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US Official, Senator Clash Over Arming Syrian Rebels

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (l) accompanied by DIA Director Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, testifies on Capitol Hill, April 18, 2013.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (l) accompanied by DIA Director Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, testifies on Capitol Hill, April 18, 2013.
Michael Bowman
America's top intelligence official and a senior Republican lawmaker clashed over the wisdom and effectiveness of providing U.S. military assistance to Syrian rebels. The tense exchange occurred at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
For more than a year, Republican Senator John McCain has blasted the Obama administration’s reluctance to arm Syrian rebels and establish a no-fly zone over the war-torn nation. McCain’s ire has grown as the death toll in Syria continues to mount by the tens of thousands.

The senator pressed the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, on those points at Thursday’s hearing.

“There are lots and lots of weapons in Syria," said Clapper. "And if we are going to expend resources in support of the opposition, I am not convinced now that our supplying additional weaponry to the opposition will have the desired impact.”

Clapper added that a no-fly zone over Syria is possible, but would not be without costs to the United States.

Senator McCain responded with incredulity.

“So now you and the administration sit here and say, ‘Well, we do not know where the weapons are going.’ Well maybe if we had helped the [Syrian] people who were fighting from the beginning before all these Jihadists flowed in, we might have been able to have some beneficial effect," said McCain.

McCain then posed a question: “Do you believe Iran will seek to keep [Syrian President] Assad in power at all costs?”

“Absolutely. His fall would be a huge strategic loss to Iran,” Clapper responded.

“‘A huge strategic loss to Iran.’ But yet we do not seem to know any real way to assist them [Syrian rebels]," McCain replied. "That is quite remarkable commentary on the capability or the commitment of the United States of America.”

The national intelligence director did not respond to McCain’s words. Earlier in the hearing, however, he did present the administration’s view of an ultimate outcome in Syria.

“After more than two years of conflict in Syria, the erosion of the regime’s capabilities is accelerating," Clapper said. "We see this in its territorial losses, military manpower shortfalls, and logistics deficiencies. The opposition is slowly but surely gaining the upper hand. Assad’s days are numbered. We just do not know the exact number.”

On other matters, Clapper repeated the administration’s contention that across-the-board federal spending cuts will gradually erode America’s intelligence capabilities, leaving the nation and its interests more vulnerable to attack. He noted the growing threats posed by cyber warfare and cyber espionage.

Clapper said that international sanctions are imposing heavy costs on Iran's economy, but that Tehran is unlikely to consider limiting its nuclear program unless economic pain translates into significant domestic unrest.

He said that North Korea has made strides in its missile program, but has yet to demonstrate the capability for a nuclear-armed missile.  Last week, a U.S. congressman revealed an intelligence report that said North Korea had the expertise to put a nuclear warhead on a missile. Clapper said the report was meant to be secret, but was mislabeled as unclassified.

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