A senior U.S. intelligence official on Tuesday warned of a “very real” risk of extremist groups gaining control of Syrian chemical or biological weapons.
“The current instability in Syria presents a perfect opportunity for al-Qaida and associated groups to acquire these weapons [of mass destruction] or their components,” U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn said in Tuesday testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, citing the terrorist organizations’ longtime stated interest in acquiring the most dangerous arms.
His remarks stand in contrast to some recent comments by U.S. diplomats who have played down the risk that extremists might seize Syrian chemical arms as they are transported to a coastal city for international removal and destruction.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has blamed delays in moving these sensitive warfare materials out of the country on security concerns, amid assertions that the sensitive convoys already have come under rebel attack. Damascus last year agreed to U.S. and Russian demands that it surrender its entire chemical arsenal following a major sarin gas attack that allegedly killed more than 1,400 civilians.
“While Syria’s stockpiles are currently under the control of the regime, the movement of these weapons from their current locations for disposal or other reasons drastically increases the risk of these weapons or their components falling into the wrong hands,” Flynn said. “There is also the very real possibility that extremists in the Syrian opposition could overrun and exploit chemical and biological weapons storage facilities before all of these materials are removed.”
Damascus this week said nearly all of most of its most deadly chemicals would be moved out of Syria by the end of the month — two months past a deadline set by international authorities.
At the Tuesday hearing, U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper told the panel it was “hard to discern” whether the Syrian delays were due to legitimate security concerns. Instead, he indicated, the lag times could reflect a scheme by Damascus aimed at lengthening the chemical disarmament process for “as long as possible because it … serves to implicitly legitimize Assad.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power in comments to reporters last week seemed to minimize Damascus’ argument that extremist threats to chemicals under transport justified the delays.
“We know the regime has the ability to move these weapons and materials because they have moved them multiple times over the course of this conflict,” Power said. “It is time for the Assad government to stop its foot-dragging.”
On Tuesday, Clapper also told the Senate panel there are projected to be in excess of 7,500 foreign fighters hailing from about 50 countries currently in Syria. “Among them are a small group of [Afghanistan-Pakistan] al-Qaida veterans who have aspirations for external attacks in Europe, if not the [U.S.] homeland itself,” he said.
What We're Following See More »
Twenty-one states, the District of Columbia and several public interest groups filed the first major lawsuits Tuesday to block the repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules. The FCC's rules had prohibited Internet providers from slowing down or blocking websites. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is leading the states' suit, said that the FCC’s repeal was “arbitrary” and “capricious” and violates federal law. The suit comes just a day after Democrats in the Senate said they were inching closer to acquiring the votes needed to pass legislation overturning the FCC's rule change. It has garnered the support of all 49 Democratic senators as well as one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).
"A former C.I.A. officer suspected of helping China identify the agency’s informants in that country has been arrested, the Justice Department said on Tuesday. Many of the informants were killed in a systematic dismantling of the C.I.A.’s spy network in China starting in 2010 that was one of the American government’s worst intelligence failures in recent years, several former intelligence officials have said. The arrest of the former agent, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, capped an intense F.B.I. investigation that began around 2012 after the C.I.A. began losing its informants in China."
"Three-quarters of the members of a federally chartered board advising the National Park Service abruptly quit Monday night out of frustration that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had refused to meet with them or convene a single meeting last year. The resignation of nine out of 12 National Park System Advisory Board members leaves the federal government without a functioning body to designate national historic or natural landmarks. It also underscores the extent to which federal advisory bodies have become marginalized under the Trump administration."
"House GOP leaders on Tuesday night pitched a new strategy to avert a looming government shutdown that includes children's health funding and the delay of ObamaCare taxes. Lawmakers need to pass a short-term stopgap bill by midnight Friday, when money for the federal government runs out. The latest GOP plan would keep the government’s lights on through Feb. 16, and be coupled with a six-year extension of funding for the popular Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The continuing resolution or CR would also delay ObamaCare's medical device and Cadillac taxes for two years, and the health insurance tax for one year starting in 2019."
"A key Senate negotiator and White House official on Tuesday expressed little hope for an immigration deal this week but nonetheless predicted that Congress can avoid a government shutdown." Marc Short, the White House Capitol Hill liaison, said he's optimistic about a deal on DACA overall, but not this week. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn also said he doubts an agreement can be made before week's end.