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Is the Covert CIA Program to Arm Syrian Rebels Still Secret?

  • Associated Press

FILE - A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

President Donald Trump seemed to blow the lid on the cancellation of a covert CIA program in Syria when he tweeted about it this week. But, intelligence agencies still won't talk about it.

The program arming Syrian rebels has long been an open secret, but for years no one was authorized to discuss it - and few would even after news reports last week that Trump had ordered the CIA to end it.

But Trump essentially confirmed the existence of the program and its cancellation Monday night when he lashed out at The Washington Post. The president tweeted that the newspaper “fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting (Syrian President Bashar) Assad.”

Yet intelligence agencies still are mum. The CIA declined comment on Tuesday. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence also declined to discuss it. The tweet was a topic of chatter among staffers on Capitol Hill, but even there, lawmakers refused to comment publicly because in their minds, the program is still classified.

“Technically I doubt that the tweet would constitute declassification, though it appears to be a disclosure of classified information,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the government secrecy project at the Federation of American Scientists.

This isn't the first instance that Trump has casually disclosed classified information. In May, Trump shared intelligence about an Islamic State threat involving laptops carried on airplanes with Russia's foreign minister and Moscow's ambassador to Washington in an Oval Office meeting.

A president is authorized by law to declassify anything he wants. It's not against the law when he does it. In January 2012, for example, former President Barack Obama officially acknowledged the classified CIA drone program to kill terror suspects.

The Syrian program, which was started by Obama, was aimed at putting pressure on Assad to relinquish power. The CIA began the covert operation in 2013 to arm, fund and train a moderate opposition to Assad.

For years, the CIA effort had foundered and some lawmakers had proposed cutting its budget. Some CIA-supported rebels had been captured; others had defected to extremist groups. But in late 2015, CIA-backed groups, fighting alongside more extremist factions, had begun to make progress in south and northwest Syria.

Last week at a conference in Colorado, Gen. Raymond Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, did acknowledge the program's existence - and that it had ended.

At the Aspen Security Forum, an annual gathering of intelligence, homeland security and foreign policy officials and experts, Thomas said he thought the decision to end the program was not a conciliatory gesture to Russia, which opposed it, but was based on the program's utility.

“It was, I think, based on assessment of the nature of the program, what we're trying to accomplish, the viability of it going forward, and a tough, tough decision,” Thomas said.

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