When Exactly Will CIA Crack Down on its Own to Stop Leaks?

On June 26th, the Associated Press reported Director John O. Brennan was launching a new campaign aimed at pressuring Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers to keep the intelligence agency’s secrets secret. The article entitled CIA Cracks Down on Its Own to Stop Leaks, by Kimberley Dozier, discusses a memo written by Brennan to the Agency’s workforce.  Brennan reminded employees of the Agency’s “Honor the Oath” campaign, which was intended to “reinforce our corporate culture of secrecy” through education and training.  He explained in his memo that the campaign stemmed from a review of CIA security launched last summer by former director David Petraeus, and followed what Brennan stated were “several high-profile anonymous leaks and publications by former senior officers.”  Brennan’s memo has arrived on the heels of a number of very recent and fairly significant news reports based on leaks of information on CIA covert operations, particularly in Syria.  Interestingly enough, the very memo, that Associated Press had acquired, was marked unclassified, “for official use only.”

With regard to stories about CIA covert operations, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other US newspapers of record have explained that their sources of information on CIA, particularly on its assistance to Turkey and Arab states in arming Syrian opposition fighters, has come from interviews with officials from several countries, accounts from rebel commanders, and air traffic data. Yet, to be fair, CIA officals have reason to be skeptical of this. The information in news reports of CIA operations in Syria is of such granular detail and clarity that it is difficult to imagine anyone except one fully steeped in such an intricate arms supply and training operation, could fully grasp and discuss all of its aspects with such certainty. The information is seemingly flowing week after week to the US news media.  Examples include a June 21st Los Angeles Times report that CIA was using covert training at bases in Jordan and Turkey.

In both countries, CIA operatives and US special operations troops have allegedly been secretly training Syrian opposition insurgents with anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons since late last year. Accoeding to a US official, the training reportedly has involved fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose confederation of insurgent groups that the Obama administration has promised to back with expanded military assistance.  The US official  discussed the effort anonymously because he was not authorized to disclose details.

The number of FSA fighters given US instruction in Jordan and Turkey has not been determined by the Los Angeles Times.  However, an FSA commander cooperating with CIA, leaked that in Jordan, the training involves 20 to 45 fighters at a time. The training, he explained, conducted by US, Jordanian and French operatives, involves rockets and anti-tank and antiaircraft weaponry.  The commander also revealed the training began in November at a new US base in the desert in southwestern Jordan.  To his knowledge, US special operations teams selected the trainees over the last year when the US military set up regional supply lines into Syria to provide the rebels with nonlethal assistance, including uniforms, radios and medical aid.  So far, according to the commander, about 100 FSA fighters from Daraa have attended four courses, and fighters from Damascus, the Syrian capital, have attended three. Between 80 and 100 FSA fighters from all over Syria have gone through the courses in the last month, he said, and training is continuing. Those who complete the course are sent back across the border to rejoin the battle.

The two-week courses include training with Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter antitank rifles, anti-tank missiles and 23-millimeter antiaircraft weapons, according to a FSA commander in Daraa province who helps oversee weapons acquisitions and who asked that his name not be used because the program is secret. Since last year, the weapons sent through the Daraa FSA military council have included four or five Russian-made heavy Concourse antitank missiles, 18 14.5-millimeter guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks and 30 82-millimeter recoil-less rifles. The weapons are all Russian or Soviet-style models but manufactured in other countries, the commander said. Such weapons allow the FSA fighters to easily use captured munitions from the Syrian army, which has a large arsenal of Russian and Soviet-style arms. While engaged in training activities, CIA officers would sit and interview trainees during breaks from sessions, and afterward they would try to collect specific information on the situation in Syria based on intelligence requirements.

CIA’s covert role in the allied air transport of arms and supplies for delivery in Syria, which many journalists heard rumors about in 2012, was confirmed and fully exposed in the New York Times on March 21st.  It was revealed by a former US official that General David H. Petraeus, CIA director until November 2012, had been instrumental in getting the airlift network moving and had strongly urged various countries to work together on it.

CIA’s role in facilitating the shipments, according to a US official, gave the US a degree of influence over the process, including the opportunity to steer weapons away from Islamist groups and persuading donors to withhold portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft. While the operation was alleged to be covert, it was also uncovered that senior White House officials were regularly briefed on the shipments. This has made the operation far less plausibly deniable than US covert operators and policymakers would desire.

The New York Times stated that CIA declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them. However, informants close to CIA officers engaged in these activities have revealed that from offices at secret locations, US intelligence officers have helped the Arab states shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted FSA commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive, according to US officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year.  It has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports.

Regarding details of the CIA operation, it was informed that Turkey was relied upon for ovesight of much of the program.  The scale of shipments from Turkey has been very large, according to US officials familiar with the supply route. Transponders were affixed to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey which allowed shipments to be monitored as they moved by land into Syria, US officials said.

Qatar had denied providing any arms to the rebels. Yet, US officials, as well as FSA commanders, have confirmed that Qatar has been an active arms supplier–so much so that the US became concerned about some of the Islamist groups that Qatar has armed. It was not made clear whether Qatar has purchased and supplied the arms alone or is also providing air transportation service for other donors. The Qatari flights aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib, as their campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting shabiha militias from parts of the countryside. In November, three Royal Jordanian Air Force C-130s landed in Esenboga, which was the genesis of what would become a robust Jordanian and Saudi role. Within three weeks, two other Jordanian cargo planes began making a round-trip run between Amman, the capital of Jordan, and Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, where, officials from several countries said, the aircraft were picking up a large Saudi Arabian purchase of infantry arms from a Croatian-controlled stockpile. Jordanian Ilyushins, bearing the logo of the Jordanian International Air Cargo firm but flying under Jordanian military call signs, made a combined 36 round-trip flights between Amman and Croatia from December through February.  Jordanian planes made five flights between Amman and Turkey this January.  As the Jordanian flights got under way, the Qatari flights continued.  The Royal Saudi Air Force made at least 30 C-130 flights into Esenboga from mid-February to early March this year.

The most recent information about CIA’s covert train and equip effort in Syria was revealed in the Wall Street Journal on June 26th and concerned the Agency’s movement of weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses and its plans to start arming small groups of vetted FSA fighters within a month. That will expand the US support of moderate forces in the FSA. This information was offered by diplomats and US officials briefed on the plans. The US officials also confirmed that shipments, related training, and a parallel push to mobilize arms deliveries from European and Arab allies, were being timed to help organize a unified offensive by the FSA, starting by early August. Incredibly, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, US officials volunteered details of the new covert plan authorized by President Barack Obama and disclosed earlier this month.  Further, it was revealed that talks are under way with other countries, including France, about pre-positioning European-procured weapons in Jordan. Saudi Arabia is expected to provide manpads, which are shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, to a small number of handpicked fighters, as few as 20 at first, officials and diplomats explained. To ensure the matter is covered, CIA will try to eliminate the risk that the manpads would be given to Islamist militant groups such as the Al-Nusra Front.  CIA has put in place what officials have described as an “elaborate” vetting procedure for the FSA fighters they train. Yet, officials acknowledged the difficulty of getting reliable information about the backgrounds of individual FSA fighters in a country where CIA has limited intelligence-collection resources.

A few hundred of the FSA fighters will enter Syria under the program each month, starting in August, according to diplomats briefed on CIA plans. At that rate, US officials believe it would take four to five months before there are enough rearmed and trained moderate fighters to make a meaningful difference against the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies, according to diplomats and US officials. To accelerate the effort, CIA is said to be considering placing US special operations units under agency authority to conduct some of the training. CIA is also considering using special operations teams from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to enhance the training effort, US officials said freely. Sources have informed the Los Angeles Times that such joint operations were already underway.

When newspapers of record present reports on CIA activity, every effort is made by editors to ensure that accurate information is collected from reliable sources.  Online stories from those newspapers are often edited after they are published to ensure that facts reported have the greatest accuracy possible.  For example, a recent New York Times article was edited to reflect the difference in meaning and activities of CIA officers, who are Agency employees, and US intelligence agents, who are contracted by the CIA.  Fortunately for Brennan, he will unlikely need to work too hard to control further leaks from CIA.  Keeping secrets is his organization’s business and individuals determined to work outside Agency regulations are relatively few in number. However, he must act fast to defeat the growing perception that the walls at CIA are falling down.  The US news media will always be open to receiving new stories on CIA.  That being the case, for those who leak, whether over ideology, conspiracy, excitement, self-importance, celebrity, or any reason from among dozens, there will be a place for their stories to be heard.  This has always been a “dilemma” for those running a secret intelligence agency in a free society.

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