|CIA Director Mike Pompeo.|
Official CIA Photo.
SCI published, “Why that Story You Heard about the U.S. Killing Russian Mercenaries in Syria Likely Is Wrong, on March 5. The assessment noted that the account the media were providing “was suspect from the start.”
One of the reasons SCI doubted the veracity of the media reports was because of a claim made by Polygraph.info (a propaganda website run by government-supported Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). Polygraph.info said it had audio recordings, provided by a source inside the Russian government, that backed up the claim that hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed in Syria. The SCI assessment said:
Is it possible that a U.S. government propaganda network would be able to develop a human intelligence source close to the Kremlin without Russia figuring it out? A HUMINT source who would feed Polygraph.info audio recordings that would then be publicly disclosed without compromising his identity in the process? Maybe. But it would be very difficult—and that makes the Polygraph.info report highly suspect. In fact, I’d lean towards saying that someone played the people at Polygraph.info.
A second reason SCI doubted media reports was because they acknowledged that no government official would confirm their allegations. From the SCI assessment:
The final sentence from The Washington Post article should have raised alarms for anyone following the story. That sentence indicates two things: (1) if the Post was indeed receiving actual intelligence from U.S. officials, that in itself would appear to be an illegal act. And it subsequently calls into question what the motivation is of those officials disclosing the intelligence. (2) The same (or other) government officials refused to say what they thought of the apparently illegally disclosed intelligence, indicating that they might not be ready to make an analytical judgment on what it means, or that they were using it to manipulate public opinion.
Finally, other media reporting contradicted the claim that the U.S. killed hundreds of Russians in Syria. Again, from the SCI assessment:
On top of all this, we get a March 2 report from Der Spiegel called, “The Truth About the Russian Deaths in Syria – Hundreds of Russian soldiers are alleged to have died in U.S. airstrikes at the beginning of February. Reporting by DER SPIEGEL shows that events were likely very different.”
Der Spiegel claims to have talked with sources on the ground who witnessed or participated in the attack as well as events leading up to it.
The SCI assessment appeared to be on target right up until Pompeo confirmed that the U.S. had indeed killed hundreds of Russian mercenaries in Syria in early February. In fact, in reporting on Pompeo confirming the story, The Hill noted that the incident had never been officially confirmed until that point.
The comment from Pompeo, currently the CIA director, appears to be the first time a U.S. official has publicly confirmed that Russians were killed as part of the U.S. strike in Deir al-Zour province, and the first time an administration official has cited the incident to defend President Trump’s Russia stance.
Correct assessments are always the preferred assessments. And so it would have been better if SCI made the correct assessment regarding media reports of U.S. forces killing hundreds of Russian mercenaries in Syria in early February. However, SCI relied on solid intelligence analysis tradecraft in crafting its initial assessment. And it’s relying on solid intelligence analysis tradecraft now by acknowledging, based on new facts, that its initial assessment was wrong.