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World

Deadly Attack Highlights Failure To Eliminate Syria's Chemical Weapons

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Let's take stock of what we actually know about Syria's chemical weapons after last week's attack in Idlib. We know more than 80 people died in the attack. We know they died from chemical weapons, what many analysts say was a sarin attack carried out by Syrian forces - so how to square that with this statement in January from President Obama's National Security Adviser Susan Rice?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SUSAN RICE: We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.

CORNISH: That's Rice speaking on NPR earlier this year. With me now is NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Welcome to the studio.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: So help us understand this. You have a top U.S. officials stating that Syria gave up its chemical weapons, and then you have the fact that dozens of people were just killed in a chemical weapons attack.

KELLY: Right, so how do you square this with the fact that clearly there are chemical weapons in Syria? I either spoke with or swapped messages with three senior Obama administration officials today. What I heard was a lot of careful parsing of words that what Susan Rice and other Obama administration officials were talking about was Syria's declared weapons. So what we're talking about here is a reference to the deal that was cut back in 2013. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad admitted he had 1,300 tons of mustard gas, of sarin, of VX. He agreed to give it up.

But Susan Rice's deputy, Avril Haines, who I was swapping emails with today, said, look; they always knew there was a possibility he didn't declare everything he had, that he had kept some stuff hidden. Haines said, we knew that there were gaps and inconsistencies in what the U.S. knew.

CORNISH: So if they knew there were gaps, can this be considered an intelligence failure?

KELLY: So this gets complicated. U.S. intelligence officials say, no, this was not an intelligence failure. A spokesman for the director of national intelligence, Timothy Barrett, told me today - and I'll quote him - "the U.S. intelligence community never categorically declared that Assad handed everything over." So again this point - maybe he didn't hand it all over.

Tim Barrett pointed me towards something that the former national intelligence director, Jim Clapper, told Congress. Clapper testified last year Syria hasn't declared everything about its chemical weapons program. But you will note neither Clapper nor any other senior U.S. official has been out sounding the alarm that Syria had stockpiles of sarin as it now appears that they had.

There's a challenge here, Audie. There's not a permanent inspections regime in Syria. You know, the international inspectors who do manage to get in are trying to do their work in the midst of a raging war. But in hindsight, it does appear there are big gaps in what the U.S. knew.

CORNISH: So you have limited access. We have gaps in our intelligence there, at least for what we know publicly. So do we have any idea what the scope of Syria's weapons arsenal is at this point?

KELLY: No, we don't know what other sites there may be, nor do we know where the weapons that were used last week came from. It is possible, yes, that Assad had some he hid and held onto and didn't declare. It is possible he gave them all up and then restarted a weapons program in the last few years. It is possible, Avril Haines - again, the former deputy national security adviser - told me today, maybe these came from a third party. Bottom line is we do not know.

CORNISH: Does this cast a shadow or raise other questions for other deals, right? If the Obama administration was saying with certainty that Syria's chemical arsenal was gone, what does this mean for something like Iran's nuclear deal?

KELLY: Ah, OK. So when you talk to weapons experts, they will tell you Iran and Syria are apples and oranges. Iran didn't have a nuclear weapon. Syria clearly did have chemical weapons. We know they used them in the past. So there are differences there. There are inspections playing out in Iran that, as we discussed, are not playing out in Syria in the same way.

But this idea that U.S. intelligence did not know everything about what Syria was up to, so why should we trust them now - it's a powerful one, and it speaks to ongoing doubts about the credibility of U.S. intelligence, particularly in the wake of the flawed intelligence on Iraq back in 2003.

CORNISH: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, thanks so much.

KELLY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.