capability to inflict mass casualties.

As the conflict in Syria intensified in 2011 and 2012, there were concerns across the U.S. government that one or more actors could gain unauthorized access to the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile. This threat prompted intelligence agencies to increase their efforts to monitor the stockpile and support U.S. military contingency planning for a loss-of-control incident.

Mindful of the experience in Iraq a decade before, an interagency team working under the auspices of the DNI undertook a comprehensive review of the size, composition, and location of Syria’s chemical stockpile compared to the ongoing fighting. One of the primary purposes of this review was to ensure all agencies had access to the full body of relevant information and that it was appropriately vetted. Through this process the analytic community came to assess that Syria possessed more than 1,000 metric tons of CW agents and precursors and dozens of CW-associated facilities. 

Although the intelligence community was confident in its assessment of the Syrian CW program, determining the disposition of the stockpile at any given moment amid the fog of war, and providing timely warning of a potential loss-of-control incident posed a much greater challenge. The complexity of this task would grow as more information about the location of Syria’s CW-related facilities became publicly available and the regime began to relocate portions of the stockpile in an apparent attempt to increase its security.

As the fighting in Syria wore on, the regime’s CW-related facilities remained under constant threat.  In each case, men and women across the intelligence community worked long into the night to collect and analyze any information that might indicate the security of the CW stockpile was compromised. Despite a number of close calls, it does appear that the Assad regime succeeded in securing its CW stockpile from attack.

Responding to the Imminent Threat of CW Use

In 2012 reports that the Assad regime was preparing to use, or may have already used, chemical weapons began to trickle out of Syria. These reports triggered an immediate and dramatic response within the U.S. intelligence community as agencies attempted to prevent a potentially catastrophic chemical weapons attack.

Intelligence community agencies in late 2012 received disquieting information that suggested Syria had begun to prepare chemical weapons materials for use against its own people. This information was immediately communicated to senior administration and congressional officials who used it to send a clear and unequivocal message to the Syrian regime.  The world was watching, and the Assad regime would be held accountable for any use of chemical weapons. This message was reinforced in many of the world’s capitals and appears to have led to a temporary pause in the regime’s attack preparations. This sequence of events in which good intelligence enabled an immediate and effective global response was repeated on other occasions during the conflict. Such use of intelligence almost certainly saved an untold number of lives.

As the international community’s concerns about the potential for CW use in Syria grew, so too did the number of allegations that the regime had used chemical weapons. The intelligence community aggressively investigated all of these allegations to determine if the reported symptoms and other data were consistent with exposure to chemical warfare agents, riot control agents like tear gas, conventional munitions, or some other cause. Analysts also had to take into account the possibility that some allegations might have been fabricated as part of a false-flag operation intended to draw the United States into the Syrian conflict.

By mid-2013 the intelligence community assessed that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons—including the nerve agent sarin—against the opposition on multiple occasions.

Intelligence agencies had high confidence in this assessment based on multiple independent streams of information including reporting of Syrian officials planning and executing chemical weapons attacks and laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals that revealed exposure to sarin. Attentive to the findings of the 2005 WMD Commission report and other investigations of the intelligence community’s assessments of Iraq’s WMD activities, analysts went out of their way to clearly identify both the information upon which their assessments were based and the limitations of that information. It is estimated that 100 to 150 people died in these relatively small-scale attacks.

In the midst of the rapidly unfolding situation on the ground in Syria, the intelligence community endeavored to keep senior administration officials and the congressional leadership fully and currently informed on events as they occurred.  This effort took many forms including written intelligence products, oral briefings, and, when circumstances warranted, hastily arranged phone calls. As noted by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes in June 2013, President Obama was receiving almost daily briefings on the situation from his national security team.

In addition to supporting the U.S. policy process, the intelligence community played an active role in informing the international response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in the summer of 2013. This involved openly sharing information about Syrian CW activities with United Nations investigators, our key allies and international partners, and the public. It also involved the unusual step of sharing the U.S. intelligence community assessment of Syrian chemical weapons use with Russia, Syria’s primary backer in the international community. These efforts tested the intelligence community’s ability to share enough information to advance U.S. national security interests while simultaneously protecting the intelligence sources and methods needed to detect, deter, and defend against future attacks. 

Attributing Responsibility for the August 21 Attack

At approximately 2:30 a.m. on August 21, 2013 the first reports of a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs began to appear in social media. During the next four hours, there were thousands of similar reports from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area. By dawn, media outlets around the world were broadcasting images showing scores of dead and dying Syrians.

U.S. intelligence agencies worked around the clock in the days that followed to confirm that chemical weapons had been used and to identify those responsible for the attack. Many of the images and first-hand accounts were consistent with, but not unique to, exposure to a nerve agent. Multiple streams of intelligence likewise indicated that the regime had executed a conventional rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21st.  The estimated death toll from the attacks that day exceeded 1,000 people and included at least 400 children. Given the circumstances, it was essential to systematically investigate and rule out alternative explanations for the reported events.

The intelligence community ultimately concluded that the Syrian government was responsible for carrying out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21st.  It had high confidence in this assessment because it was based on all-source human, signals, and geospatial intelligence, as well as a significant body of open source reporting.  Agencies would later assess that the regime had used the nerve agent sarin. They had high confidence in this assessment because it was based on laboratory testing that detected sarin and signatures of sarin in environmental and physiological samples.

On August 30, 2013 the White House publicly released an unclassified summary of the intelligence community’s analysis of the Damascus attack. It was the biggest release of WMD-related intelligence since the run-up to the Iraq war a decade earlier and the stakes could not have been higher. The Administration, Members of Congress, and the American public appropriately and justifiably demanded assurance that they were not being misled by the intelligence. In light of these concerns, the intelligence community took extraordinary care to ensure that the unclassified assessment that was released to the public was wholly consistent with classified reports that were shared with senior policymakers and international partners.

Two weeks later, on September 16th, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon released the conclusions of an independent UN investigation into the August 21 attack.  The UN investigation team had unique first-hand access to the scene of the attack; interviewed more than 50 survivors, medical personnel, and responders; and collected more than 30 soil and environmental samples.

The UN team’s report validated the U.S. intelligence community assessment of the attack, independently confirming the use of surface-to-surface rockets to deliver the nerve agent sarin against multiple targets in the Damascus suburbs. In the words of the Secretary General, “The results are overwhelming and indisputable. The facts speak for themselves.”  Although responsibility for attributing the perpetrator of the attack fell outside the purview of the UN investigation, the details of the UN report left little doubt about the culpability of the Assad regime.

Monitoring the Destruction of the Syrian Stockpile

In mid-September 2013, U.S. and Russian negotiators led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss a diplomatic proposal to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile.  A senior intelligence community representative accompanied the U.S. delegation and was tasked with responsibility for reaching a shared U.S.-Russian assessment of the Syrian CW program. Establishing a common understanding of the size and scope of the Syrian program was essential if the two sides were to agree on procedures for eliminating Syria’s CW capabilities. There were, however, longstanding differences in the U.S. and Russian assessments of the size of the Syrian CW program and the outcome of these discussions was far from certain.  In the end, the Russian negotiating team did accept the U.S. intelligence community assessment of the amount and type of chemical weapons in Syria’s possession.

The U.S.-Russian framework set ambitious goals for the removal and destruction of Syria’s CW agents, precursors, and munitions as well as the elimination of the regime’s CW development and production facilities. As soon as the agreement entered into force, U.S. intelligence agencies working at the direction of the National Counter Proliferation Center began to collect and analyze information to determine whether the Assad regime had taken any action, either intentional or inadvertent, that appeared inconsistent with its international obligations.  At the same time, agencies also monitored any potential external threats to the personnel, vehicles, and facilities involved in the destruction process.

The removal and destruction process began in fits and starts and there were significant delays throughout the process.  Some of these delays can be attributed to the massive logistical difficulties associated with safely removing tons of toxic materials from Syria’s large and geographically dispersed CW complex. Others resulted from the need to complete this delicate work in the midst of a civil war, something that had never before been attempted by any country. At every point, intelligence agencies vigilantly monitored the process for indications that the Assad regime was balking on its commitments.

On June 23, 2014 the last consignment of Syria’s declared stockpile was removed from the country for destruction by the international community. Although this event was an unqualified counterproliferation success, it did not mark the end of international concerns about Syria’s chemical warfare program. The United States and its allies continue to work closely with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to verify the completeness and accuracy of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Convention declaration. Despite the creation of a specialized team and months of work within the OPCW to address declaration-associated “current issues and concerns,” these investigations continue.

A More Secure Nation Through Intelligence Integration

The Director of National Intelligence has the responsibility to lead intelligence integration by strategically managing the global collection and analysis enterprise and coordinating intelligence community efforts to provide timely, insightful, and objective intelligence to the president, the congress, and other key customers. The Syrian chemical weapons threat presented a dramatic high-stakes test of the DNI organizational concept. 

Many of the organizations that played a leading role in the intelligence community’s response either did not exist or had a much different roles prior to the establishment of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in 2005. This includes the National Intelligence Manager for the Near East and the Director of the National Counterproliferation Center who jointly led the response effort and worked with agencies to ensure that collection assets were tasked in a coherent and coordinated fashion. The National Intelligence Officer for WMD assembled a multidisciplinary team of analysts from across the intelligence community who worked independently to corroborate allegations of chemical weapons use. The DNI’s Office of Analytic Integrity and Standards likewise played an important role in ensuring these assessments were timely, objective, independent of political considerations, and based upon all sources of available intelligence. 

These are just a few of the many organizations and individuals who labored under the direction of the DNI to produce an integrated response to an imminent threat to U.S. national security. This response simply would not have been possible without the effort of hundreds of intelligence officers at CIA, DIA, INR, NGA, NSA, the Open Source Center, and the combatant commands who recognized the seriousness of the Syrian CW threat and took immediate action.

History will ultimately judge the performance of the intelligence community in response to the Syrian chemical weapons threat. It is possible, however, to make some interim conclusions. In a September 2014 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, National Security Council Senior Director for WMD Terrorism and Threat Reduction Laura Holgate stated that “the level of intelligence community support, the timeliness, the technical depth, and—most importantly—information that enables action, has been beyond amazing.  I’ve never worked more closely with our intelligence community on anything, and they have delivered.”   This and other similar statements suggest that significant progress has been made in implementing the institutional reforms recommended by the WMD Commission and mandated by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. 

There is, to be sure, room for continued improvement. More than 1,000 Syrians have tragically died in chemical attacks to date, and there are continuing allegations of chlorine use. As long as these and other threats persist, the need for good intelligence, to provide for a more secure nation, will also persist.  Good intelligence today and into the future will require constant closer collaboration among all the elements of the intelligence community. This is what is meant by the term intelligence integration. An ideal 10 years ago, intelligence integration has become a reality among that the men and women of the intelligence profession who employ it every day in the work they do.

Brian Lessenberry is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior executive at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. 

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Brian Lessenberry