The United States receives unconfirmed reports of chemical weapons use in Syria every day, the director of national intelligence testified at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday morning.
The Assad regime in Syria has large quantities of chemical weapons spread throughout the country capable of being deployed on missiles, according to the written reports of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Clapper refused to provide an assessment of whether the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against the opposition and crossed the “red line” set by President Barack Obama.
His testimony comes as American intelligence agencies are seeing credible evidence of chemical weapons use for the first time.
Seventy-five thousand people have been killed in the civil war and an al Qaeda affiliate has established a presence in the country, Clapper and Flynn testified.
The collapse of the Assad regime would be a “huge strategic loss for Iran,” Clapper said. Iran has sent forces into the country to support the regime’s fight against the insurgents.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) expressed exasperation that the United States has not intervened in the conflict.
“All of this might have been avoided if we hadn’t sat by and watched it happen,” McCain said.
The ongoing conflict in Syria was part of the larger discussion of the range of threats against the United States.
“In almost 50 years of intelligence, I don’t remember when we’ve had a more diverse array of threats and crisis situations around the world to deal with,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.) said, quoting Clapper.
The discussion ranged from the threats posed by different countries—like Libya and Mali, Iran, China, and North Korea—as well as other threats common to several countries, like cyber warfare.
Multiple senators asked about the recent leak of a classified assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency that North Korea likely had the ability to mate a nuclear warhead and a missile.
Clapper sought to qualify the assessment by emphasizing that the intelligence community does not agree on this point. The Defense Intelligence Agency is more confident about this point than the other intelligence agencies, Clapper said.
Flynn stood by his intelligence agency’s assessment but emphasized that it was only one line in a seven-page, classified report.
Clapper did say North Korea is moving in the direction of a nuclear missile.
“They have what appears to be the basic ingredients for nuclear missiles,” he said.
Clapper also said North Korean decision-making lies with one person, Kim Jong-un.
“I think he’s driven by the need to prove his position, consolidate his power, and a lot of what he’s doing and saying are driven by messages to a domestic audience and the international audience,” Clapper said.
The senators also asked about Iran’s nuclear capability. Clapper said the most likely route Iran would take to a nuclear weapon is covert—a path that would slow down their ability to make a weapon. A rush to a nuclear weapon, known as a “breakout,” would be more easily detectable but would still take several months, not years, Clapper said.
Clapper and Flynn declined to answer many questions in open session—including whether Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are secure—preferring instead to discuss them in a classified setting.
Flynn and Clapper also criticized the cuts to the military and intelligence agency currently being implemented in the mandatory federal spending cuts. Clapper drew a parallel between the current cuts and the “peace dividend” that President Bill Clinton pursued in the 1990s that resulted in the gutting of the intelligence services—a gutting that was only reversed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.