Syria Latest: Why U.S. Intel Couldn't Predict Sarin Attack

American intelligence agencies reportedly had pieces of intelligence that foresaw the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, but failed to process the information in time, according to new reports.

The intelligence gathered included satellite photos of Syran soldiers prepping for a chemical attack and communication intercepts instructing Syrian military personnel to prepare for strikes. U.S. officials believe that judging from the intercepts and photos, there is reason to believe that the Syrian army carried out the sarin gas attack that claimed at least hundreds of lives in the hamlet of Ghouta outside of Damascus on August 21. Director of Public Affairs for National Intelligence Shawn Turner gave no reason for the delay. The main reason given for the intelligence failure by current and former intelligence officials was an overstretched network in the Middle East, as intelligence is gathered from not only Syria, but Libya and Yemen as well.

The reason given by intelligence analysts seems reasonable enough. The network is so extensive and stretched out that pieces of intelligence take time to put together and be analyzed properly before any conclusion can be reached. The key here is the solidity of the intelligence. Much of the evidence the United States claims it possesses is circumstantial, and the government has implied as such in a quote from a U.S. intelligence report from August 29: "Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating … near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin."

The main issue, as with any gathering of large amounts of information, is the signal-to-noise ratio. Used primarily in an scientific sense, the ratio also applies to intelligence gathering as well. When utilizing such an extensive intelligence apparatus, it's often difficult to sift through all the information gathered at once. Some intel is useful (signal) while much of it is not (noise), and the ability to distinguish between the two is not instantaneous, which has apparently happened with the case of the chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus. U.S. intelligence relies not only on their agents' ability to gather intelligence, but a network of sources and informants, which includes those in the rebel forces as well; rebel sources would probably need to be double-checked as there would probably be a level of bias involved, another possible reason for the delay.

Of course, this is not the first time American intelligence has failed to find the "signal" among the "noise." The most recent example would be the bombing of the Boston Marathon in April. Suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been monitored and questioned by the FBI at least once in the past few years, with even Russian intelligence notifying their American counterparts about his alleged meeting with an extremist cleric in the Caucasus region. With the FBI closing the file and pursuing other, supposedly more solid leads, they focused on the noise and not the signal.

Too often people want to rush into a situation, especially war, without checking or confirming the intelligence gathered. And we've seen what happens when the United States acts on faulty intelligence before. 

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Frank Lopapa

Graduate of the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, specializing in International Security and Global Negotiation and Conflict Management. Guest contributor to international affairs magazine Diplomatic Courier. When not writing about security issues for Policy Mic, I cover Italian soccer for Forza Italian Football, among other places.

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