U.S. intelligence officials had obtained, but not "processed" the intercepted communications between Syrian officials that allegedly betrayed signs of the devastating chemical attack ahead of August 21. The Obama administration has made no secret of the fact that the U.S. had intelligence detailing what they argue is the preparation of Syria's government for the strikes, but the Associated Press's scoop seems to, at least partially, answer one big question the administration's case for Syrian intervention raised: if the U.S. had so much intelligence connecting the Syrian regime to the strike before it even happened, why didn't it know about it or try to prevent it in the first place?
As a refresher, here's what Kerry said in his State Department speech on Friday:
We know that for three days before the attack the Syrian regime's chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations...We know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapon.
And more details from the declassified intelligence assessment, cited by those who asked why the U.S. didn't do anything with the intelligence on Syria's preparation before the devastating chemical attacks:
We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel – including personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC – were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack. In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack.
But according to the AP, the U.S. only knew those things after the disturbing images and videos of the attack emerged. Then, intelligence began analyzing relevant data, already collected, and putting together puzzle pieces to make up the intelligence pictures the administration is presenting to Congress, and to some extent, the public. That evidence, at least in its declassified form, is a mix of specific and circumstantial, as the AP and others have noted. The administration cites the proximity of "Syrian weapons personnel" to chemical weapons preparation sites, as well as the understood lack of capacity of the rebels to carry out an equivalent attack, for instance.
The reason given by unnamed sources for the processing delay may ring familiar to those following Edward Snowden's NSA leaks: The U.S. collects a lot of communications and intelligence, from a lot of locations. The AP explains: "analysts were stretched too thin with the multiple streams of intelligence coming out of multiple conflict zones, from Syria to Libya to Yemen."
Over 110,000 people have died in Syria since the beginning of a years-long conflict in the country, according to the latest figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The U.S. says that 1,429 people died in the August 21st chemical attacks alone, though other intelligence sources, including the SOHR, use lower figures. Obama is currently waiting for Congress to decide on a bill that would authorize the president to use military force in response to the chemical attacks in Syria.