Normally Washington bureaucracies shut down in August, but this year the intelligence community was working flat out to develop information on two crises in the Middle East. One official describes a deep sense of foreboding, recalling NSC Counter Terrorism Security Group chairman Richard Clarke’s description of walking around the West Wing in August 2001 with his “hair on fire.”
Syria is on the frontburner as a shooting war in which the U.S. is already clandestinely involved. The attempt to come up with a consensus National Intelligence Estimate on the crisis has been put on hold, both because the situation is too volatile and because new intelligence paints an increasingly dark picture of the insurgency. A number of atrocities against civilians previously attributed to the Assad government are now known to be the work of the rebels, who are becoming less reticent about their plans to eliminate all regime supporters, which would include most Alawites as well as many in the Christian community. U.S. intelligence has also come to the conclusion that rebel militias are heavily infiltrated and frequently commanded by jihadis linked to al-Qaeda. Attempts by CIA officers to discuss the issue with the rebels’ political representatives in Lebanon and Turkey have been blown off or deferred, suggesting that the movement’s leadership might be fully complicit. There is also increasing concern about a domino effect spreading unrest to Lebanon. Even the Turks are backing away from more direct involvement, worried that major refugee and Kurdish-based terrorism problems are developing.
The Iran crisis is more troublesome because the possible consequences are graver. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta traveled to Israel at the end of July to get a commitment from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to attack Iran before America’s elections. A commitment was not forthcoming, with Netanyahu demanding as quid pro quo that Washington publicly break off negotiations with Iran. Intelligence analysts in Washington are split 50-50 over whether Netanyahu is bluffing. Some analysts are convinced that an attack will come in October when the weather is still good in the region and at a point when President Obama will have no choice politically but to support the Israelis. There has been some intelligence suggesting that Israel has already made the decision, fearing that Obama will ratchet down his tolerance for a military option whether he wins or loses. Reports suggest that Israeli leaders privately view Mitt Romney as useful but cautious, even timid, and do not trust his overblown and politically motivated assurances of support if war were to break out.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.