The Cable

Exclusive: Assad Asks The U.N. to Equip His Troops, Give Him Armored Trucks

President Bashar al-Assad's government has presented the United Nation's chemical weapons watchdog with a detailed plan for the transfer of chemical materials abroad for destruction. And according to a confidential account of the plan reviewed by Foreign Policy, it includes 120 Syrian security forces, dozens of heavy, armored trucks, and an advanced communications network linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea. The extensive request for equipment with both civilian and military applications has already triggered expressions of alarm from Western diplomats. "Let's just say we will be looking at this list very skeptically, particularly items that could be diverted to a military program," said one Security Council diplomat.

The Syrian plan calls for equipping at least eight platoons of up to 35 soldiers each to secure the road between Damascus to the port city of Latakia, from which the weapons would be shipped overseas for destruction. The most likely destination: Albania, which got rid of its own chemical stockpile in 2007. The United States is nearing agreement with the Albanian government to destroy Syria's chemicals and nerve agents, according to two U.N. Security Council diplomats. According to the American proposal, which has not been made public, the United States would supply the Albanian government with mobile labs capable of destroying Syrian nerve gas through a process known as hydrolysis -- essentially bombarding it with water and caustic reagents like sodium hydroxide.

The Cable first reported last week on aspects of the Syrian destruction plan, including a proposal to convert 12 chemical weapons plants into commercial factories. But The Cable has since obtained a far more detailed account of the plan, including requests for tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment, including 40 armored transport trucks, advanced cameras, computers, radios, 13 power generators, five construction cranes, five forklifts, packing materials, and 20 Teflon-lined 2,000-liter metal crates for storing controlled chemicals, including phosphoryl chloride and phosphorus trichloride, a precursor chemical used in the production of sarin and tabun.

"In order for the Syrian government to be able to complete the operation in respect of securing, protecting and transporting chemicals from their current sites ... the Syrian Arab Republic has developed ... preliminary requirements for the implementation of the security and transport plan," reads a confidential Oct. 22 letter from the Syrian foreign minister to the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Üzümcü. "We wish that all the requirements contained in the initial plan be met in order to ensure the successful completion of this task."

The Syrian appeal for assistance presents the United States and other foreign powers with a dilemma: If they meet the request, they run the risk of equipping a regime they had sought to oust with equipment that could later be used in support of its military campaign. If they decline, they may hinder the Syrian government's ability to safely transfer its chemical weapons out of the country, a key component of the U.S. goal of ensuring such materials are destroyed.

According to the Assad government's plan, Syrian officials would establish a central communications headquarters in Damascus, with a series of outposts along the route to the sea, through the cities of Homs and Tartus, and on to the country's main port at Latakia.

Syrian authorities have requested 40 armored 15-ton trucks to cart bulk chemical precursors and nerve agent from staging areas in Damascus and Homs to Latakia. The Syrians have also asked the OPCW to secure safety equipment, including 10 ambulances, 10 fire trucks, and "ten 10,000 liter water tanks to be transported together with the convoys for use in the event of chemical contamination." The plan also calls for the construction of housing for Syrian security personnel, including 32 prefabricated bedrooms and eight field kitchens.

The Syrian government agreed in September to an ambitious U.S. and Russian-brokered plan for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal by the end of June 2014. A joint U.N. and OPCW mission completed the first stage of the plan, overseeing the destruction by Syria of its filling and mixing equipment in all of its declared chemical weapons sites.

The United States, the United Nations, and the OPCW have been searching for a country to destroy Syria's toxic materials, and Washington has approached Albania, Belgium, France, and Norway for help. Russia, which has one of the world's largest chemical weapons destruction facilities, told council diplomats that Moscow might participate in the destruction of the chemical weapons inside Syria.

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters outside the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that "we are looking at various forms of our participation in this process. Russia is not going to do the actual destruction of chemical weapons, but Russian participation is quite possible." Russia has previously indicated it would be prepared to send Russian troops to Syria to provide security for the inspectors.

Norway, which has limited experience in the destruction of chemical weapons, has declined. "Due to the lack of technical capacity and [a] tight timeline it turned out that Norway was not a suitable location for the destruction process," Norway's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Ragnhild Imerslund, told The Cable in a text message. "Other countries are now being considered."

Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch national who heads the joint U.N.-OPCW mission, said that 21 of Syria's main 23 chemical weapons sites -- and 39 of 41 facilities located at those sites -- have been rendered inoperable. But she declined to say whether any foreign government has agreed to receive and destroy chemical agents from Syria, according to a council diplomat.

But a council diplomat said it is looking increasingly likely that the United States would provide mobile labs to Albania to destroy the chemicals and nerve agent on Albanian territory.

The Albanian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for a comment. The U.S. mission to the United Nations referred questions on the matter to the State Department. A State Department official, speaking on background, declined to comment on an Albanian deal, but said, "We encourage nations to provide support, including personnel, technical expertise, information, equipment, and financial and other resources and assistance to enable the OPCW and U.N. missions ... We continue to discuss with international partners the most effective and expeditious means for eliminating Syria's chemical weapons program."

CNN, meanwhile, reported tonight that the United States is reviewing classified intelligence suggesting that Syria may be underreporting the size of its chemical weapons stockpile. The cable network cautioned that the intelligence "is not definitive" but cited an unnamed U.S. official claiming "they have done things recently that suggest Syria is not ready to get rid of all their chemical weapons."

Following today's Security Council meeting on Syria, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that "we have made significant progress toward taking away potent weapons of war and terror from Assad and his forces" but that "there is nothing yet to celebrate."

Follow me on Twitter: @columlynch.


National Security

Top Obama Lawyers: Reforming the NSA Could Hurt Americans’ Privacy

As Congress considers legislation to reform the surveillance practices of the National Security Agency, senior intelligence officials have said publicly that they'd be willing to modify key aspects of how one of the most controversial programs is run. But now, the top lawyers for the NSA and other intelligence agencies are pushing back on that idea, arguing that they should be allowed to continue building a massive database of phone records on every American. It'd be better for American's privacy rights, they claim.

Under one proposal now pending before Congress, telecommunications providers, rather than the NSA, would hold onto the phone call records of hundreds of millions of people that the agency queries to find connections between suspected terrorists and people in the United States. And a bill with bipartisan backing would further limit the NSA's ability to collect that information in bulk. Agency officials have said the database is essential for stopping terrorist attacks. But some lawmakers want to restrict the agency's access to it, in part because the records can reveal private contacts and associations that may have nothing to do with a criminal act.

"I think it's no secret that the sponsors of this bill want to eliminate the bulk collection program," Robert Litt, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, speaking of the bill sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI).

Litt was joined by lawyers from the NSA, the FBI, and the Justice Department, who likewise tried to shoot down reform ideas, along with other proposals that have attracted bipartisan support in Congress. The board that heard their views was established in the wake of revelations about the bulk collection program and other NSA activities that some members of Congress believe have gone on for too long without restriction.

The NSA has previously argued that it was allowed by section 215 of the Patriot Act to store millions of phone records of Americans in order to find potential terrorists and their connections inside the United States. A court found that NSA could hold onto the data on the grounds that it was relevant to terrorism inquiries. In theory, storing the data with the companies, instead of at the NSA, would allow the telcos to serve as a kind of privacy watchdog. They'd be in a position to examine the government's requests for information about their customers and possibly to object to them in court.

But the intelligence lawyers warned that Americans' would be subject to even greater privacy incursions if their personal information were stripped from NSA's control.

Patrick Kelley, the acting general counsel of the FBI, said the phone company data could be made available to "other levels of law enforcement enforcement from local, state and federal who want it for whatever law enforcement purposes they're authorized to obtain it." He also raised a frightening prospect: "Civil litigation could also seek to obtain it for such things as relatively mundane as divorce actions," he said. "Who's calling who with your spouse ... So if the data is kept only by the companies than I think the privacy considerations certainly warrants scrutiny."

There was some irony in that idea. In September, the NSA's inspector general revealed several cases in which NSA employees illegally spied on partners or spouses in an incident known internally as "LOVEINT" (love intelligence).

Any act of Congress modifying the phone records database could include provisions prohibiting the use of telephone metadata for purposes not related to national security. And if lawmakers wanted to keep the information out of the hands of local police or civil attorneys, they could write a provision preserving its exclusive use by the NSA and the intelligence agencies.

Still, the lawyers painted dire scenarios of what would happen if section 215 was fully scrapped rather than modified. "We wouldn't be able to see the patterns that the NSA's programs provide us," Kelley said. "We'd be less agile, we'd be less informed, we'd be less focused, and as a result we'd be a lot less effective in preventing the attacks."

The lawyers also pushed back against a proposal being debated in Congress to appoint a "special advocate" to argue against the government's position in certain matters before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes NSA surveillance. Currently, only lawyers representing the government appear. 

"There's a precedential issue that we're very concerned about," said Litt. "Are you going to set up a process that provides more protection for foreign terrorists than for Americans who are subject to criminal search warrants?"

The idea of a special advocate is included in the reform bill sponsored by Leahy and Sensenbrenner that already has more than 80 co-sponsors in the House and Senate. The advocate would not be present every time the government wants to get court approval for surveillance. Rather, he or she would weigh in on matters that affected interpretation of law.  A less ambitious reform effort by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) authorizes the FISA court to designate an outside "Amicus Curiae" or "Friends of the Court" to offer an independent perspective.

Privacy advocates speaking to The Cable objected to Litt's reluctance regarding a special advocate. "There should of course be two sides arguing major cases in front of the FISA court," said the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Trevor Timm. "The adversarial process is a bedrock of our judicial system (and democracy), and one of the reasons we've seen such a secret warping of public laws in the past few years is because the [surveillance] court has never heard from anyone but the government."

In other cases, Litt opened the door to more modest reforms, such as retaining copies of Americans' records for a period of less than five years and reducing the kinds of information that the NSA is allowed to query. The other lawyers did not explicitly support those reforms.

The independent board, called the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, is expected to deliver its recommendations to President Obama and Congress by the end of 2013. It's five members report to Congress but were appointed by the president.