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Failed Foley Rescue Reveals Challenges Faced By U.S. Intelligence

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More details are coming out about a U.S. military rescue operation earlier this summer to free American hostages in Syria. The group included James Foley, the journalist who was executed in a video released this week by Islamist militants. The mission failed. The hostages weren't where U.S. officials thought they would be. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said today that it wasn't a failure of intelligence.

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CHUCK HAGEL: The fact is, as you all know, intelligence doesn't come wrapped in a package with bow. It is a mosaic of many pictures. The underlining objective was to do everything we could, as the president has said, to rescue these hostages, knowing that their lives were in danger - clearly in danger.

CORNISH: NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is here to talk about the difficulty of getting good intelligence in Syria and the latest developments in this story. And Dina, what more did the Pentagon have to say about this attempted rescue operation?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, actually, not very much. The head of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, echoed the secretary of defense's assessment that even though the hostages weren't rescued, the mission went off with barely a hitch. It's just that when the special forces arrived, the hostages weren't there.

CORNISH: So they think that the hostages had been at that location and that they were moved?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, the intelligence had indicated that the hostages were being held at this oil refinery outside Raqqa, which is a militant stronghold in Syria. It's unclear if they were moved days before the operation or just hours earlier. But by the time the special forces arrived, as I said, they were gone. What's important to understand is that Syria is a particularly tough environment for the intelligence community. The U.S. doesn't really have much in the way of assets on the ground there. The U.S. is allied with the Free Syrian Army. That's the group that's fighting the Assad government. But they apparently provide very little in the way of really good intelligence. So instead, and the secretary of defense alluded to this, the intelligence community has to figure out what's going on by cobbling together information from cell phone calls, Internet traffic and the surveillance from overhead drones.

CORNISH: So given the challenges you've described here, how much can intelligence officials really learn with this kind of arm's-length collection of information?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the electronic communications weren't all they had. Intelligence officials also had two other streams of information - other hostages that the group had released after ransoms were paid and information from jihadis who had been fighting in Syria then went back to their home countries and then were interviewed by intelligence services after they returned. Those kinds of human sources don't provide real-time information, but I was told they provided really important context so that the intelligence community could interpret what they were seeing and hearing and also maybe what they were missing.

CORNISH: Well, what kind of context? I mean how closely were the hostages guarded - that sort of thing?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly - the kinds of places they were held, how many guards they typically had, how often they were moved. In fact, I've been told that as British intelligence started to zero in on this hooded man who killed Foley in the video, what former prisoners and jihadis told him was critical. Former hostages described three British members of the group who were among the guards assigned to them. Those three British-accented guards were such a figure during their captivity, that they actually nicknamed them John, Ringo and Paul after the Beatles. And one of those three who went by the name of John - they believe is the man who executed Foley in the video that was released this week.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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