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Congress questioning US spy agencies amid Russian campaign

Congress questioning US spy agencies amid Russian campaign
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Congress is examining the nation’s intelligence agencies in the wake of the Russian military buildup in Syria.

Intelligence committees in both the House and Senate are asking questions about possible lapses in U.S. intelligence, The Hill has confirmed, out of concern that blind spots may have prevented officials from seeing Russia's actions coming.

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“There is no formal investigation,” one House aide told The Hill on Thursday, “but the committee is talking to people and asking questions about potential problems in the provision of timely information on this issue.”

Becca Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the panel “is engaged in constant, ongoing oversight of intelligence community activities.”

“That includes, of course, intelligence related to the situation in the Middle East,” she said. “However, the intelligence community does not operate in a vacuum, and the committee is also looking at our nation’s policy in the region.”

The probe was first reported by Reuters.

The questions from Capitol Hill come amid a dramatic Russian buildup of military forces in Syria, which has vexed the U.S.’s efforts to blunt the country’s four-year-old civil war.

Russia began conducting airstrikes in Syria last week in support of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Those strikes have reportedly often targeted rebels backed by the CIA, threatening to turn the Syrian conflict into a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia.

Russia claims to be targeting extremists such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but more than 90 percent of its strikes are aimed at other rebels intent on bringing down Assad, State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday.

Anonymous officials speaking to Reuters suggested that intelligence agents had misunderstood early Russian movements.

“They saw some of this going on but didn’t appreciate the magnitude,” one anonymous source told Reuters.

“Information on this was not moving quickly enough through the channels,” another official told the news service. “[There was] a lag of a week.”

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffWhite House defends not sanctioning Saudi crown prince over Khashoggi What good are the intelligence committees? Biden holds off punishing Saudi crown prince, despite US intel MORE (Calif.) — the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee — said that intelligence officials had kept the committee “apprised” of Putin’s rush into Syria.

He appeared unwilling to criticize U.S. officials on Thursday.

"Although we will continue to look into the timeliness and accuracy of intelligence assessments, I do not think we should rush to find fault with the intelligence community in its ability to discern exactly what is in Putin's head,” Schiff said in a statement. “Putin notoriously keeps a tight counsel and employs a deliberate strategy of improvisation and unpredictability.

“That said, we need to make sure that we appropriately prioritize so-called hard targets like Russia."

— Mark Hensch contributed

This story was updated at 5:26 p.m.