April 13, 2017

Communications Intercepts and the Syrian Chemical Attack

The above conversation on Twitter highlights a continuing problem in and for the intelligence community. It refers to a CNN report, US intelligence intercepted communications between Syrian military and chemical experts by CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

In her report, Barbara writes, "The US military and intelligence community has intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the sarin attack in Idlib last week, a senior US official tells CNN."

By way disclosure, I am a paid military analyst for CNN. I have worked often with both Jim Sciutto and Barbara Starr. Both are excellent journalists, and I take no issue with their reporting of this information.

I do, however, take serious issue with the "senior US official" who leaked the information to CNN. This practice, all too common, is damaging to our intelligence collection operations. Any senior official should be aware of the potential damage from these information releases.

Here's how this hurts our collection efforts. I speak from experience - a large part of my U.S. Air Force career was spent in Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) operations. Intelligence derived from the intercept and exploitation of communications - Communications Intelligence (COMINT) - is a sub-discipline of SIGINT.

The type of intelligence is valuable because the targets are not aware that their communications are being exploited by the U.S. intelligence agencies. For that reason, COMINT is normally handled in separate communications channels.

The seemingly innocuous statement by a senior official mentioning intercepted communications is bad enough - it is not necessary to reveal the sources and methods of our intelligence efforts - but to identify the specific communications as "Syrian military and chemical experts" is not helpful. Because of this revelation, we may lose a valuable source of information.

Here's what will likely happen. The Syrians will have read the CNN report and discovered that their communications are being exploited by the United States intelligence agencies. That, of course, will come as no surprise - the United States operates one of the largest communications intercept systems in the world.

However, the specific revelation that the intercepted communications were between Syrian military and chemical experts will give the Syrian counterintelligence services a place to start looking for the vulnerability in their communications systems.

This task will likely fall to the capable Syrian Air Force Intelligence (SAFI) service. Despite their fearsome reputation for human rights abuses in the name of internal security, they are a capable counterintelligence service.

SAFI will conduct a survey of all of the communications systems that may have been the source of the U.S. intelligence reporting. It may take some time to determine, but they will likely figure it out.

Once they do, that system will be altered - it may be shut down, it may be encrypted, if it was already encrypted, the encryption system will be changed. In any case, the communications will no longer be available to U.S. intelligence.

It seems like a minor revelation, but it could have major repercussions for future intelligence operations. It was totally unnecessary and totally preventable.