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Did NSA spying help reveal chemical weapon attack in Syria?

A White House report released today suggests that the NSA's controversial Internet spy program may have provided evidence that Syria used chemical weapons.


Joe Kloc


Posted on Aug 30, 2013   Updated on Jun 1, 2021, 7:43 am CDT

The U.S. National Security Agency‘s controversial Internet surveillance programs may have helped prove that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its citizens, a declassified White House report suggests.

According to the report, on August 21, 2013, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus, the country’s capital. The report states that around 3,600 people were subsequently admitted to three Damascus-area hospitals exhibiting the symptoms of nerve gas exposure. 

The White House released the report on Friday in an effort to bolster its case for a possible retaliatory air strike against Assad’s forces. “Its findings are as clear as they are compelling,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech the same day. “I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Read for yourself, everyone, those listening, all of you, read for yourselves the evidence from thousands of sources, evidence that is already publicly available.” 

The declassified report summarizes the U.S.’s evidence that Assad used chemical weapons. Several passages in indicate that some such evidence was gathered by the NSA’s massive online surveillance operations:


Another claims social media posts were collected as evidence:


The report does not specifically mention that NSA intelligence was used to determine Assad had used chemical weapons. But signals intelligence is typically the purview of the agency. The agency’s official site states that it is “responsible for providing foreign Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) to our nation’s policy-makers and military forces.” 

Furthermore, according to the Intelligence Community’s 2013 budget, out of the U.S.’s 16 intelligence agencies, the NSA was the only one to receive any money for signals intelligence.  

However, according to former NSA senior executive turned whistleblower Thomas Drake, the use of signals intelligence “does not necessarily mean NSA surveillance [was] directly involved.”

“There are other SIGINT services out there–besides the U.S.–in terms of contribution,” Drake told the Daily Dot.

The NSA has been heavily criticized by U.S. lawmakers, citizens and foreign leaders since former agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the agency captures private messages, phone data, emails, browsing histories, photos, and documents moving across the Internet. If in fact the NSA did in fact help reveal Syria’s use of chemical weapons, it would be a compelling counterargument against lawmakers imposing harsh restrictions on the agency’s intelligence gathering abilities. 

Both the White House and the NSA declined to comment to the Daily Dot on whether the NSA provided intelligence on Syrian chemical warfare. Each of the offices directed the Daily Dot to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which has yet to respond to requests for comment.

Photo by jenspie3/Flickr

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*First Published: Aug 30, 2013, 5:04 pm CDT