By Barbara Starr
Even as the U.S. administration dismisses military action against the Syrian regime, a major effort is now under way to collect all possible intelligence on the plans and operations of the Damascus regime, two administration officials tell CNN.
"There is an obvious focus on developing intelligence," one official told CNN.
"People are talking about how we can get more," a second official said.
Both declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the efforts under way.
Gathering intelligence on Syria is now a top priority for the U.S. intelligence community, the officials said. Israeli and Jordanian intelligence services are also deeply interested in the same intelligence and assisting and conducting their own operations where they can, according to a third U.S. source with knowledge of the intelligence-gathering efforts.
That source, along with others, has also confirmed the United States is monitoring and intercepting the communications of key Syrian officials and operatives, though the American official could not say whether Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's own communications were being intercepted. Communications intercepts are one of the most secretive operations for the U.S. intelligence community, even though the United States knows the Syrians are well aware of that technology.
It's not just the Syrian government that U.S. intelligence is focused on, according to the third official. Washington also is working to intercept communications of operatives of al Qaeda in Iraq who are now in Syria and who U.S. intelligence believes are part of a network of AQI operatives responsible for recent attacks in the country.
The source said the latest intelligence clearly indicates small groups of AQI operatives have been "pushed into Syria" by their commanders and are able to carry out intelligence and reconnaissance against Syrian targets, and subsequent bombing attacks.
The first indication of the U.S. intelligence campaign came last week with the release by the State Department of low-resolution imagery showing Syrian forces in and around cities where civilians had been attacked. Officials acknowledged to CNN that there is higher-resolution classified imagery showing the situation in great detail.
This capability is allowing the United States to monitor the movement of Syrian forces, assess their command-and-control units, their air defenses, the security of their chemical and biological facilities, and their ability to resupply their troops.
"We can see a crack on your sidewalk," another official said of the imagery capabilities.
By releasing the images, the Obama administration itself took the first public step to making it clear to al- Assad that the U.S. intelligence community is gathering independent evidence of what his regime is doing.