By Jamie Crawford
A security vacuum over vast areas of Syria could allow extremists to access weapons of mass destruction, a top U.S. intelligence official said.
"The current instability in Syria presents a perfect opportunity for al Qaeda and associated groups," to acquire Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons that are scheduled to be destroyed," Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a Senate committee on Tuesday.
"There is a very real possibility that extremists in the Syrian opposition could overrun and exploit chemical and biological weapons storage facilities before all of these materials are removed," he said.
Flynn and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified on the worldwide threat situation before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
While calling the humanitarian situation in Syria an "apocalyptic disaster," Clapper said the estimated 7,500 foreign fighters in Syria, from as many as 50 countries, pose a significant security challenge.
"Among them are a small group al Qaida veterans (from Afghanistan and Pakistan) who have aspirations for external attack in Europe, if not the homeland itself."
And with the de-centralization of command within the al Qaeda structure, both officials offered sobering assessments of whether the organization was on a path to defeat.
"No, it is morphing and franchising itself and not only (in North Africa), but other parts of the world," Clapper said.
"They are not," Flynn added.
With ongoing support from Russia, Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and a splintered opposition movement, Clapper cautioned against any optimism for a near-term negotiated solution.
"I think what we are facing right now is kind of a prolonged stalemate."
There was also bipartisan rancor directed at the President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan for stalling on a bilateral security agreement with the United States along with a host of other security related issues.
"It's my own view, not necessarily company policy, is I don't believe President Karzai is going to sign," the agreement that would allow for a small number of U.S. forces to remain in the country beyond the current NATO mandate Clapper said.
"President Karzai, in my view, is singlehandedly destroying this relationship," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said of a decision by the Afghan government to release dozens of prisoners believed to be involved in terrorism.
"Actions like this make it very hard for an American politician to do business as usual in Afghanistan," he said.
Both Clapper and Flynn continued to stress the damage done to the intelligence community by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden whose leaks they contend have opened a window to terrorist organizations.
"We're beginning to see changes in the communications behavior of adversaries, particularly terrorists," Clapper said, while assessing Snowden had accessed over 1.7 million intelligence related documents. "A disturbing trend which I anticipate will continue."
"I have no doubt that [Snowden] has placed the men and women of our armed services at risk, and that his disclosures will cost lives on our future battlefields," Flynn said.