Questions swirl about possible intelligence lapse in Syria

Questions swirl about possible intelligence lapse in Syria
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The Obama administration is pushing back against suggestions that lawmakers were not adequately informed about the situation in Syria, as the United States grapples with Russia’s entry onto the battlefield.

In the days since members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees began asking questions, multiple administration officials have doubled down in defense of their analysis. 

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American analysts had generally predicted that Russian President Vladimir Putin would leap into the fray in defense of Syrian President Bashar Assad, President Obama said on CBS’s “60 Minutes” over the weekend.

“We had pretty good intelligence,” Obama said.

“We knew that he was planning to provide the military assistance that Assad was needing because they were nervous about a potential imminent collapse of the regime.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest similarly argued last week that Russia’s game plan for Syria “was a well-known fact.”

“I don’t think there was anybody that had the expectation in the administration that Russia wasn’t prepared to use that equipment to advance what they view as their interests inside of Syria,” he said on Thursday.

Lawmakers, however, are casting doubt on whether all the intelligence on Syria was given to Capitol Hill in a timely manner.  

Last week, members of the Intelligence committees began asking whether analysis presented to them by the administration predicted when and how Russia would rush into Syria.

The concern is that intelligence officials “did not apprise the committee of information it had in a timely matter,” one aide said Monday.

The questions followed suggestions that the administration had been caught off-guard by Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria, which began on Sept. 30 and has already escalated to more than 100 airstrikes.

Congress has not launched a formal investigation into the Syria intelligence, and so far there is no indication that either committee will hold hearings or other public inquiries into the allegations. Staffers have framed their questions as part of regular oversight work.

Yet the probing comes at a time when the intelligence community is under increased scrutiny.

A separate inspector general investigation is looking at whether the military’s Central Command edited intelligence analysis about Islamic extremists for political purposes.  

Last year, U.S. intelligence officials appeared to be caught flat-footed when Russia raced into Ukraine, in a rapid campaign that resulted in the annexation of Crimea.

More recently, some watchers have wondered whether American spies had adequately predicted that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would seize vast areas to start a self-proclaimed Caliphate.

Amid that backdrop, intelligence officials are insisting that they had their bases covered on Syria.

“The IC [intelligence community] continues to work diligently to provide our policymakers with the best possible insight and understanding into one of the most dynamic, complex security challenges the international community has confronted in recent memory,” Brian Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in a statement.
 
“Any suggestion that the IC was surprised by Russia’s military support to the Assad regime is misleading."

Sources on Capitol Hill and within the intelligence community confirmed that the Intelligence committees had been repeatedly briefed about Russia’s buildup in Syria, both before and after Moscow’s strikes. Briefings about Syria had been going on for months.

Yet lawmakers on Capitol Hill appear skeptical that they were getting the best information.

In a statement last week, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffChris Matthews ripped for complimenting Trump's 'true presidential behavior' on Ginsburg Trump casts doubt on Ginsburg statement, wonders if it was written by Schiff, Pelosi or Schumer Top Democrats call for DOJ watchdog to probe Barr over possible 2020 election influence MORE (Calif.) — the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee — seemed to suggest that intelligence officials had concluded that Russia would seek to beef up Assad’s weapons stockpiles, rather than launching airstrikes and making naval moves of its own.

"It is certainly true that few would have predicted that Putin would react to the weakening position of the Assad regime by sending in combat aircraft and augmenting its naval presence,” Schiff said. “An increase in Russia's material support for the Assad regime seemed much more probable.”

However, he maintained that intelligence officials had kept the committee "apprised" of Russia's movements.

"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.