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Pentagon Plans Syria Strike Options


Now, let's take a look at what the U.S. military might do in Syria. The Pentagon has prepared military options that would allow the U.S. to launch a punitive strike against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has been at the center of that military planning, even as he visited Asia this past week. NPR's Larry Abramson has been traveling all week with Secretary Hagel. He's had a unique vantage point on those deliberations and joins us now. Larry, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: We heard in Peter Kenyon's report that the U.N. inspectors have now completed their work, but certainly it seemed yesterday that the U.S. feels that they have enough information to make their own determination. What are some of the conclusions you noticed in that declassified intelligence report?

ABRAMSON: Right. The White House revealed a lot of details that they decided to declassify to make the case for the need to respond to these chemical weapons in Syria. And the first thing we heard was that they believe that over 1,400 people were killed in this attack, August 21, in the suburbs of Damascus, including over 400 children, which is a much higher number than I think that we've heard about before. And this information they have relies on communications intelligence, satellite intelligence and also human intelligence that they've gotten from the ground, that this was an area that the Syrian government had been trying to hold and failed at, and so they were desperate, according to the administration, and that there was evidence of an artillery and rocket attack on August 21st, and then there were immediately reports of thousands of patients appearing in local hospitals. and videos of people dying without any visible injuries. So, clear signs that something odd was going on in the administration's view a chemical attack. What they do not have, Scott, is physical or physiological evidence - at least they haven't presented it to us, although some information has presented to Congress and remains classified.

SIMON: It's been 10 years since the CIA quite notably got it wrong about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. How much does this hang over this assessment and what does the CIA and intelligence agencies try to do differently this time?

ABRAMSON: It's immense. And you can tell the administration is very aware of this. Secretary of State John Kerry has said this in remarks yesterday, we know that this is out there, this fear that we will make the same mistake and we will not repeat it. He insists that they're being much more careful this time and I think the language of the declassified assessment is very cautious. But there is still the risk of a mistake here, Scott, that perhaps it wasn't as extensive that the administration thought. And I think they are extremely worried about that, and that's why they've been going so slowly this week to try to prepare some of this information.

SIMON: Near as you can tell, what the military options they're looking at right now?

ABRAMSON: Right now, the focus is on a limited strike that would probably involve a number of cruise missiles. We are not talking about boots on the ground. The president said that very clearly yesterday. And all week long, as I was traveling with Secretary Hagel, they were emphasizing that this is a response to the use of chemical weapons. It is not a wider involvement in the war in Syria. So, that is the focus right now. The question is will this do any good. Will it really deter and degrade Assad's ability to wage war in his own country or will it simply be a slap on the hand that he'll be able to recover from?

SIMON: And what are the risks of the unintended consequences?

ABRAMSON: Well, with war there are always huge risks of that. It could be anything from terrorism around the world from allies of Syria, including here in the United States, attacks against Israel. There could be a huge flood of additional refugees to Turkey, Jordan. There could be attacks from Iran. The other big risk is that this simply won't work and the U.S. will be asked, well, what are you going to do now?

SIMON: NPR's Larry Abramson. Thanks very much for being with us.

ABRAMSON: OK, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.