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This is how Obama and Brennan’s CIA wasted $1.5 billion in Syria – and the process is still broken

Former CIA officer and counterintelligence expert Brad Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Brad Johnson).
September 01, 2020

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New reporting has surfaced about a stunning intelligence failure which is a direct result of disastrous intelligence community policies put in place by former CIA director John Brennan during President Obama’s administration.

Under Brennan, the method of intelligence activity changed from the CIA directly running espionage and covert action programs under their own terms to a philosophy of working through our overseas foreign partners. This was done through a highly controversial and hotly contested modernization program. As a result, there were improvements in technical aspects of intelligence but at the same time, it dissolved the operations cadre and divisions where espionage and covert action expertise resided with disastrous results. While this shift in policy has had a devastating record of failure, rarely is the failure as public as it has been during the still ongoing Syrian Civil War which began in 2011.

According to the newly uncovered information, the CIA initiated their part of the Syrian program by following the Brennan doctrine of turning to their foreign partners. The CIA asked their Turkish counterparts at The Turkish National Intelligence Organization (TNIO) to identify Syrians that were willing to fight in support of US interests in the newly established Free Syrian army. The TNIO was to fully vet the individuals to make sure they were not radical Islamists and the TNIO was well paid for their support. The TNIO did in fact locate thousands of individuals who were subsequently trained and equipped by the CIA.

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Not surprisingly, Turkey had its own agenda which was in direct conflict with the U.S. agenda. While a number of the Free Syrian Army troops were indeed killed in Russian bombings, some also deserted to join ISIS. A large faction ended up in the Turkish-backed Syrian militia that now populates the northern strip of Syria that has been taken over by Turkey. It turns out that the TNIO betrayed the CIA from the beginning and selected candidates precisely because they were radical Islamists and with a hatred of Kurds while hiding this fact from the hapless CIA. This is such an obvious possibility that the well-trained CIA operations cadre of yesteryear would have figured this out from the beginning. These militia groups are today directed by Turkey and are tracking down and killing Kurds whenever possible, and some portion of those militia groups were CIA-trained and equipped. In fairness to the CIA, at some point along the way, they did figure out what was going on behind their backs and limited the TNIO in the selection process and presumably paid them less money.

Taken as a whole, this goat rope is a textbook example of what is wrong with the current structure of the CIA which was put in place in the 2015 modernization plan implemented by then CIA director John Brennan. Turkey has long sought to destroy the Kurds and immediately saw the opportunity to take advantage of the CIA to that end. They could get the base of a trained and equipped Syrian militia under their complete control and yet have the CIA do the work and pay the expenses while at the same time getting paid large sums of money for screwing over the U.S. Who could possibly turn down a deal like that particularly when there is almost no chance of negative repercussions?  The answer is pretty much no one and certainly not the Turks.

In a Pentagon-directed program, the U.S. initially supplied the Free Syrian Army with non-lethal aid but almost immediately included lethal training and equipment in a program that lasted until 2015. They spent $500 million dollars and planned to train a force of 15,000 men to hopefully unseat Syrian President Assad and take on ISIS forces in the region. Under a hail of negative publicity, it turns out they only ended up with a fighting force of only a few dozen and the Pentagon program was canceled in 2015.  Concurrently, the CIA also ran their $1 billion covert action program known as Timber Sycamore which also trained Syrian fighters with a similar mission. The CIA program had some initial success in that they were able to train thousands of troops, but the program was subverted by the Turks and out of control before it began. The CIA program was canceled by the Trump administration in 2017 after the troops were reported to have deserted or have been killed in Russian bombing.

The CIA and Pentagon programs spent a combined $1.5 billion and ended in a spectacular failure with extensive press coverage. In normal times which seem so distant now, there would have been a full after-action investigation that would have reviewed the entire effort so the mistakes would not be repeated. Here nothing of the sort was even considered but certainly the Obama administration-era policies that initiated the fiasco would be objectively torn to pieces with the benefit of hindsight an investigation would bring.

In this case, the policy failure is on the part of the CIA specifically and the intelligence community in general and stems from the ill-placed overdependence on our foreign partners that was instituted through the poorly designed modernization.  Our so-called overseas partners always have their own agenda and it is extremely rare that it perfectly matches our own. We should expect every country to put its own interests first since that is the simple truth of the matter and go into any area of cooperation with that in mind. Brennan put in place a politically correct policy that is bereft of common sense and just simply can never work since it ignores human nature and pretends that paying another country will make them do exactly what we want. Without the experienced and well-trained career operations officer cadre, which was dissolved by Brennan, we don’t have our watchdogs who would have known better. We are doomed to repeat these mistakes until it is fixed.

Brad Johnson retired as a Senior Operations Officer and Chief of Station with the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Operations. He has served domestically and abroad with numerous assignments often during periods of armed conflict. He has served overseas in direct support of the War against Terrorism. Mr. Johnson is a certified senior expert in Counterintelligence issues with extensive direct experience in the field. He is a senior expert in surveillance and surveillance detection issues. He has proven expertise in dangerous operational environments with the highest level of training and extensive direct experience in tradecraft for dangerous areas. His proven expertise also extends to denied operational environments (most difficult and restrictive) with the highest levels of training offered anywhere in the USG or the world and extensive direct experience. Mr. Johnson has served overseas as Chief of Station multiple times. He is an enrolled member of The Cherokee Nation, a Federally Recognized Tribe and is currently the President of Americans for Intelligence Reform.