Spot the difference: Being or not being subject to mass surveillance

On Sunday night, at the stroke of midnight, will a shroud of fear be lifted from freedom-loving Americans?

Let’s assume that a last minute deal isn’t reached in Congress and the surveillance powers of the Patriot Act are indeed allowed to expire.

This might not amount to the kind of statutory protection of privacy that critics of the NSA have hoped for, and yet physically pulling the plug on the actual mechanisms of mass surveillance will highlight the difference between living in a world where all our information gets sucked into data warehouses and a world in which it remains a tad more secure under a blanket in the Cloud — or wherever else we’ve chosen to keep it hidden.

Of course, a lot of people won’t believe the plug got pulled — certainly not at a moment when they believe the Federal government is about to impose martial law in Texas — and so the reported suspension of surveillance will more likely reinforce their paranoia.

But for those who believe that a measure of freedom lost has been reclaimed — at least for now — how will that freedom be enjoyed?

That’s where I draw a blank.

I’ve seen the polls in which some people say that NSA surveillance has changed how they use email and made them inclined to censor themselves and yet I’ve always been baffled by these reactions.

Most NSA critics who have studied the issue are acutely aware that mass surveillance is virtually useless for gathering information about terrorism, so how exactly might it accumulate useful information about you or me?

From Sunday to Monday, we will cross over from a world in which we are watched but unseen, into a world in which we will remain unseen. If that seems like a profound transition, I’d say your fixation on personal freedom has become a distraction from much more serious issues that truly shape our world.

There are plenty of good reasons to be opposed to mass surveillance — including the principle that no democratic government should claim the right to spy on its own citizens. But we have less reason to be concerned about intrusions on our privacy than that over-funded intelligence agencies have exploited public fear and manipulated Congress in order to create programs of negligible value.

If mass surveillance is about to quietly die, maybe the lesson that can be drawn is that the threat it supposedly posed and the need it supposedly met, were both wildly overstated.

The NSA’s appetite to gather information has always exceeded its capacity to use it, but the same cannot be said for Google or Facebook. The NSA never was and never could become more than a flea on the back of a digital infrastructure that primarily serves Silicon Valley.

Most of the information that is being gathered about each and every one of us is not being swept up in secret but dished out freely down what we have come to regard as lifelines connecting us to the world.

Rather than being subject to unwanted surveillance, we are far more subject to networks of dependence which affect what we want, what we expect, and how we live.

Big Brother is less inclined to breath down our neck than hold our hand. And if the grip feels too tight it’s because we’re afraid of letting go.


Reality checks in debate over surveillance laws

Charlie Savage reports: As the Senate moves closer to a Sunday night showdown over whether it will let Patriot Act surveillance powers expire on Monday, supporters and critics of how the government has used those authorities have been using increasingly alarming language.

But there is little evidence in the history of the expiring laws — including the one that the government uses to justify the once-secret National Security Agency program that vacuums up Americans’ phone records in bulk — to support the arguments that either side is making.

Republican senators who want to keep the program are warning that any lapse in “this critical tool would lead to attacks on the United States,” as Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, recently put it. Yet throughout the program’s existence, it has never thwarted a terrorist attack, studies and testimony show.

At the same time, proponents of ending the program say it poses risks to Americans’ private lives, by permitting the government to know who has been calling psychiatrists or political groups, for example. But despite the discovery of technical violations of the rules several years ago, no evidence has emerged that the program has been misused for political or personal gain. As a result, the privacy-minded critics have had to couch their warnings in hypothetical terms. [Continue reading…]


Inside NSA, officials privately criticize ‘collect it all’ surveillance

Peter Maass writes: As members of Congress struggle to agree on which surveillance programs to re-authorize before the Patriot Act expires, they might consider the unusual advice of an intelligence analyst at the National Security Agency who warned about the danger of collecting too much data. Imagine, the analyst wrote in a leaked document, that you are standing in a shopping aisle trying to decide between jam, jelly or fruit spread, which size, sugar-free or not, generic or Smucker’s. It can be paralyzing.

“We in the agency are at risk of a similar, collective paralysis in the face of a dizzying array of choices every single day,” the analyst wrote in 2011. “’Analysis paralysis’ isn’t only a cute rhyme. It’s the term for what happens when you spend so much time analyzing a situation that you ultimately stymie any outcome …. It’s what happens in SIGINT [signals intelligence] when we have access to endless possibilities, but we struggle to prioritize, narrow, and exploit the best ones.”

The document is one of about a dozen in which NSA intelligence experts express concerns usually heard from the agency’s critics: that the U.S. government’s “collect it all” strategy can undermine the effort to fight terrorism. The documents, provided to The Intercept by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, appear to contradict years of statements from senior officials who have claimed that pervasive surveillance of global communications helps the government identify terrorists before they strike or quickly find them after an attack.

The Patriot Act, portions of which expire on Sunday, has been used since 2001 to conduct a number of dragnet surveillance programs, including the bulk collection of phone metadata from American companies. But the documents suggest that analysts at the NSA have drowned in data since 9/11, making it more difficult for them to find the real threats. The titles of the documents capture their overall message: “Data Is Not Intelligence,” “The Fallacies Behind the Scenes,” “Cognitive Overflow?” “Summit Fever” and “In Praise of Not Knowing.” Other titles include “Dealing With a ‘Tsunami’ of Intercept” and “Overcome by Overload?” [Continue reading…]


ISIS alternates stick and carrot to control Palmyra

The New York Times reports: Hours after they swept into the Syrian city of Palmyra last week, Islamic State militants carried out scores of summary executions, leaving the bodies of victims — including dozens of government soldiers — in the streets.

Then, residents say, they set about acting like municipal functionaries. They fixed the power plant, turned on the water pumps, held meetings with local leaders, opened the city’s lone bakery and started distributing free bread. They planted their flag atop Palmyra’s storied ancient ruins, and did not immediately loot and destroy them, as they have done at other archaeological sites.

Next came dozens of Syrian government airstrikes, some killing civilians. That gave the Islamic State a political assist: Within days, some residents had redirected the immediate focus of their anger and fear from the militants on the ground to the warplanes overhead.

In Palmyra, the Islamic State group appears to be digging into power in a series of steps it has honed over two years of accumulating territory in Iraq and Syria.

But Palmyra presents a new twist: It is the first Syrian city the group has taken from the government, not from insurgents. In Raqqa, farther north, and in Iraq, the group has moved quickly and harshly against anyone perceived as a rival.

The Islamic State alternates between terrorizing residents and courting them. It takes over institutions. And it seeks to co-opt opposition to the government, painting itself as the champion of the people — or at least, the Sunnis — against oppressive central authorities. [Continue reading…]


Obama’s ISIS strategy: Something in preference to nothing

The Daily Beast reports: The self-proclaimed Islamic State has claimed a major provincial capital in Iraq and taken over another strategically key city in Syria. In response, the Obama administration plans to do — well, not much of anything new.

Four defense officials told The Daily Beast that there’s still strong resistance within the Obama administration to making any serious changes to the current strategy for fighting ISIS — despite mounting skepticism from some in the Pentagon about the current U.S. approach to the war.

Although the Obama administration’s public messaging is that it still wants to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS, in reality, many in the Pentagon view the real objective as just running out the clock.

“I think this is driven by a sense that this not our fight and so we are just going to try to contain it and have influence where we can,” one official who works closely on the military strategy explained to The Daily Beast. “This is a long fight, and it will be up to the next administration to tackle.”

Rather than aiming for a decisive victory, the U.S. approach has devolved into simply maintaining a low boil in perpetuity.

They said they realize that the political strategy supersedes the military one; there is no public appetite for ground troops in Iraq; there is frustration about corruption within the Iraqi government; and there is a lack of a clear alternative approach.

“It’s a political response,” one official explained. “They are doing ‘something’ to inoculate themselves from substantial criticism.”

Some are more blunt, saying no one wants to invest too much time or resources in crafting an alternative. [Continue reading…]


Khorasan: Syria’s mysterious ‘strangers with horses’

The Guardian reports: In Idlib province, they are known as “the strangers with the horses”. Among the senior ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra, they are referred to as “our friends”. In Europe and the US, the small band of jihadis is known by the contentious name “Khorasan” and blamed for hatching plots to attack the west.

All seem to agree on one thing: just what the highly secretive group is up to in northern Syria remains one of the civil war’s enduring mysteries. This week, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra claimed there was no such group as Khorasan and said he had been directed by al-Qaida’s central leadership to concentrate his group’s energies on Syria.

Abu Mohamed al-Jolani’s remarks, in an interview with al-Jazeera, were the first time that al-Nusra – a jihadi organisation with links to al-Qaida and a formidable player in the Syrian war – had addressed the issue of Khorasan, which the US accuses of collaborating with al-Nusra to target western interests outside of Syria.

The remarks were immediately rejected by western officials and residents of Idlib. Two senior Islamists with close links to al-Nusra have also outlined to the Guardian in recent weeks their understanding of Khorasan’s intent and its close ties to homegrown jihadi groups.

“Until recently they wanted nothing to do with the Syrian war,” said one ranking official. “They only wanted to use Syria as a stadium for whatever they were up to elsewhere.

“But that’s different now. In the attack on Idlib city they played a direct role. They co-ordinated most of the dangerous attacks. Without them, Idlib would not have fallen.”

The claim that Khorasan had played a direct role in helping jihadi and mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition seize a major city marks the first time that any official has been prepared to acknowledge working alongside the group. “They are a very big secret, you know,” the official said. “They work directly for [al-Qaida leader Ayman] al-Zawahiri.”

Until recently, all residents and jihadis interviewed by the Guardian had painted a picture of a remote and impenetrable outfit that kept entirely to itself and whose members regularly moved to avoid US air strikes. [Continue reading…]


Nusra leader: Group’s target is Assad regime, not minorities or the West

Al Jazeera reports: The leader of the Nusra Front, one of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, has said that his group’s main mission is to dislodge the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and that it has no agenda to target the West unless provoked.

“We are only here to accomplish one mission, to fight the regime and its agents on the ground, including Hezbollah and others,” Abu Mohammed al-Golani said in an exclusive interview aired on Al Jazeera on Wednesday.

“Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the US or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime. Maybe al-Qaeda does that but not here in Syria,” he said.

But his statements did include a warning against the US over its attacks on the armed group, which has been blacklisted a “terrorist organisation” by the US.

“Our options are open when it comes to targeting the Americans if they will continue their attacks against us in Syria. Everyone has the right to defend themselves,” he said in an interview with the Doha-based network. [Continue reading…]

The Wall Street Journal reports: When a Muslim cleric criticized the Nusra Front last year for taking over his Syrian city and raising its menacing black flags, a representative of the jihadist group took to Facebook to send him an ominous message.

“Oh secularist, oh infidel,” the note read. “Sit quietly or your time will come.”

Yet when wider protests over Nusra’s draconian practices and rigid religious views soon followed in cleric Murhaf Shaarawi’s home city of Maraat Numan and elsewhere in Idlib province, the group took note. It curbed its threats to clerics and its attempts to spread its brand of Islam, said Mr. Shaarawi and other current and former residents of the province.

The response to public pressure underscores how Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that is designated a terrorist group by the U.S., the U.K. and Turkey, in recent months has introduced a measure of constraint and conciliation into areas of Syria where it operates, the residents said. It is even sometimes doing so alongside Western-backed rebel factions.

That has put it at odds with its main jihadist rival, Islamic State. While both groups seek to establish a state governed by a strict reading of Islam, Islamic State has relied on violence or the threat of violence to achieve that goal. Nusra, on the other hand, is seeking to win a degree of consent from those it rules and has voiced an interest in governing with other rebel groups.

Nusra, one of the strongest rebel factions fighting President Bashar al-Assad, hasn’t lost its reputation for brutality. Syrian rights groups point to a litany of abuses against civilians since Nusra was formed more than three years ago, including disappearances and summary executions for alleged blasphemy and collaboration.

Still, the group appears to have started easing some its most unpopular religious edicts, not least its ban on the sale and smoking of cigarettes—an especially reviled measure in a country where a majority of men smoke.

It has also stopped requiring women to cover their faces and wear floor-length robes, and has moved to punish some fighters for harassing or assaulting civilians, a resident of Maraat Numan said. [Continue reading…]


Planned assault on Ramadi could play right into ISIS’s hands

Michael Weiss writes: The Obama administration is being slammed from all sides for its failing strategy against ISIS — and rightly so. But amid all the scorn, one question has yet to be asked about the resiliency of the terror army, which, actually goes to the heart of its decade-old war doctrine. Namely: does ISIS actually win even when it loses?

This isn’t an academic issue. America’s allies in the ISIS war are gearing up for a major counteroffensive against the extremist group. That assault that could very well play right into ISIS’ hands.

Having superimposed its self-styled “caliphate” over a good third of Iraq’s territory, in control of two provincial capitals, ISIS is today in strongest position it has ever been for fomenting the kind of sectarian conflagration its founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, envisioned as far back as 2004.

Zarqawi’s end-game was simple: by waging merciless atrocities against Iraq’s Shia majority population (and any Sunnis seen to be conspiring with it), Zarqawi’s jihadists would have only to stand back and watch as radicalized Shia militias, many of whose members also served in various Iraqi government and security roles, conducted their own retaliatory campaigns against the country’s Sunni minority. Internecine conflict would have the knock-on effect of driving Sunnis desperately into the jihadist fold, whether or not they sympathized with the ideology of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi’s franchise and the earliest incarnation of what we now call the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]


ISIS releases footage of Palmyra and says ‘we will preserve’ the historic city

The Guardian reports: Islamic State has released new footage depicting unscathed ruins in the Syrian city of Palmyra, and activists say the group has promised to spare much of the ancient site and only destroy statues deemed polytheistic – raising hopes that some of the most magnificent surviving ruins of antiquity may remain intact.

But the human toll of the conflict increased as president Bashar al-Assad’s air force responded to the loss of Palmyra with an unforgiving air campaign that killed more than a dozen civilians on Monday and appears to have triggered a fresh humanitarian crisis in the area.

The air strikes came after the regime abandoned Palmyra and most of its civilians with Isis at the city gates, after initially saying it had evacuated non-combatants.

Activists and a monitoring group said Isis had used the majestic Roman theatre in Palmyra to execute nearly two dozen pro-Assad foreign fighters on Wednesday. The group held nearly 600 prisoners that Isis said fought alongside the regime. More than 200 people have been killed since the Isis offensive in the area began in mid-May. [Continue reading…]


EU dropped pesticide laws due to U.S. pressure over TTIP, documents reveal

The Guardian reports: EU moves to regulate hormone-damaging chemicals linked to cancer and male infertility were shelved following pressure from US trade officials over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free trade deal, newly released documents show.

Draft EU criteria could have banned 31 pesticides containing endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). But these were dumped amid fears of a trade backlash stoked by an aggressive US lobby push, access to information documents obtained by Pesticides Action Network (PAN) Europe show.

On 26 June 2013, a high-level delegation from the American Chambers of Commerce (AmCham) visited EU trade officials to insist that the bloc drop its planned criteria for identifying EDCs in favour of a new impact study. [Continue reading…]


Switzerland to probe claims it was spied on by NSA and Germany’s BND

IntelNews: The office of the Swiss Federal Prosecutor has launched an investigation into claims that the country’s largest telecommunications provider was spied on by a consortium of German and American intelligence agencies. The spy project was reportedly a secret collaboration between Germany’s BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst) and America’s National Security Agency (NSA). According to Austrian politician Peter Pilz, who made the allegations on Wednesday, the BND-NSA collaboration was codenamed EIKONAL and was active from 2005 to 2008. Speaking during a press conference in Bern, Switzerland, Pilz said many European phone carriers and Internet service providers were targeted by the two agencies.

Among EIKONAL’s targets, said Pilz, was Swisscom AG, Switzerland’s largest telecommunications provider and one of the successor companies to the country’s national carrier, the PTT (short for Post, Telegraph, Telephone). The government of Switzerland still retains a majority of Swisscom shares, which makes the Bern-based company the closest thing Switzerland has to a national telecommunications carrier. Under the EIKONAL agreement, the BND accessed Swisscom traffic through an interception center based in Frankfurt, Germany. From there, said Pilz, the intercepted data was transferred to a BND facility in Bad Aibling to be entered into NSA’s systems. Pilz shared numerous documents at the press conference, among them a list of key transmission lines that included nine Swisscom lines originating from Zurich and Geneva.


Saudis reflect on the extremism and sectarianism being fueled inside their own mosques

Hassan Hassan writes: The role of clerics in stoking tensions is again under scrutiny in Saudi Arabia. ISIL’s suicide bombing inside a Shia mosque in Al Qudeeh on May 23 has triggered an important debate in the kingdom that should not be missed.

Last year, a similar debate following ISIL’s takeover of Mosul and the subsequent carnage committed in the name of Islam, led many activists in Saudi Arabia to question the roots of such acts. For example, Saudi commentator Ibrahim Al Shaalan tweeted: “ISIL’s actions are but an epitome of what we’ve studied in our school curriculum. If the curriculum is sound, then ISIL is right, and if it is wrong, then who bears responsibility?”

After last weekend’s attack, similar questions have been raised. A day after the bombing, Tariq Al Hamid, a prominent Saudi writer, criticised the sectarian incitement that still spewed in schools and at the pulpit. He said: “What needs to be said, especially after the Al Qudeeh terrorist attack that targeted Saudi Shia nationals, is that the educational, religious, cultural and media discourse in Saudi Arabia must be changed … through laws and regulations. Reform must punish incitement in all forms, at traditional and other pulpits.”

Al Hamid added that reform would prevent a “fertile ground that turns young Saudis into fodder in any battle” taking place in the region. He said that attacks target both Sunnis and Shia in the country, citing the ISIL cell recently uncovered by Saudi authorities, which targeted security officers. Equally important, he echoed a rare admonition of the kingdom’s top clerics by the late King Abdullah about the failure of religious and media figures at speaking out against extremists.

Saudi Gazette’s editor was similarly candid in an article titled “Sectarian divide threatens national security”. He criticised clerics who he said spewed hatred and spread falsehood. “The perpetrators of these murderous acts are driven by an insane ideology disseminated by self-appointed clerics,” he wrote. “For too long, we have kept quiet as they used the mosques, the media … to spread their evil philosophy.” [Continue reading…]


Islamist fighters drawn from half the world’s countries, says UN

The Guardian reports: More than half the countries in the world are currently generating Islamist extremist fighters for groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State, the UN has said.

A report by the UN security council says there are more than 25,000 “foreign terrorist fighters” currently involved in jihadi conflicts and they are “travelling from more than 100 member states”.

The number of fighters may have increased by more than 70% worldwide in the past nine months or so, the report says, adding that they “pose an “immediate and long-term [terrorist] threat”.

The sudden rise, though possibly explained by better data, will raise concern about the apparently growing appeal of extremism. The geographic spread of states touched by the phenomenon has expanded, too. [Continue reading…]


Why are the ISIS commanders so much better than the Iraqi Army?

Foreign Policy reports: One reason for the imbalance is military skill and commitment to the fight: the Iraqi security forces that are taking the field are facing off against battle-hardened officers trained under Saddam Hussein who have spent the past 12 years moving in and out of Anbar Province fighting both American and Shiite-led Iraqi forces.

Those former officers, in turn, have been given relative freedom to operate, with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delegating command responsibility to his field commanders, said Ahmed Ali, a senior fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, a Washington based nonprofit that develops programs to help Iraqi youth. Having grown up in the Sunni heartland of Anbar, these leaders understand the terrain very well, “and their level of intelligence collection is straight out of the Baath Party playbook. Very precise, very personal,” Ali said.

The ISIS commanders, Ali said, also know the province’s tribes and social structures, helping the group identify which it can be co-opted and which would need to be defeated militarily.

The Islamic State’s advantages on the battlefield represent a long-term unintended byproduct of the U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003 after Saddam Hussein’s regime melted away. A generation of Sunni military expertise was essentially turned out onto the streets and eventually lost to the insurgency. The situation worsened in recent years when then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government purged even more experienced Sunni commanders from the security forces and promoted less capable Shiite officers and commanders.

For years, Maliki’s Shiite-led army and police acted as a sectarian militia, brutally suppressing Sunni leadership and taking orders directly from the prime minister, who appointed loyalists and consolidated all military decision making in his own office. Many Sunnis, furious at their treatment, began coalescing around the tribal militias and Islamist groups that eventually evolved into the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]


Pentagon slams ‘unhelpful’ Shi’ite codename for Ramadi offensive

Reuters: The Pentagon on Tuesday said it was “unhelpful” for Iraq’s Shi’ite militia to have announced an openly sectarian code name for the operation to retake the Sunni city of Ramadi and added that, in the U.S. view, the full-on offensive had yet to begin.

A spokesman for the Shi’ite militias, known as Hashid Shaabi, said the code name for the new operation would be “Labaik ya Hussein”, a slogan in honor of a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed killed in the 7th Century battle that led to the schism between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

The United States has been vocally advocating for Iraq to tread carefully in employing Shi’ite militias to help Iraqi forces retake the city, which fell to the Islamic State a week ago in Baghdad’s biggest military setback in nearly a year.


With help from ISIS, a more deadly Boko Haram makes a comeback

The Daily Beast reports: The Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, after some much heralded reversals on the battlefield, has made a dangerous comeback, unleashing female suicide bombers, carrying out a series of deadly attacks, and seizing a highly strategic town.

Having fled the larger part of their stronghold in Sambisa forest, the sect’s soldiers regrouped in Marte, a town 112 kilometers north of Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s embattled northeastern Borno state. Although government officials say Marte was seized last Friday, local sources have confirmed that the militants began to occupy the town at the end of April.

“They [Boko Haram] have been in Marte for a long time strategizing,” said a local community member. “They came in large numbers last month, but more members recently joined following the offensive in Sambisa forest by the military.”

This is the fourth time Boko Haram has seized control of Marte, a key battleground for their six-year insurgency. The town is among several retaken in recent weeks by Nigeria’s military. Sources said on Saturday that the insurgents have hoisted their flags on the recaptured territory, and have been coordinating attacks from there.

All this comes amid reports that Boko Haram may be receiving training from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, which operates in Iraq and Syria. A group called the Mosul Youth Resistance Movement, apparently formed to fight ISIS in and around the major Iraqi city it conquered almost a year ago, killed five Boko Haram members there, according to the Iraqi Kurdish website BasNews. Saed Mamuzini, spokesperson for the Kurdish Democratic Party, is quoted saying, “The Nigerian Boko Haram militants were in Mosul to take part in a military training course conducted by Islamic State.” [Continue reading…]


Gaza: Palestinians tortured, summarily killed by Hamas forces during 2014 conflict

Amnesty International: Hamas forces carried out a brutal campaign of abductions, torture and unlawful killings against Palestinians accused of “collaborating” with Israel and others during Israel’s military offensive against Gaza in July and August 2014, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

‘Strangling Necks’: Abduction, torture and summary killings of Palestinians by Hamas forces during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict highlights a series of abuses, such as the extrajudicial execution of at least 23 Palestinians and the arrest and torture of dozens of others, including members and supporters of Hamas’s political rivals, Fatah.

“It is absolutely appalling that, while Israeli forces were inflicting massive death and destruction upon the people in Gaza, Hamas forces took the opportunity to ruthlessly settle scores, carrying out a series of unlawful killings and other grave abuses,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.


Why Obama changed course on the ‘red line’ in Syria

Frontline: In August of 2013, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus was attacked with sarin gas — a nerve agent that causes lung muscle paralysis and results in death from suffocation.

The attack killed 1,400 men, women and children, and at the White House, officials asserted “with high confidence” that the government of Bashar al-Assad was responsible.

One year earlier, President Barack Obama had described Assad’s potential use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” and “change my calculus” on American military intervention in Syria’s civil war.

When Assad appeared to cross that line, Obama ordered the Pentagon to prepare to attack.

“Our finger was on the trigger,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith in Tuesday’s new documentary, Obama at War. “We had everything in place and we were just waiting for instructions to proceed.”

But as FRONTLINE details in the below excerpt from Obama at War, the president had second thoughts. [Continue reading…]