Is Syria threatening to use chemical weapons or not?

The big news out of Syria this morning is about chemical weapons -- and whether or not President Bashar al-Assad will use them. But the headlines, it turns out, are an especially bad place to start if you want to get to the bottom of it. In fact, you would be forgiven for concluding that Syria is either ramping up or winding down preparations to use chemical weapons against either the rebels or an external force.

"Syrian regime makes chemical warfare threat," is the authoritative headline in this morning's Guardian. It is almost the exact opposite of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) headline, which reads: "Syria moves to calm chemical weapon fears."

The New York Times, ever subtle, introduces a critical clause modifier: "Syria Says It Won't Use Chemical Arms to Stop Rebellion." This is the line taken by Businessweek which leads with: "Syria Says it Won't Use Chemical Weapons Against Insurgents."

If not against insurgents, then who? A Reuters headline holds the answer: "Syria says could use chemical arms against foreign intervention." Finally, the pieces are coming together. But what was the news item that headline-writers found so difficult to interpret?

The culprit, it seems, is Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi who made the following statement on Monday: "The ministry wants to re-affirm the stance of the Syrian Arab Republic that any chemical or bacterial weapon will never be used - and I repeat will never be used - during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments...These weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct supervision and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression."

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To plug leaks, Pentagon will read the newspaper

Hours after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appeared before a closed session of the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday to discuss recent leaks about secret U.S operations against Iran and suspected terrorists, the Pentagon announced a plan to crack down on the disclosure of classified information.  

The Department of Defense, press secretary George Little explained, currently has procedures in place for employees to report unauthorized disclosures up the chain of command and refer violations to the Department of Justice for potential prosecution (in recent months, the agency has also implemented other measures such as improved personnel training for handling classified information). But now, he added, Panetta had ordered the Pentagon to match its "bottom up" system with a "top down" approach:

The Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, in consultation with the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, will monitor all major, national media reporting for unauthorized disclosures of defense department classified information. The Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence will ensure that the appropriate component of the department has been tasked with investigating leaks and that the required legal referrals to the Department of Justice and Congressional notifications are made. 

Here's how Bloomberg described the new system on Friday:

Pentagon officials in charge of public affairs intend to beef up the tracking of published news reports and alert the department's top intelligence official when they spot suspected classified information, George Little, the Pentagon's spokesman, told reporters today. Then the office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence will determine if the leak must be investigated, Little said.

There's just one problem with this "top down" approach. Strip away the fancy language, and it sounds a whole lot like a pledge to keep a close eye on the news. I imagine the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs (in this case, George Little), like many of his colleagues, is already doing a fair bit of media monitoring, and we know the department is -- in sophisticated ways. Last year, for example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- otherwise known as the good people who brought you the Internet -- announced a new $42 million program to develop automated and semi-automated methods for tracking the spread of "ideas and concepts" in social media. So what's the big change here -- beyond a slightly more streamlined system for emailing your boss to say you spotted something alarming in the New York Times?

Still, as a newsman myself, I hesitate to criticize a strategy that involves consuming more news. Should the Defense Department find its new media diet overwhelming, I humbly recommend Foreign Policy's concise, daily Morning Brief. Conveniently, we too monitor all major, national media.

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