When Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied about NSA surveillance, it was at an April 18 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The purpose of that hearing, largely forgotten, was to provide the Committee with a worldwide threat assessment.
At that hearing, the Congressional Research Service reports, Clapper departed from previous intelligence and defense agency assessments of Syria's biological weapons capabilities. Was Clapper again giving Congress a "least untruthful" answer?
In an August 20 report, the Congressional Research Service provides the results of its investigation into the possibility that Syria might have biological weapons. CRS cited assessments by the Department of Defense, Department of State, and the Director of National Intelligence and concluded, "[I]t appears that Syria is still not capable of producing biological weapons."
There was one significant departure, however: James Clapper's assessment at the April 18 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. CRS reports that Clapper testified that "Syria’s biological weapons program may be somewhat more advanced" than previous assessments. In addition to testimony at the public hearing, Clapper testified at a closed hearing and provided a written assessment dated March 12.
Based on the duration of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare (BW) program, we judge that some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production. Syria is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional and chemical weapon systems that could be modified for biological http://www.timesofisrael.com/....Michael Flynn, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Clapper's former Assistant DNI, also testified that day. He appeared to disagree with Clapper's assessment, saying, ‘[W]e do not believe Syria has achieved a capability to use biological agents as effective mass-casualty weapons" (CRS, Aug. 20)
A February 2013 report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative also disagreed with Clapper.
"[T]here is no open source discussion of evidence that would support such assessments, and few insights if any exist to elucidate whether these claims reflect political goals or technical realities. NTI also notes, "discussions on this topic have focused on speculative extrapolations of Syrian dual-capable industry and on Syrian political motivations."It may be significant that Clapper's threat assessment came less than six weeks after TIME published a February 1 article reporting that Israel had carried out an air strike on an alleged biological weapons facility in Syria. The article, titled, "The Fallout from the Air Raid on Syria: Why Israel is Concerned," carried the subtitle: "Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attacks but it would have had defensive reasons to stage them." Right away, its credibility was questionable, and it didn't improve when the article quoted unnamed "Western intelligence officials."
Israeli warplanes struck several targets inside Syria overnight Tuesday, including a biological weapons research center that was reportedly flattened out of concern that it might fall into the hands of Islamist extremists fighting to topple the government of Syrian president Bashar Assad, Western intelligence officials tell TIME.
Officials also said that Israel had a “green light” from Washington to launch yet more such strikes.As to why strikes would have been authorized, TIME reports:
“If we succeeded all these years to deter the Syrians and all the other surrounding countries that possess weapons of mass destruction [from making] use of it, it’s because we knew how to deliver the message, that the price would be very high,” Amnon Sofrin, a retired brigadier and former senior Mossad official, told reporters this week. “What kind of threat can you put in the face of a terror organization?”Where have we heard similar words?
[NBC] President Barack Obama has called for a clear message to be sent to Syria over the use of chemical weaponsTIME's sources claimed close cooperation between Israel and the US, including the Pentagon.
Israel and Washington have worked especially closely from the start, and more visibly in recent weeks. When Israeli warplanes began their attack late Wednesday, Israel’s military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi was at the Pentagon on a working visit.The story conflicts with Flynn's later testimony, suggesting that Flynn was not in concurrence with TIME's claims. The story dropped off the media radar screen, moreover, and we didn't hear about bioweapons again until September 5 when a Washington Post article by Joby Warrick breathed fresh life into the claims just as the President's argument for an attack on Syria began losing steam. Like TIME, Warrick quoted unnamed intelligence officials in alleging, with no concrete evidence, that Syria had bioweapons capability.
Top intelligence officials in two Middle East countries said they have examined the potential for bioweapons use by Syria, perhaps as retaliation for Western military strikes on Damascus. Although dwarfed by the country’s larger and better-known chemical weapons program, Syria’s bioweapons capability could offer the Assad regime a way to retaliate because the weapons are designed to spread easily and leave few clues about their origins, the officials said. (WaPo)The claims are ludicrous. That ease of spread, cited by Warrick's anonymous sources, makes biological weapons useless against enemies who occupy the same country. Without a massive vaccination campaign to protect Assad's military force and loyal civilians, biological weapons could kill as many of Assad's people as rebels. There have been on reports of a massive vaccination campaign and carrying one out would be enormously challenging in the midst of civil unrest.
Who is behind this hype? As the top intelligence official who offered Congress an assessment inconsistent with those from other sources, Clapper seems a likely suspect. But, unless Edward Snowden has evidence of it, it would take a Congressional investigation to get to the bottom of it.
Below is the full text of the CRS report's section on Syria's biological weapons capability.
The question of a Syrian biological weapons program has also been raised in discussions of loss of sensitive military sites. Syria’s biological weapons activities appear to be considerably less advanced than the country’s chemical weapons program. Past U.S. assessments have stated that Damascus was pursuing biological weapons. According to a 1988 intelligence estimate, Syria was “conducting research and development” on a biological weapons program.71 A 1991 intelligence estimate assessed that the government had “a mature offensive [biological weapons] program” and that some agents “could be weaponized in the next three to five years.”72 However, a 1997 Defense Department was similar to the 1988 estimate and added that Damascus had not “begun any major weaponization or testing related to biological warfare.”73 Several years later, Syria was “not believed to have progressed much beyond the research and development phase and may have produced only pilot quantities of usable agent,” according to an October 2001 Defense Department report.74
Some U.S. assessments issued during the past decade have indicated that Damascus has continued to pursue biological weapons. For example, a report from the Director of Central Intelligence to Congress covering the second half of 2002 states that “[i]t is highly probable that Syria also continued to develop an offensive [biological weapons] capability.”75 More recently, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Vann Van Diepen stated in April 2012 that Syria “has been researching biological weapons.”76 Nevertheless, it appears that Syria is still not capable of producing biological weapons. An ODNI report to Congress covering 2009 states that Damascus is “not believed to have achieved a capability to put [biological weapons] agents into effective weapons.”77 The ODNI report covering 2011 states only that “Syria’s biotechnological infrastructure is capable of supporting BW agent development.”78
According to the 2012 State Department report regarding compliance with arms control and disarmament agreements, “the United States is concerned that Syria ... may be engaged in activities that would violate its obligations under the BWC,” if Damascus were a party to the agreement. “It remained unclear during the reporting period whether Syria would consider the use of biological weapons as a military option,” the report adds.79 The 2013 version of the report reiterates this analysis.80
According to April 18, 2013, testimony from Director of National Intelligence Clapper before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Syria’s biological weapons program may be somewhat more advanced than suggested by the assessments described above. Clapper stated that[b]ased on the duration of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare (BW) program, we judge that some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production. Syria is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional and chemical weapon systems that could be modified for biological agent delivery.81DIA Director Flynn testified during the same hearing that “[w]e do not believe Syria has achieved a capability to use biological agents as effective mass-casualty weapons.”82