On Capitol Hill Thursday, an intimate briefing between CIA Director John Brennan and the top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee exploded into an impromptu and classified briefing on Syria with top leaders at the State Department, CIA, White House and Congress.
Originally billed as a briefing about a new CIA report defending enhanced interrogation practices, congressional aides said the focus of the briefing flipped unexpectedly to the war in Syria and was extended to the entire Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Attendees spotted by The Cable included Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, Saxby Chambliss, Ron Wyden, Susan Collins, and others.
As they exited the briefing, attendees remained tight-lipped. "I have nothing to say," Feinstein said. When asked if the briefing involved the CIA's interrogation practices, she said "no." Congressional aides confirmed that the briefing focused on Syria, but could not elaborate. Update: There is some confusion over whether the CIA report was delivered in a meeting prior to the Syria meeting. One Senate aide said Brennan did discuss the CIA report with Feinstein and Chambliss privately, but there was "no report formally delivered" to them or the committee. Another Senate aide said the report was delivered by Brennan. The CIA declined to comment.
The meeting occurred in the backdrop of a dispute last week between lawmakers and the White House over its proposal to provide arms to Syrian rebels. In the House Intelligence Committee, both Democrats and Republicans rejected the White House's initial proposal to arm Syrian rebels, saying it lacked specifics, including what to do if sending arms fails to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
"We want to make sure that we know what the end game is and we want to make sure it's the right strategy," House Intel member Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) told the AP.
"We're supportive of the president's efforts to continue to put pressure on the Assad regime and to support the rebels, but we all continue to ask tough questions," Langevin added. "Do we know who these rebels are and in the long run, are we backing the right group, and are any action that we taking in total concert with the allies and surrounding nations in the region, so that this doesn't ever become a U.S.-only effort."
When asked if today's Senate Intelligence Committee was also about getting senators on board with funding arms to the rebels, a Senate aide told The Cable "yes."
At today's Senate briefing, Biden dashed out of the meeting before others in a sprint to the Senate Floor, where he presided over the passage of the immigration overhaul legislation, which passed by 68-32.
As The Cable jotted notes about the attendees present, staffers hovering near Burns nervously approached asking if your humble blogger had overheard their "private conversations" with the deputy secretary. The Cable had not-unfortunately.