The Cable

Top Dem Now Questioning Pentagon's Syria Plans

It's not just Republicans who are now openly wondering whether America's top general is being too timid on Syria. In a letter obtained by The Cable, Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, calls into question Gen. Martin Dempsey's gloomy analysis of U.S. military options in Syria. Specifically, the leading congressman asks whether the Pentagon overlooked an option to fire a limited number of cruise missiles in order to wreck Assad's air force.

"While I do not profess to be a military expert, it is clear that this analysis does not fully reflect an even more limited option that some have advocated, which would involve cruise missiles or other stand-off weapon strikes," Engel writes in a letter addressed to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The letter by Engel, a New York Democrat, adds a bipartisan gloss to the mounting frustration in Congress over the Pentagon's proposed options in Syria.

All last week, Dempsey faced withering criticism from Sen. John McCain for a letter he sent to the Arizona Republican and Sen. Carl Levin detailing the military options in Syria -- options that McCain said exaggerated the cost of intervention in Syria in both treasure and blood. "In my many years, I have seen a lot of military commanders overstate what is needed to conduct military action for one reason or another. But rarely have I seen an effort as disingenuous and exaggerated as what General Dempsey proposed," McCain said. 

Under scrutiny is Dempsey's contention that conducting limited stand-off strikes in Syria would require "hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enabers" at a cost in the "billions."

"I respectfully request that you provide me with additional information regarding the force requirements and estimated costs associated with a more limited stand-off strike option focused on degrading regime-controlled air bases," Engel writes. 

Unlike McCain, Engel's delicately-worded letter did not question Dempsey's motivations for neglecting to outline a more limited intervention against Bashar al-Assad's forces. But a growing number of aides in the House and Senate are beginning to ask whether the Pentagon is justifying its institutional resistance to intervening in Syria with inflated cost assessments.

"I question whether Dempsey's letter is just a smokescreen to prevent a more meaningful U.S. response in Syria," said a senior congressional staffer who follows Syria policy closely. "You've got to wonder why the Joint Chiefs failed to detail the costs of having a few dozen Tomahawks take out Syrian airfields and hangars. It's a fairly obvious option to neglect to mention. If the opportunity costs to degrade the Syrian military are so high, you've got to wonder what the point is of even deploying the Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean?" 

Dempsey's office did not respond to a request for comment, but others have defended the Defense Department's reluctance. "From my perspective, the hesitancy from the Pentagon is rooted in operational reality," Shawn Brimley, director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, told The Cable in June when chatter of Pentagon misgivings first surfaced. "The question needs to be: Are we willing to go to war in Syria? You can't be halfway pregnant. As soon as we step in with military force, we own it. If you're the president, are you willing to enter into a third war in the greater Middle East at this point in our history?"

Others say that limited strikes on Syria are not only possible -- they could be fairly inexpensive, too. "I am not taking a position on whether we ‘should' degrade the Syrian Air Force," said the Institute for the Study of War's Chris Harmer, in an e-mail to The Cable, "I am simply saying that if we decide to degrade the SAF, it could be done quickly, easily, with no risk whatsoever to American personnel, and a relatively minor cost."

In Washington policy circles, Harmer has been raising eyebrows with a new report that purports to lay out a low-cost strategy to hamstring Assad's air force (you can see the 30-page slideshow here). "Although destroying the SAF and its Integrated Air Defense System in its entirety would require a major military operation, a series of relatively small strikes, using Precision Guided Munitions launched from outside the Weapon Engagement Zone of the Syrian IADS, would also significantly degrade the SAF and its infrastructure," reads the analysis. Rather than requiring hundreds of aircraft and vessels as Dempsey outlined, Harmer's strike calls for three U.S. Navy surface combatant vessels, and 24 total U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force aircraft launching a barrage of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles and Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missiles. The detailed report is complete with maps of ammo bunkers and other strategic targets. 

From the Syrian rebel perspective, any relief they can get from Assad's strafing fighter jets is welcome, which is why lawmakers are increasingly looking to cheaper fixes to a conflict the American public is deeply skeptical of.

"Without a fuller discussion of the range of military options on Syria, neither Congress, the executive branch, nor the American people can adequately consider how best to respond to the crisis," Engel told The Cable, elaborating on the concerns in his letter. "More specifically, it might be possible to ground Assad's air force, slow the transport of weapons to the regime, and halt the random terror caused when the bombs rain down on Syrian cities -- without committing the hundreds of planes and billions of dollars described in General Dempsey's letter. But to determine this, the American people need a clear and forthright menu of policies."

National Security

Snowden Didn't Exactly Wreck the NSA, New Terror Warning Shows

Top intelligence officials and leading politicians have taken turns blasting NSA leaker Edward Snowden for sabotaging U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Apparently, Al Qaeda didn't get the memo. If Snowden's leaks really did inflict any systemic damage on the NSA's global surveillance apparatus, it may not have been enough to prevent the agency from intercepting key communications between Al Qaeda members about a potential plot to attack U.S. and other Western targets overseas.

A senior U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy it would be incorrect to assume that terrorist planners, even at the senior level, are so attuned to the intricacies of intelligence gathering that were exposed in press reports that they now understand how to completely secure their communications. It could also be that the terrorists let their guard down or believed, erroneously, that they might not be detected when sending a communication. Or perhaps this intercepted communication was simply a way to test which components of America's eavesdropping network were still listening.

Either way, the mayhem allegedly sown by Snowden appears to be have been overstated. Just over two weeks ago, Robert Litt, the intelligence community's top lawyer, said the disclosures had done "long lasting and perhaps irreversible harm" to U.S. national security. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said it was "gut-wrenching to see this happen, because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities."  And Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, said that because of what Snowden did, "Those who wish us harm now know how we counter our actions. These leaks have caused significant and irreversible damage to our nation's security."

Yet the NSA was still able to pluck out enough terrorist "chatter" to warn U.S. officials that an attack was in the offing, possibly directed against American diplomatic posts. Among the key clues was an intercepted communication reportedly from the head of Al Qaeda to its branch in Yemen ordering him to launch an attack.

The intelligence was specific and credible enough that the Obama administration took the extraordinary step of shuttering more than 20 embassies from the northwest of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula as a security precaution. Nineteen posts will remain closed until at least next Saturday, owing to what some lawmakers briefed on the potential attack are calling among the most serious threats in years that have been detected by U.S. intelligence efforts. The alert may also be seen as an attempt to make up for what some members of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service have described as an underwhelming response to the attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last year, treating that and protests at other posts as one-offs and not tied to broader risk throughout the region.

"The intent seems clear...to attack Western, not just U.S., interests," Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC's "This Week about the latest terror threat. 

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle took to the Sunday talk shows to praise NSA's efforts and cite the possibly thwarted plot as evidence that the intelligence agency is doing its job well. "If we did not have these programs we wouldn't be able to listen in on the bad guys," said Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, on NBC's "Meet the Press," giving credit directly to a section of law that authorizes broad sweeps of foreign communications and that was described in classified documents released by Snowden.

"It's a very credible threat, and it's based on intelligence," Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC's "This Week." "The good news is that we've picked up intelligence. And that's what we do. That's what NSA does."

Characterizations of the NSA as a crack global supersleuth are at odds with the dire picture presented by administration officials and intelligence leaders in recent weeks.

"Historically every time a capability is revealed we lose our ability to track those targets," Alexander said.

So is history being proven wrong now, as the NSA zeroes in on the top leader of Al Qaeda sending an attack order to one of his lieutenants?

Much about the plot is still unknown, and it's not clear what clues might have come from other sources of intelligence, including human spies. But the fear that revealing details about how the NSA monitors terrorists--as well as Americans--has given the nation's enemies a playbook for evading detection seems less likely now. And in fact, the agency appears to be expanding its writ: According to a report from Reuters on Monday, the agency works closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration, providing intelligence to a special operations unit that funnels information into criminal cases.

The timing of the NSA's success intercepting the Al Qaeda communications is fortuitous for its defenders. Lawmakers who have criticized the NSA for collecting the telephone records of Americans--a program that apparently played no role in the recent threat--praised the spy agency on Sunday for its work helping to interdict an attack.

"I think what today shows, of course, is that security is very, very important and that the agencies in charge are darned good," Sen. Charles Schumer told CBS' "Face the Nation." "They're able to listen in and hear what's going on. They have disrupted many, many, many terrorist plots, and let`s hope they're disrupting this one as well."

But Schumer pivoted to the ongoing debate about the "balance between security and liberty," and said now was still an appropriate time to "reexamine that" and set stricter rules on how the NSA spies. And he called for pushing more secrets into the light, namely through a bill that would subject court orders for NSA surveillance to more scrutiny.

Efforts to rein in the NSA may stall in the wake of an intelligence victory that was the result of exposed operations and programs. But considering that the sky didn't fall after Snowden, the agency's staunchest supporters will have a harder time arguing that more secrecy is what the NSA needs.