National security expert speaks locally on Syrian crisis
HUDSON–The Columbia County Chamber of Commerce meeting room on Front Street doesn’t seem like the obvious setting for first-hand accounts of international terrorist activities in and around Syria. But that was among the topics addressed by former U.S. Navy intelligence specialist, TV news analyst, author and county resident Malcolm Nance who spoke at a public gathering Friday evening, September 13.
Mr. Nance, who has lived in Syria and other countries of the Mideast, discussed his view of the foreign policy dilemma facing the Obama administration as seen through the lens of his experience in the intelligence services. He does not favor a military intervention in the Syrian civil war, but he speculated on the possible unintended consequences of forcing Syria to give up its stockpiles of the poison gas, including the deadly nerve agent Sarin that was used to kill over a thousand people last month. Mr. Nance could said he could foresee how that might result in an even more dangerous situation that would make a military attack inevitable.
While in government service Mr. Nance was head of training for the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School, he also spent five years working for the National Security Agency (NSA) and worked for Homeland Security. He has since been a frequent guest on Fox News, CNN, ABC and the BBC and is analyst for Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. His presentation was sponsored by the Columbia County Democratic Committee and was attended by about 30 people.
“I still operate overseas, not in a clandestine way,” he said near the outset of his remarks Friday. Then he paused a moment and added, “If I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
Mr. Nance said for him the war in the Middle East began in 1983, when he was still in his teens and saw 243 U.S. Marines killed by a suicide bomber at their post in a Beirut, Lebanon, parking garage. The terrorists behind the attack, he said, were linked to Syria. He was at the Pentagon on 9/11/2001 when the jet hijacked by al Qaeda operatives hit the building and was in Iraq during some of the bloodiest fighting there.
He briefly traced the spiritual roots of al Qaeda back to a seventh century apocalyptic cult whose members believed that they had the right and duty to kill anyone not a member of the cult, including children. Moving to modern times he described the effect of the types of poison gas first used in World War I, mustard gas and phosgene, saying they are relatively easy to make and handle and had been used extensively in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
But Sarin manufactured to a standard that makes it effective as a weapon of war is an altogether different class of poison, and Mr. Nance added the details of its toxicity that were borne out in the video and photos of the deaths and suffering of victims of the Sarin attack on Damascus suburbs last month. He said that Sarin induces a “terminal epileptic fit” and that many of the victims died as result of a gas mist that traveled on the breeze. Sarin can be lethal if inhaled or if it comes in contact with the skin. First responders who rushed in to help died because they were not fully protected, he said.
Based on his observation of terrorist groups, Mr. Nance said that they lack the training and discipline to handle Sarin and would die from exposure before they could deploy the gas. He said he had visited parts of Iraq where Saddam Hussein had ordered Sarin used on civilian populations and he has read reports about the Damascus attacks and believes only the government of President Bashar al-Assad could have carried out the attack, a conclusion he predicted the United Nation’s inspectors who visited the site would verify in their report due out this week.
Although the U.N. weapons inspectors’ report released Monday, September 16, intentionally omitted concluding who used Sarin on civilians on Damascus, The New York Times reported that the evidence clearly pointed to Assad’s forces, as Mr. Nance had predicted.
Mr. Nance, 52, speaks Arabic and knows Syrian dialects, and he frequently paused in his assessment of the current situation to outline some of the complex interactions of history and tribal loyalties that drive events in the Mideast. In particular he reminded listeners that Mr. Assad’s group, the Alawites, are a minority in ethnically and religiously diverse Syria. Sunni Muslims are by far the largest group in the country. That has led Mr. Assad to seek outside help from the militant group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.
The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. And Israel invaded southern Lebanon several years ago after Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel. Mr. Nance worries that Mr. Assad might turn over some of his chemical weapons to Hezbollah, providing that organization with the capacity to store and use them. A credible threat that such a transfer might happen would be a mortal threat to Israel, and the Israeli government might respond with nuclear weapons, he said. In that case, Mr. Nance said President Obama would have no choice but to take military action designed to prevent the transfer of the gas.
Mr. Nance discussed this scenario not as inevitable, but as among the possibilities–the type of situation where the U.S. government must have accurate intelligence. He said that despite current criticism from critics, “I don’t think this president makes any uninformed decisions.”
In one of several digressions on the release of classified information and the spying that the NSA and other agencies have conducted on the phone and other records of U.S. citizens, he told the audience that his direct experience has convinced him that the U.S. government is not spying on the private lives of ordinary citizens.
Repeating that assurance although no one had challenged him on the point, he said that with all the threats the nation faces, “It’s very simple, we don’t have time for you.”