In “Beat of the Week” memos to staff, AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes tells the stories behind the top news of recent days. His latest memo describes the dogged source work, in the Middle East and Washington, that went into recent AP reports of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war:
The tip came from Jordan, the confirmation from Washington, and the result was not one but two important beats on U.S. support for rebels in the Syrian civil war.
It started when Jamal Halaby, the AP’s chief correspondent in Amman, was told by a highly placed official that the U.S., working in the Jordanian desert, had for months been secretly training secular ex-servicemen from the Syrian army.
The operation, which also involved Britain, France and other Western allies, focused on Sunni Bedouin tribesmen who could fill a security vacuum (and provide a counterweight to militant Jihadists) if Syrian President Bashar Assad is ousted. The ex-servicemen were going back to Syria to train others, and that group, not the rebel Free Syrian Army, was the recipient of arms and weapons financed and shipped by U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
That was key information revealing the extent of U.S. involvement in Syria, but the tip was off-the-record, and since the information was highly classified, officials and diplomats in Jordan would neither confirm nor deny it.
So Halaby turned to Washington’s Bradley Klapper at the State Department. He had been chasing similar reports for days, and armed with some rough details of the program, he told a source that they needed to talk in deeper detail about the training. “Look, the guys we are working with in Jordan aren’t FSA,” the official said, echoing what Halaby had been told.
The official went on to confirm what Halaby had been told, and said U.S. intelligence was running the show with French and British assistance, but that the Americans were providing no lethal assistance.
Meanwhile, national security writer Lolita Baldor reached a military official who added further confirmation on the program and emphasized that the Defense Department was not involved, that it was strictly CIA.
By the next day, the AP story had much of Washington chasing to match.
The State Department refused to answer any questions on training activity in Jordan, but the White House spoke in vague terms about how U.S. nonlethal assistance for the Syrian opposition includes training.
Once that was public, officials and diplomats started talking, revealing more about arms shipments to the rebels. In Jordan, Halaby and Amman correspondent Dale Gavlak scored another exclusive based on behind-the-scenes information exposing how the U.S. ally has been quietly allowing weapons to flow across its borders to Syrian rebels.
Based on interviews with officials, diplomats and Western experts monitoring weapons traffic, the story showed how Mideast powers opposed to Assad have used the route to dramatically step up the flow of weapons to Syrian rebels near Damascus. And from Beirut, Zeina Karam followed up with a story showing how rebels advancing from the south are seeking to secure a corridor from the Jordanian border to Damascus, all pointing to preparation for an eventual assault on the capital.
For textbook source work that exposed behind-the-scenes efforts by the U.S. to aid the Syrian opposition, Halaby, Klapper, Baldor and Gavlak win this week’s $500 prize.