TEL AVIV – Has the White House been misleading the public by repeatedly denying it was coordinating arms shipments to the rebels in Syria, insurgents known to consist in large part of al-Qaida and other jihadist groups?
Other top U.S. officials and former officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have implied in congressional testimony that they didn’t know about any U.S. involvement in procuring weapons for the rebels.
Now, a starkly different picture is emerging, one that threatens the longstanding White House narrative that claims the Obama administration has only supplied nonlethal aid to the rebels.
Confirming WND’s exclusive reporting for over a year, the New York Times two days ago reported that since early 2012, the CIA has been aiding Arab governments and Turkey in obtaining and shipping weapons to the Syrian rebels.
While the Times report claims most of the weapons shipments facilitated by the CIA began after the latest presidential election, Middle Eastern security officials speaking to WND have said U.S.-aided weapons shipments go back more than a year, escalating before the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi.
In fact, the Middle Eastern security officials speaking to WND since last year describe the U.S. mission in Benghazi and nearby CIA annex attacked last September as an intelligence and planning center for U.S. aid to the rebels in the Middle East, particularly those fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The aid, the sources stated, included weapons shipments and was being coordinated with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Days after the Benghazi attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, WND broke the story that Stevens himself played a central role in recruiting jihadists to fight Assad’s regime in Syria, according to Egyptian and other Middle Eastern security officials.
Stevens served as a key contact with the Saudis to coordinate the recruitment by Saudi Arabia of Islamic fighters from North Africa and Libya. The jihadists were sent to Syria via Turkey to attack Assad’s forces, said the security officials.
The officials said Stevens also worked with the Saudis to send names of potential jihadi recruits to U.S. security organizations for review. Names found to be directly involved in previous attacks against the U.S., including in Iraq and Afghanistan, were ultimately not recruited by the Saudis to fight in Syria, said the officials.
Now the New York Times has bolstered WND’s reporting, citing air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders describing how the CIA has been working with Arab governments and Turkey to sharply increase arms shipments to Syrian rebels in recent months.
The Times reported that the weapons airlifts began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanding into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, the data shows.
The Times further revealed that from offices at “secret locations,” American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia. They have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive.
The CIA declined to comment to the Times on the shipments or its role in them.
The Times quoted a former American official as saying that David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director until November, had been instrumental in helping set up an aviation network to fly in the weapons. The paper said Petraeus had prodded various countries to work together on the plan.
Petraeus did not return multiple emails from the Times asking for comment.
Both WND’s reporting, which first revealed the U.S.-coordinated arms shipments, and the Times reporting starkly contrast with statements from top U.S. officials who have denied aiding the supply of weapons to the rebels.
Last month, the White House flatly denied involvement in arming the Syrian rebels, going so far as to say the Obama administration rejected a plan by former Secretary of State Clinton and then-CIA Director Petraeus to help arm the rebels.
‘Nobody has ever raised that with me’
Further, in testimony during the Benghazi hearings, Clinton claimed she did not know whether the U.S. was aiding Turkey and other Arab countries in procuring weapons.
The exchange on the subject took place with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Paul asked Clinton: “Is the U. S. involved with any procuring of weapons, transfer of weapons, buying, selling, anyhow transferring weapons to Turkey out of Libya?”
“To Turkey?” Clinton asked. “I will have to take that question for the record. Nobody has ever raised that with me.”
Continued Paul: “It’s been in news reports that ships have been leaving from Libya and that may have weapons, and what I’d like to know is the annex that was close by, were they involved with procuring, buying, selling, obtaining weapons, and were any of these weapons being transferred to other countries, any countries, Turkey included?”
Clinton replied, “Well, Senator, you’ll have to direct that question to the agency that ran the annex. I will see what information is available.”
“You’re saying you don’t know?” asked Paul.
“I do not know,” Clinton said. “I don’t have any information on that.”
In testimony last month, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked then-Defense Secretary John Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether they had supported a plan “that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria.”
“We do,” Panetta replied.
“You did support that?” McCain asked again.
“We did,” added Dempsey, who was sitting next to Panetta.
Neither Dempsey nor Panetta elaborated on their positions or commented on any actual arms shipments.
This is not the first time WND’s original investigative reporting on U.S. support for the Syrian rebels was later confirmed by reporting in major media outlets. Other WND reporting indicates support for the Syrian rebels that goes beyond supplying arms, painting a larger picture of U.S. involvement in the Middle East revolutions.
A story generating worldwide attention by the German weekly Der Spiegel earlier this month reporting the U.S. is training Syrian rebels in Jordan was exclusively exposed by WND 13 months ago.
Quoting what it said were training participants and organizers, Der Spiegel reported it was not clear whether the Americans worked for private firms or were with the U.S. Army, but the magazine said some organizers wore uniforms.
The training in Jordan reportedly focused on use of anti-tank weaponry.
The German magazine reported some 200 men received the training over the past three months amid U.S. plans to train a total of 1,200 members of the Free Syrian Army in two camps in the south and the east of Jordan.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper also reported U.S. trainers were aiding Syrian rebels in Jordan along with British and French instructors.
Reuters reported a spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department declined immediate comment on the Der Spiegel report. The French foreign ministry and Britain’s foreign and defense ministries also would not comment to Reuters.
While Der Spiegel quoted sources discussing training of the rebels in Jordan over the last three months, WND was first to report the training as far back as February 2012.
At the time, WND quoted knowledgeable Egyptian and Arab security officials claimed the U.S., Turkey and Jordan were running a training base for the Syrian rebels in the Jordanian town of Safawi in the country’s northern desert region.
Any training or arming of the Syrian rebels would be considered highly controversial. A major issue is the inclusion of jihadists, including al-Qaida, among the ranks of the Free Syrian Army and other Syrian opposition groups.