Opinion: Analysis of U.S. Strike on Syrian Air Base Part 2 “Confidence is High”

For part one click here.

As this is a developing story, it may contain some factual inaccuracies. Please feel free to recommend corrections.


If you couldn’t tell from the from part one of this series, I cannot say for certain who actually launched the chemical attack. I can shed some light on how governments might make that determination, however.

First, it is important to know that most intelligence agencies don’t tend to deal in certainty. It is all about the level of confidence in a number of accumulated sources of intelligence. How many sources agree, how many conflict, how accurate are they likely to be, and what motive do they have to lie. Most of that deals with information gathered from people (HUMINT). This can also include reports from government employees including embassy staff, military personnel, and special operators.

HUMINT typically refers to information gathered second or third hand from assets. Agents, also known as human assets or spies, are people who do not work for the government, but provide information to the government. There are many potential motives for someone to do this. They may disagree with the current government, they may do it for money, they may do it for fun/thrill, they may have been blackmailed, they might hope that a foreign government will come to their aid or any number of imaginable reasons. These people are assessed by, and most often recruited by, case officers. Reports from case officers are assessed by psychologists and behavioral analysts. An idea of how trustworthy an asset is still comes down to instinct in many cases, however.

Human assets, might provide credible information on who ordered the attack, whether aircraft were flying that night or not, the names of pilots on rotation, where and how chemical munitions are stored, the state of mind of individuals in the chain of command, possible motivations to conduct the strike, and so on. Typically this information is gathered and disseminated by the Central Intelligence Agency directly. If any such agents exist, they may be executed or imprisoned if discovered.

There is also, the possibility that assets can be wrong. A miscommunication between an asset and a case officer, a misunderstanding the asset has about those he is reporting on, a desire to force a desired action and so on. More dangerous is what is called a dangle. A dangle is an agent or officer  of a foreign government who poses as a double-agent and deliberately makes contact with an enemy case officer. In this context, a CIA case officer. Dangles are especially dangerous, because they can derail entire operations by spoon feeding well crafted false information to us. For these reasons, many people put much more faith in other forms of intelligence.

Signals intelligence(SIGINT) is typically information gathered from the collection of electromagnetic emissions and transmissions. Such as the collection of phone calls, e-mails, radio traffic, internet traffic, and the like(COMINT). Basicly anything that has the word communication in it. This source of information is considered more reliable by many, but plenty of spy games involve false transmissions as well. A good historical example you can look into is World War Two. From the enigma machine to Operation Overlord, historical tellings of the war has much to reveal about this discipline of intelligence work.

Signals intelligence also includes ELINT. This is the monitoring of enemy radar, telemetry, and other transmissions that are not generally for communication. Using this, the radar from enemy bombers can be detected or even reflections of enemy air defence or air traffic control radar off of enemy bombers. This can verify if certain enemy equipment was likely to be in the area at the time. This and even the aforementioned signals intelligence data can take up to many years to fully analyse. This work is typically carried out by the National Security Agency(NSA). The difficulty in analysing such large datasets is why the NSA operates such large data centers, even when simply supporting other agencies.

Related to this is open source intelligence (OSINT). This is information gathered from the news media, social media, and library books. The way you likely get your information. If you are reading this I trust you understand how that works. As you well know though, not all OSINT can be trusted. The video and images coming out of Syria have been called into question by some. It is believed that some or even many of the “white helmet” force, stage scenes to help encourage foreign leadership to provide aid to affected areas. Whether or not their intentions are good, this is utterly unreliable intelligence.

The last thing we’ll cover is imagery intelligence(IMINT) and measure and signature intelligence(MASINT). MASINT includes things like the radar on our ships and aircraft. Also, geological data, like seismic activity, which can detect the movement of vehicle convoys, or the sonic booms from low flying supersonic aircraft. If an aircraft of any kind was detected by our radar in the the area of the chemical attack, that would be a big clue. Unfortunately we are unlikely to have had that kind of hardware looking hard enough at that random spot of the world. Similarly, since IMINT includes things like satellite images and aerial photography it is unlikely that we would have been watching that part of the world, at that moment. If we had an image, we might see a silhouette of the bomber in the image.

Even if any one of these things proved a portion of the story, we may never be certain of what exactly happened. For example people claimed to have seen bombers and bombs falling that night(OSINT). People were filmed showing symptoms of chemical exposure(OSINT). Autopsies confirm sarin exposure(HUMINT). The Department of Defense has announced that it has a radar track (EMINT) and a satellite photo(IMINT) of the bomber flight.

This paints a compelling picture, but are you certain of what happened? Or is it that your “Confidence Is High.”


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