“Lest We Forget -U.S. Syrian Intelligence Cooperation” By Richard Sale

Richard Sale headshot (2)
The very thoughtful replies to my notes on conversation demand a reply which I shall do promptly

I used to be the Intelligent Correspondent for UPI and the “Washington Times,” and later for a UPI publication called “The Middle East Times.”

I came across these articles that date from 2003 and it is astonishing, even now, to realize how much US policy in Syria has been driven by pro-Israeli zealots within the U.S. government.

07/17/03 (Washington Times) ) Depicted by the Pentagon as a mere border skirmish, the June 18 strike into Syria by U.S. military forces was, in fact, based on mistaken intelligence and penetrated more than 25 miles into that country, causing numerous Syrian casualties, several serving and former administration officials said.

Although diplomatic relations between the two sides have been frosty after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the two nations have close intelligence ties, which have become strained as a result, these sources said.

"I think this was a deliberate effort to disrupt cooperation between U.S. and Syrian intelligence agencies," an administration official said.

According to a report in The New York Times, administration officials said that attack, carried out by Task Force 20, a Special Operations force, was based on intelligence that a convoy of SUVs, heading for Syria, was linked to senior fugitive Iraqi leaders.

"The (intel) was that senior Iraqis, perhaps even (former Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein were getting out of the country," a State Department official told United Press International.

The ensuing raid "was conducted under the rules of hot pursuit," an administration official told UPI on condition his name not be used.

In the same Times report, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the attack, saying it was based on "solid intelligence."

"We had good intelligence, and it indicated that there were people moving around during their curfew close to the border in a convoy of SUV's and our forces went in and stopped them," the Times quoted Rumsfeld as saying.

But one administration official described the intelligence as "totally false," and a former CIA official labeled it "flimsy" and another former U.S. intelligence official called it "almost non-existent."

One former senior CIA official with access to current intelligence information said he believed the source of the intelligence was Israel, which for months has said either Saddam or weapons of mass destruction were being smuggled into Syria.

"The Izzies (Israelis) have been pitching this to anyone who would listen," the former CIA official said.

Chief Israeli Embassy spokesman, Mark Regev, said only: "I simply don't ever discuss such matters."

But Anthony Cordesman, national security expert at the Center For Strategic And International Studies, defended the intelligence and the attack it triggered: "You have to act quickly on rumors in that situation. You have zero time."

He also pointed out that U.S. means of intelligence-collection in the area suffers from "extremely serious limitations."

For one thing, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones "can produce only a limited coverage of patterns" while even signals intelligence "can be fragmentary and unreliable," he said.

And the question of Israeli intelligence?

"Do we tend to over-rely on the Israelis? Probably, but you have to remember too that the CIA is permanently pissed by Israel and likes to discredit it," he said.

A former very senior CIA official told UPI: "Too often the Israeli intelligence product is hard to distinguish from Israel political messages."

The Times report said Task Force 20, supported by helicopters and AC-130 gunships, struck the convoy and a housing compound "in a village not far from the Syria border." Task Force 20 captured 20 Iraqis, all of whom were later released, the Times and other news reports said.

But one senior administration official told UPI the attack crossed "25 miles or more" into Syria, and the Pentagon had initial reports of 80 Syrians "who were KIA (killed in action)."

Cordesman said he believed this to be possible because "the fighting between our forces and the Syrians was extremely intense."

But instead of capturing any high-value Iraqi targets, the Task Force destroyed "a gas smuggling ring," a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. This official labeled the attack "a colossal blunder."

His view was supported by a half-dozen administration officials interviewed by UPI.

The former senior U.S. intelligence official said the Task Force had destroyed SUVs "on both sides of the border" that had been fitted out as mini-gas tankers. The Task Force blew up "a great number of these vehicles," causing huge explosions and fireballs when they were hit, he said.

"The explosions could account for the casualties," he said.

A spokesman from U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, said: "We are unable to comment on any cross-border raids, especially if they involved Special Forces."

Serving and former U.S. intelligence officials attributed a political motive to the attacks, alleging they were designed to disrupt cooperation between the CIA and Syrian intelligence.

"Syria has given us invaluable help on hunting down members of al-Qaida, and they were instrumental in ex-filtrating some major Iraqi fugitives back to Baghdad," one former senior CIA official said. "That is not to everyone's liking."

In early May, two top Iraqi biological scientists who had been hiding in safe havens in Syria were ex-filtrated back to Iraq where they were captured by U.S. military forces, former CIA officials said.

A U.S. intelligence official told UPI: "It was a gift to Secretary of State Colin Powell" and also an effort by Damascus to compensate for its apparent lack of cooperation with the United States in closing the Damascus offices of Palestinian militant groups, which are on Washington's list of terrorist organizations.

But CIA-Syria cooperation was far more extensive, former and serving U.S. intelligence officials said.

According to these sources, Syria and the CIA have a joint exploitation center based in Aleppo, plus Syria turned over to the agency all its intelligence networks in Germany as well as all of Syria's cover companies there. As a result, the agency learned that Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Mohammed Atta once worked in Germany for a Syrian cover company, these sources said.

"Syria was not the only source, but they were very helpful in this matter," a former senior CIA official said.

The CIA was also grateful to Damascus for giving early warning of a planned al-Qaida attack on U.S. installations in Bahrain, using an explosives-laden glider, which would be invisible to radar, according to these sources.

"The Syrians have been an incredible help in sharing intelligence," one serving U.S. intelligence officer said.

Senior Pentagon leaders, who administration officials describe as being very close to Israel, have been unhappy with the increasingly close CIA-Syria ties and used the June 18 attack to disrupt the CIA-Syrian intelligence relationship.

"I think that certain Pentagon officials want to see (Syrian president) Bashar Assad deposed and Syria sign a peace treaty with Israel," said former senior DIA official Pat Lang.

But other U.S. officials disagreed.

"Syria is playing a double-game," said one administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Hamas terrorists are returning to Damascus, a lot of towns in East Syria are nothing but transit points for Iraqi officials who are free to go in and out. I wouldn't put much trust in Syria."

But a serving U.S. intelligence official disagreed.

"Syria is obviously making an effort. It has gotten the message of our military victory and our aim of democratizing the region." He added: "Syria clearly realizes that it has a great deal to gain by being a friend of America and everything to lose if it turns away from friendship."

As of now, the Pentagon had ignored State Department requests for additional details on the June 18 strike, administration officials said.

Four days of phone calls to the Office of the Secretary of Defense brought no comment on the raid from any Pentagon official.

Syria helped U.S. catch 'Mrs. Anthrax'

By Richard Sale, UPI Intelligence Correspondent

Syrian intelligence, in a good-faith effort to boost cooperation with the United States in the war on terror, provided intelligence that resulted in U.S. forces taking custody of one of Iraq's top biological weapons scientists, administration officials said.

U.S.-educated Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, popularly called "Mrs. Anthrax" and the only woman included in a U.S. list of 55 most-wanted Iraqi officials, was taken into custody Monday by U.S. forces in Baghdad, after Syrian authorities revealed her location to U.S. officials, serving U.S. intelligence officials said.

The capture comes in the wake of a visit last Saturday to Damascus by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as part of a new and more aggressive phase of diplomacy in the Middle East, these sources said.

Powell's visit followed severe criticism of Syria by the United States during the war on Iraq.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Damascus of supplying military equipment to Saddam Hussein's regime, of granting fleeing members of the Iraqi government refuge, and of possessing proscribed weapons of mass destruction. Although Syria denied the charges, there was some speculation in Washington that Syria might be next U.S. target in the Middle East after Iraq.

Cooperation with Washington on Ammash may temper some of that criticism.

A U.S. intelligence official told United Press International that Ammash was living "in a secret location in Syria, the location of which I can't disclose."

He went on: "As a gift to Powell, as a gesture of good will, Syria's top leadership instructed Syrian intelligence to exfiltrate Mrs. Anthrax from Syria into Baghdad, after which her whereabouts were disclosed to U.S. officials. Her arrest was the result of this operation."

The official also played down news reports that Ammash surrendered to the United States following negotiations.

He said he knew nothing of a "negotiated surrender," and said if there was "any dealing" it was done "probably to obtain documents relevant to Iraqi WMD programs."

One reason for the sudden help may be an effort by Syria to compensate for its apparent lack of cooperation with the United States in closing the Damascus offices of Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are on Washington's list of foreign terrorist organizations.

A State Department official said Powell, in meetings with Syrian President Bashar Assad, asked that Damascus close local offices of Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Following the meetings, Powell said Syria had complied.

But U.S. intelligence sources disputed this account. One former senior CIA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Syria has always said these offices were for information purposes only, adding, "The operational stuff is always done in Lebanon."

An administration official confirmed this and added that to avoid "looking submissive to U.S. pressure," the Assad government told the three groups, before Powell's arrival, "to lie low and not give any press conferences."

"That isn't the same as being closed," the official said.

State Department officials said Ammash was born in Baghdad in 1953, her father was a former defense minister, vice president, and early member of Saddam's Baath Party leadership.

These same sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Saddam ordered his execution in 1983.

Ammash is believed to have been a key player in bolstering Baghdad's biological weapons programs since 1991, U.S. government officials said.

She was trained by Nassir al-Hindawi, who U.N. inspectors describe as the father of Iraq's biological weapons program.

She served as president of Iraqi's Microbiology Society and was dean at the University of Baghdad, they said.

Syria is expected to provide more intelligence that will lead to additional arrest of wanted Iraqis, U.S. government officials said.

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27 Responses to “Lest We Forget -U.S. Syrian Intelligence Cooperation” By Richard Sale

  1. Thanks Richard! IMO the DC area houses many loyal Syrian-Americans and wondering what that Ex-Pat community wondering?
    Many Syrian-Americans IMO are worshipers of Islam or non-religious as opposed to say the majority of Lebanese-Americans that seem majority Christian! Many fluent in Arabic or even some Aramaric [sic]!
    Does the IC make any use of this respository of knowledge as the OSS and CIC of German-Americans?

  2. Mark Gaughan says:

    Thanks Richard

  3. turcopolier says:

    The point of Sale’s piece is that the present Syrian government was very helpful to the US against AQ. pl

  4. The Twisted Genius says:

    Does anyone have any idea what it would take to escape the stranglehold of Israeli influence? It’s such a deep addiction that I fear even in the face of societal, economic and/or political collapse, this addiction would persist.

  5. CK says:

    A woman
    A scientist
    A Muslim
    And those Iraqi WMDs all over again.
    I mean it is just incredible that someone might work for the good of their country, for years, even under interdiction and trade blockade.
    I hope that no female American scientists ever have to face this kind of situation. Rendition ( again ) to Syria is probably a future option for losers.
    I do have a theory, it is that “really good, actionable, intelligence that comes from a first hand or well washed and apparently unconnected Israeli source is probably not good for goyim on this side of the Atlantic.

  6. RIchard says:

    To Richard S or Col Lang
    So is the plan General Clarke spoke of the driving force behind events? The plan to destablize or invade 7 nations.

  7. nick b says:

    Not to be glib, but campaign finance reform would be a good place to start.

  8. turcopolier says:

    AIPAC functions by illegally controlling the funds of hundreds of actual PACs. how would funding reform stop that? The FBI knows that AIPAC breaks the law but they are forbidden to take action against them. pl

  9. The Twisted Genius says:

    nick b,
    Good point, but I think meaningful campaign finance reform would be more difficult to pass than a national single payer health plan. Especially given that money equals free speech and corporations are people.

  10. nick b says:

    I realize this is probably more extreme than you would sanction, but strictly public funding of political campaigns would do the trick. Or at least be a starting point.

  11. turcopolier says:

    Given the malevolent effect of private money in our elections I would accept government funding and the exclusion of private funds. pl

  12. Booby says:

    I’m just a simple minded country boy; but, we give Israel $3-$10B a year. The Israeli’s use our tax dollars to buy US weapons & gear and funnel funds to US politicians through PAc’s. And we don’t understand why the politicians are influenced by the Israeli’s? Looks like a self-licking ice cream cone to me.

  13. optimax says:

    I watched a little of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on C-Span 2. The representatives were almost to a man morons and in the pockets of AIPAC. Not one could explain how Iran is a threat to the US, only to Israel, and much of that was based on misinformation. The one man on the panel that was semi-optimistic about the negotiations was frequently interrupted.
    Kissinger gave an interview in the early seventies where he said (the then current) finance reform would reduce the influence of the Jews (his term). I might have it somewhere.

  14. Alba Etie says:

    Now that SCOTUS has decreed that “corporations are people too ” I believe now might be a good time to have this conversation about Public Financing of Campaigns. We may actually find common ground on this – all across our Comity of These United States . A friend of mine here , who helped start the Central Texas Tea Party Patriots – with three Gasden Flags in his front yard says we need public financing of campaigns totally – then cites the CongressCritters that get their family subsidized by the Farm Bill . He also believes that the SNAP program could be better managed by block grants in the States – maybe he is right . I actually think this is one of the reasons Romney lost – he was made famous by his glib comment “Corporations are people Too ” …

  15. TTG,
    A key to the matter may be whether figures like Philip Weiss and Max Blumenthal remain marginal among American Jews.
    An underlying issue is I think well brought out in two recent reflections on the career of the late Ariel Sharon. A piece by the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, in ‘The New York Review of Books’, contains the following anecdote:
    ‘According to Nahum Barnea, Sharon’s sons, Omri and Gilad, affectionately called their father “the Caucasian.” They didn’t mean a white man. What they alluded to was the fact that although Sharon’s parents, Vera and Shmuel, were both born in what is now Belarus, they met and married in the Caucasus. But they meant even more than that. The word “Caucasian” may evoke a strongly built agrarian tribal chieftain—a man fiercely loyal to his family and his people, while ferociously mean and vindictive toward his enemies, namely, the rest of the world.
    (See http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/feb/20/shadow-ariel-sharon/?insrc=hpma)
    The tribute on the website of the supposed ‘liberal’ alternative to AIPC, J Street, having explained that the organisation ‘honors the memory’ of Sharon, goes on to explain that ‘as Prime Minister, Sharon, like many of his predecessors, realized that Israel’s survival as a democratic, Jewish homeland depends on a two-state resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians.’
    (See http://jstreet.org/blog/post/j-street-honors-memory-of-former-prime-minister-sharon_1)
    From this equivocal statement and the equivocal discussion that follows it is clear that J Street have their heads firmly buried, ostrich-like, in the sand. They are simply unwilling to face up to the fact that the tribalist Jews who dominate Israeli society have never been prepared to make the concessions required for a meaningful ‘two state-resolution’.
    At the moment, ‘liberal Zionism’ is in a state rather similar to ‘socialism with a human face’ after 1968. Critical questions are how long it will remain possible for its adherents to keep their heads in the sand, and also which way they jump when finally they desert an untenable position.

  16. Bill H says:

    We are just ten days away from election day for Mayor in San Diego and the really nasty attack ads have begun to appear. This brings to light the real problem with campaign reform, which is campaing tactics by groups other than the candidates or their own campaigns. These nasty ads are provided by groups which have no direct connection to the candidates, and the spending is not part of the candidates spending. The candidates can, and do, hold up their hands in horror and say that they do not pay for these ads and do not condone them, that they wish that the ads were not being run.
    So, reform campaign spending all you want. Limit campaign spending to zero, and these outside groups will still vie to see who can spend the most money. All of the money that would have gone to the cnadidates’ campaigns will go to these groups insyead, and the advertising will be undiminished. Politicians will be as “bought” as ever.

  17. Yohan says:

    Richard, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the extraordinary rendition ties between US intelligence and Syria as exemplified by the Maher Arar case. How long did Syria operate torture centers for the US?

  18. turcopolier says:

    There were so many countries willing to perform this chore for the US that it seems simplistic to single Syria out on that basis. pl

  19. jon says:

    Following 9-11, I recall seeing several news stories that identified Syria, and Damascus in particular, as extraordinary rendition sites, where terrorist suspects were receiving enhanced interrogation by state security personnel, and the transcripts provided to US intelligence agencies. Several other Arab countries, such as Jordan, were similarly identified.
    Syria also accepted a remarkable number of Iraqi refugees after 2003. I don’t recall their complaining overly about that burden.
    Syria also seems to have departed Lebanon, and reduced its interference and dominance there substantially. Given that Syria maintains historic claims to Lebanon, and has interfered on numerous occasions to resolve intra-Lebanese conflicts as well as exerting its own interests,Syria’s behavior in that regard seems almost generous.
    There’s an argument to be made that the US is an unreliable partner. This likely contributes to the difficulty we have had in developing enduring allies in the region.

  20. Tyler says:

    “Does anyone have any idea what it would take to escape the stranglehold of Israeli influence?”
    I’m sure there’s some old krauts around who have an idea or two on how to accomplish that.

  21. Richard Armstrong says:

    As was Iran after 9/11. They sealed their border. Rounded up numerous suspected AQ and turned them over to to US. And then in the SOTU President Bush named them as part of the Axis of Evil. Their cooperation kind of slowed down after that.

  22. Mr. Sale,
    I recall the cross border incident and have wondered whether it was connected to the talk coming from administration officials, unnamed I suppose, who were holding forth about invading Syria that summer (2003) after our “great victory”.
    I’m also curious about what became of Madam Ammash and the rest of the people whose pictures were on the deck of cards. Those, that is, who weren’t publicly executed. Have they been done away with or are they locked away in a dungeon somewhere?

  23. Tom in Texas says:

    William Fitzgerald,
    Excerpted from a Wiki entry (apparently not updated since 2007), it appears Madam Ammash was released in 2005:
    “Ammash surrendered to coalition forces on May 9, 2003 and was one of two Iraqi women known to be in U.S. custody as of April 2005. The other was the British-educated Dr. Rihab Taha, who led Iraq’s biological weapons program until 1995.
    “Both women were released in December 2005 after they were among those an American-Iraqi board process found were no longer a security threat and would have no charges filed against them.[7]”
    From an Oct. 30, 2013 CNN story about the various fates of the “Most Wanted” Iraqis from the invasion-era deck of cards, for Madam Ammash (Five of Hearts) there was no later information than, “December 12, 2005–Released.” http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/30/world/meast/iraq-most-wanted-fast-facts/

  24. Thomas says:

    Here is latest on the Iraqi Deck of Cards.

  25. confusedponderer says:

    One of the sadder things I read in this is that the US has, through it’s conduct – somewhere between outright duplicitous and bi-polar – racked up a record of being unpredictable and untrustworthy.
    Assad and Ghadafi were rewarded for their cooperation with the US against terrorism with being targeted for regime change anyway. That ought to serve as a warning for Iran.
    Power is one thing, and for the time being the US has a lot of that (though, arguably all that power was incapable of re-shaping the stubborn nature of alien places and people into what the US preferred in their stead). That is to say, power is only relatively useful.
    I know it is foolish to expect gratitude from other powers, but unpredictability and untrustworthiness means that others will want guarantees and exact a higher price for their cooperation.
    Take the Russians: Why should the trust the US at all after them screwing Russia over everytime the opportunity arises? They’d be idiots disregarding bitter experience if they did so.
    And while the US court Russia to help them with the heavy lifting in the Middle East, the US and the atlanticist West are eagerly stirring the pot in Ukraine, right at Russia’s doorstep.
    What’s the point: To reassure Russia that the US and the West still cannot be trusted?

  26. dilbert dogbert says:

    On reading “Solid Intelligence” my little pea brain flashed on other definitions: “Bone Headed Intelligence” or Intelligence of the colloidal matter kind.

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