The Cable

Exclusive: Syria Pushes To Keep Its Chemical Weapons Factories

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has asked international inspectors to spare a dozen of its chemical weapons factories from the wrecking ball, The Cable has learned. The Syrians say they want to convert the plants into civilian chemical facilities. But the move is fueling concern among some non-proliferation experts that Damascus may be seeking to maintain the industrial capacity to reconstitute its chemical weapons program at some later date.

The Syrian request -- which was contained in a confidential letter from Muallem to Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- has also raised concern among some Western governments that Syria may seek to entangle the inspection agency in lengthy negotiations that could drag out the process of destroying Syria's chemical weapons.

The OPCW -- which, along with the United Nations, is overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program -- has frequently allowed states that volunteer to eliminate their nerve agent plants to convert the facilities into a production for vaccines, medicines, and other life-saving products. But states must first make a "compelling" case to justify the preservation of such a facility. The Syrian letter does not detail how the civilian chemical plants would be used, according to an official that has been briefed on its contents. Any exception to the Syrian chemical destruction program would have to be ratified by the 41-nation OPCW executive council, which counts the United States as a member. Such decisions are typically made by consensus.

Amy Smithson, a non-proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, noted that the OPCW’s executive council will have to seriously weigh what the Syrians intend to produce. "If they want to make bubble gum or humanitarian products that are essential for the well-being of Syria's citizens, that's one thing," she said. "But if they ask to make pesticides and fertilizers, normally those plants are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the ability to make warfare agents."

The request comes as the OPCW announced that it had visited 21 of Syria's declared chemical weapons sites and found that Damascus had completed the destruction of all of its chemical weapons filling and mixing equipment a day ahead of schedule. "The government of the Syrian Arab Republic has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable," the OPCW said in a statement today. "The Joint [UN/OPCW] Mission is now satisfied that it has verified -- and seen destroyed -- all of Syria's declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment."

The OPCW's announcement echoed an upbeat assessment by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who informed the U.N. Security Council in an October 28 letter that "the government of the Syrian Arab Republic has extended consistent, constructive cooperation."

(On the other hand, Syria's assistance on the chemical weapons front contrasted with the bureaucratic hurdles that Damascus has placed on international relief efforts -- restricting the number of aid organizations that work in Syria and delaying the issuance of visas to U.N. aid officials.)

The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. But Thomas Countryman, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation, expressed optimism about the trajectory of chemical weapons removal. "I am increasingly confident that we will be able to complete this task, the elimination of Syria's CW program, within the target date of June 30th of next year."

Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Countryman said that the United States and Russia had discussed in Geneva the need for the "the removal of dangerous pre-cursor chemicals from Syria, the bulk of which are not weaponized not inside shells," saying it "would be essential to completing this task on time. The destruction plan submitted by the Syrian government to the OPCW embraces exactly that concept and we are confident that we will have a host country that can work with us to affect the destruction outside of Syria of these precursor chemicals."

However, Countryman cautioned that "while the record so far is acceptable we do not assume or take for granted that the Syrian government will continue full compliance with its obligations."

"We continue this process with our eyes wide open," he added. "We are about to enter what could be the most complicated phase in terms of logistics and security. That is the removal of chemical precursors in large quantities from several sites within Syria to the coast for removal on a ship to another country."

Countryman's optimism contrasts with several non-proliferation experts, who cautioned that the hardest parts of the destruction effort were still to come and that it was unlikely Assad's stockpiles could be fully eliminated by next summer.

"Having Syria meet its obligation to destroy its filling and production equipment and empty munitions was always the easy part," said a senior Defense Department chemical weapons specialist.  "It was never a realistic deadline based on engineering estimates, but rather that schedule was a diplomatic and idealistic attempt to quickly stop Syria from using a particular weapon system in its current conflict."

Faiza Patel, formerly a senior official with the OPCW, said the effort would likely be slowed by a pair of challenges. Assad's stockpile contains roughly 290 metric tons of chemical agents, and Patel said that a large quantity of the deadly agents had probably already been loaded into warheads, artillery shells and missiles. That means the chemical agents would need to be separated from the munitions and neutralized, a time-consuming and dangerous process, before the warheads and artillery shells were also destroyed.

Patel said the second potential hurdle came from the unanswered question of where the chemical weapons agents would actually be destroyed. Eliminating the stockpiles while they were still in Syria would require building dozens of destruction facilities or fielding large numbers of mobile units, a process that could easily take a year or more. Patel said the weapons could be eliminated far more quickly if the Syrian weapons were transported to countries like Russia or the United States that already have large-scale facilities. It would be difficult to move the weapons to a centralized collection point while the fighting was raging, however, and shipping the weapons overseas themselves poses huge safety and security risks.

"If they have to be destroyed inside Syria, there's zero chance the deadline will be met," Patel said.  "If they find some way of legally transferring them out of Syria and getting them to established destruction facilities, then they'd have a chance."

In his letter to Üzümcü, Muallem said that the Syrian government would bear full responsibility for transporting the chemical materials from weapons sites throughout the country to the port of Latakia. He asked that the chemical weapons agency supply the Syrians with armored vehicles, communications gear, and other equipment to enable them to transport the materials.

One U.N.-based diplomat said that Syria is permitted by OPCW rules to request converting the facilities to civilian uses but that Damascus is likely to confront opposition. “It’s difficult to see how we would agree,” the diplomat said, noting that many of the plants are on military compounds ill-suited for commercial activities. The diplomat also said that Syria’s request for equipment for transporting chemical weapons was “extensive” and that some of the items, including radios and armored vehicles, would be hard to approve because they have “dual use” military applications.

The Hague-based organization has previously allowed countries to convert chemical weapons production facilities as a way of providing incentives for countries to cooperate. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1997, included a provision that allowed chemical weapons powers that signed the treaty before 2003 to convert their chemical warfare plants to peaceful purposes. Since its establishment, the agency has allowed the conversion of more than 70 facilities in more than a dozen countries. A year later, the OPCW's Executive Board approved a request by Libya, which joined the convention in 2004, to convert a chemical weapons plant into a facility for producing vaccines and medicines for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. "There is apparently a production facility here or there that they would rather not destroy, but would like to convert to peaceful uses," said an official involved in the effort to destroy Syria's unconventional weapons. "That is possible. But we would verify and continue to inspect the facilities for fifteen years."

Charles Duelfer, a former senior U.N. weapons inspector and head of the CIA team that confirmed the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, said that U.N. inspectors required Iraq to destroy most of its chemical weapons plants. 

"We went through the facility piece by piece; we might allow them to take some piece of equipment an reintegrate into a civilian industrial chemical plant," he said. If they encountered high grade equipment, that could be applied in a military or civilian program, they would "tend to destroy it."

"I don't know enough to say that OPCW are being a bunch of wusses," Duelfer added. "But I would say that coming out of post-war investigation of Iraq, it was our judgment, the judgment of the Iraq Survey Group, that Iraq's civilian chemical industry was being rebuilt with the embedded option of producing chemical weapons at some point in the future."

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The Cable

NSA Bombshell Shocks Former Spooks: "Why in The World Would We Burn Google?"

Former intelligence officials and technology industry executives reacted with anger and anxiety over the latest revelations that the National Security Agency is reportedly infiltrating some of the world's biggest technology companies and making off with the private communications of millions of their customers. And if the reports are accurate, it could be very bad news for U.S. technology companies, who have been complaining for months that their government's secretive intelligence operations are threatening their business and driving customers towards their foreign competitors.

"I think they're in an almost impossible situation," Rep. Adam Schiff, a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, told The Cable. Speaking of Silicon Valley firms who are obligated to cooperate with the NSA, Schiff said recent leak revelations threatened to negatively impact their bottom lines. "It's definitely going to hurt their business and I think we ought to do everything we can to mitigate that damage. I'm very sympathetic to what they have to confront."

The Washington Post reported today that the agency "has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world." According to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the agency is intercepting emails, documents, and other electronic communications as they move between the companies' privately controlled facilities and the public Internet, giving the NSA access to data in nearly real-time.

The latest revelations are likely to inflame an already tense relationship between the Obama administration and American technology companies, many of whose customers live outside the United States and are not protected by laws that prohibit the NSA from spying on Americans en masse.

"Why in the world would we burn a relationship with Google by breaking into a data center?" one former intelligence officer asked.

According to an August report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the NSA scandal could cost cloud companies with U.S.-based servers between $21.5 billion and $35 billion over the next three years as customers flock to European firms that may have more legal protection from U.S. spies. 

"The most enduring setback on national security from all of this could well be the impact on U.S. companies," observed a former U.S. official intimately involved with intelligence matters.

"We've created a Huawei problem for these companies," this official said, referring to the Chinese telecommunications firm that many U.S. lawmakers and intelligence officials believe is a proxy spy for the Chinese government.

The NSA has also reportedly worked to undermine encryption standards that are used around the world to protect private information and secure commercial transactions. Technology experts were outraged to learn that a government agency they thought they could trust was secretly working to make it easier to spy on people.

The former intelligence officer wondered aloud why the agency would engage in intelligence gathering that, if exposed, would make companies seem unable to protect their customers' data from prying government eyes. "My personal concern is that an American company like Cisco that's doing business with governments overseas could face real problems in that line of business."

Schiff, a California Democrat, stressed that he could not confirm or deny the substance of the Post allegations, but he did say the claims raise valid concerns if proven to be true . "If there are allegations that either because of the way these technologies now operate and get routed through the United States that there were court requirements that were circumvented that's something that the committee absolutely ought to investigate," he said.

Representatives for Google and Yahoo told the Post that the surveillance was conducted without their knowledge. But communications experts with years of experience implementing government surveillance orders found that hard to believe. They described to The Cable a number of ways the NSA could have intercepted the company's data, all of which seemed likely to alert Google and Yahoo that their information was being collected, or at least to raise suspicions.

The NSA document published by the Post appears to show the agency focusing on a kind of junction where a Google data center connects to the public Internet. Labeled "GFE," which the diagram says stands for Google front end server, this is the point where encryption is removed from data before it travels to Google's cloud. If the NSA could intercept communications at that vulnerable point, then the agency could read them in their unencrypted form.

To capture or siphon off data at the point labeled GFE, the NSA could implant surveillance equipment, said two of the experts. This could be a fairly small piece of hardware, but it might be difficult to install without the consent of the people running the data center. One of the experts likened it to the secret room that the NSA is believed to have installed at an AT&T facility in San Francisco, where data was split from the company's network and given to the NSA. That GFE point would be the likely place to install such a facility.

Curiously, both experts noted, in the world of official surveillance, GFE stands for something else: "government furnished equipment."

One of the experts said that if NSA wanted to avoid installing devices at the companies' data centers, it would have to intercept the information on a fiber optic line as it moved from the data center to the public Internet. To do that and still capture the data while it was unencrypted, the interception point would have to be physically located no more than a few hundred yards from the data center, the expert said. In that case people working in the data center itself would likely see some physical structure nearby.

There are still other options for the NSA to capture the data from a distance, experts said, such as tunneling into the GFE from another computer. But whatever the method, the agency would have to have some way to directly tap into that GFE, whether by hacking it, installing equipment with the companies consent, or using a previously installed back door or hole in the system that was unknown to its manufacturer.

The NSA has reportedly struck deals with technology companies to install hidden access points in their equipment that can be used for surveillance. And the agency is believed to be the biggest purchaser of so-called "zero day" vulnerabilities, which are flaws in a piece of hardware or software discovered by a hacker but never revealed publicly. One of the communications experts said it was possible NSA had bought such zero days and used them to get exclusive access to the GFEs without any companies every knowing it.

Experts had already predicted that the agency's global eavesdropping would give foreign customers a reason to stop using popular services like Google and Yahoo in favor of companies that don't store their data in the United States or aren't subject to U.S. laws. The government of Brazil is considering whether to force U.S. companies to locate any data on its citizens within the countries borders.

An NSA spokesman rejected the Post's report and said the agency is following laws that protect Americans' privacy. "NSA has multiple authorities that it uses to accomplish its mission, which is centered on defending the nation," NSA spokesperson Vanee Vines in a statement. She called reports in the Post that the agency uses an executive order, instead of surveillance law, to get around limitations imposed on it in the United States "not true."

"NSA is a foreign intelligence agency. And we're focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets only," Vines said.

In a statement to The Cable, Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, defended the NSA's practices. "NSA is a foreign intelligence agency," he said. "It does not have the resources, capacity, or interest in collecting data on Americans. The claim that NSA collects large volumes of data on US persons is incorrect. NSA respects the privacy of US persons by using Attorney-General approved processes to minimize the likelihood of their information in NSA's collection."

Technology company executives have criticized the Obama administration for trying to assuage public anxiety about surveillance by emphasizing that the NSA only spies on foreigners. Many of those companies' customers live outside the United States, and some of them have been outraged by reports of the NSA hoovering up personal data on the Internet. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, said the administration "blew it" in its attempts to counter the narrative that the NSA isn't engaged in unbridled spying. The vast majority of Facebook's users reside outside the United States.

Technology company representatives in Washington have quietly lobbied administration officials to change their talking points, and to stop emphasizing what the companies see as a double standard in how the United States spies on people's communications, according to sources familiar with those discussions.

"Whatever reports may be out there, we continue to call on Congress and the administration to take action to increase transparency in surveillance and restore the public trust," Yael Weinman, the vice president for global privacy policy and the general counsel for the Information Industry Technology Council, a lobbying and trade group, told The Cable. "Continued inaction on constructive measures and reforms threatens innovation and global commerce."