Saturday, September 6, 2014

Intelligence Gaps Crippled Mission to Rescue U.S. Hostages Held by Islamic State

It wasn't just intelligence gaps, but White House indecision as well.

At the Wall Street Journal, "Intelligence Gaps Crippled Mission in Syria to Rescue Hostages James Foley, Steven Sotloff":

U.S. Raid on Oil-Storage Facility Was Too Late to Save Hostages Held by Islamic State:WASHINGTON—On a moonless night in early July, several dozen Army Delta Force commandos touched down at an oil-storage facility in eastern Syria.

The plan: Neutralize the terrorist guards, search a makeshift prison, find American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and other hostages, and fly off to safety. It was all supposed to take 20 minutes.

More than an hour later, the Army team was headed back to its launchpad outside Syria empty-handed.

"It was a dry hole," a senior U.S. military official said, using jargon for a mission whose target couldn't be found.

One model for the operation was the 2011 mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, down to choosing the darkest of nights to cloak the raiders. But this raid, the first known U.S. incursion into Syria since its civil war erupted, was in many ways a far bigger gamble, according to current and former U.S. defense and government officials.

The U.S. had limited visibility into Syria, including the suspected prison site just miles from the main operations base of Islamic State, the militant group once known as ISIS that has overrun large parts of Syria and Iraq. Weeks before the raid, the Pentagon drafted a plan for surveillance flights in Syria but dropped the idea after concluding the White House wouldn't approve them, U.S. officials said.

A senior administration official said the only Pentagon request for surveillance flights the White House received came just before the mission.

Before the commandos' helicopters landed in the early morning hours of July 3, the Joint Special Operations team, part of the elite Delta Force, had been practicing for several weeks at a U.S. base in North Carolina—based on intelligence showing the makeshift prison between storage containers, oil derricks and other structures in a bleak desert landscape.

They had prepared for contingencies such as booby-trapped buildings and a large militant force guarding the hostages. Delta Force took part in the ill-fated 1993 "Black Hawk Down" raid in Somalia, and some officials worried the Syria operation carried similar risks.

As they drilled, the team conducting the mission was anxious to get the green light. "There were lots of rehearsals. They were ready for a period of time. It was a matter of waiting on a decision," said a defense official. "Once the decision was made, they went."

They went too late. The U.S. now believes the militants moved the hostages away as little as 72 hours earlier.

The Islamic State's communications discipline was strong, the U.S. officials said, honed by its leaders during the U.S. war in Iraq, making it hard to track the hostages. The U.S. had few informants on the ground to fill gaps in intelligence from satellites and other systems, they said, and the country the U.S. first approached about providing a base for the operation didn't want its territory used as the launch pad.

Videos showing the brutal killing of Messrs. Foley and Sotloff emerged a few weeks later, galvanizing U.S. and international calls to more directly counter Islamic State.

A reconstruction of events surrounding the failed rescue, based on interviews with current and former U.S. officials and foreign diplomats, and with other people familiar with the hostage situation, shows the extent to which it was a calculated gamble under intense time pressure.

The Pentagon proposed and President Barack Obama approved an elaborate operation in hostile territory with imperfect information. The Pentagon, worried about the risk to commandos and hostages, deployed a bigger-than-usual force, including a large team poised to intervene if the raid went sour.

The president "accepted a higher degree of risk than we expected," said one of the U.S. defense officials.

U.S. military and government officials defended their approach, noting that they had to make difficult choices quickly and that intelligence is always incomplete. Even in the bin Laden raid, a spectacular success, American officials were far from certain he was even at the targeted compound.

Officials also were painfully aware the hostages would be at even greater risk once Mr. Obama ordered airstrikes against Islamic State. Officials believed such a decision was imminent, which narrowed the window for any raid.

They also worried that putting drones overhead before the operation risked tipping off the militants. While such flights might have increased U.S. awareness about militant facilities, these officials said, they may not have changed the outcome and might have endangered the hostages if detected.

Officials involved in planning the mission said they concluded that the hostages' survival chances were already so low that a risky raid was the best option. "These are all tough decisions," said one of the officials.

Mr. Obama has for years expressed caution over becoming entangled in Syria's civil war, reflecting his concern that even a small intervention could lead the U.S. into another major Middle Eastern conflict and potentially run afoul of international law.

But over time, the White House has inched toward playing a greater role in Syria and Iraq, pushed by events on the ground. Two years after completing the U.S. pullout from Iraq, Mr. Obama secretly agreed to resume surveillance flights in Iraq to gather intelligence on Islamic State camps near the Syrian border. The group was one of the most effective forces battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces. The program was tiny, initially one drone flight a month.

In June, after Islamic State militants seized Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, the Pentagon drafted an order that called for deploying military advisers to Baghdad and allowing what it called "intrusive" surveillance flights into Syria.

But Pentagon leaders revised the order to take out the overflight authorization because they believed the White House would reject it. A senior defense official said that decision was made after some consultation with the White House. White House and some Pentagon officials argued that incursions into Syrian airspace would violate the country's sovereignty and deepen U.S. involvement in the civil war. "The president wasn't ready to go there," said one of the U.S. officials.

A senior Obama administration official said the Pentagon didn't bring the initial June order for surveillance flights in Syria to the White House for consideration.

In early summer, U.S. intelligence agencies narrowed their search for the American hostages to a small building near an oil facility southeast of Raqqa, the effective capital of Islamic State. Mr. Obama secretly authorized Special Operations forces to begin planning for a rescue mission, which would be led by the Pentagon with support from the Central Intelligence Agency.
Still more at that top link.