CAIRO (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicated on Wednesday that he was caught by surprise when Israeli officials publicly revealed their assessment that Syria has used chemical weapons in its civil war.
Hagel told reporters that his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Yaalon, did not alert him to the assessment when they met in Tel Aviv on Monday. The assessment was announced publicly on Tuesday by a senior official with Israel's military intelligence office.
"They did not give me that assessment; I guess it was not complete," Hagel said after several hours of meetings with senior Egyptian officials on the fourth stop of a week-long Mideast tour. "So I have not seen the specifics of it" or discussed it with Israeli officials.
He said he and Yaalon discussed the issue of Syria's chemical weapons, but Hagel would not elaborate further.
The Obama administration has said Syrian government use of chemical weapons would be a "game changer," implying that it might, if confirmed, compel the U.S. to get more directly involved in the civil conflict.
Hagel said that Washington is looking for "real intelligence" on the issue of Syrian chemical weapon use.
"Suspicions are one thing. Evidence is another," he said. "I think we have to be very careful here before we make any conclusions, draw any conclusions, based on real intelligence." He said his comments should not be interpreting as questioning the validity of other counties' intelligence on Syria. The important point, he said, is that "the United States relies on its own intelligence — and must."
After his meetings in Cairo, which included talks with President Mohammed Morsi and the Egyptian defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Hagel flew to Abu Dhabi on the Persian Gulf.
Hagel said his Cairo stop was important for reinforcing U.S. support for the Egyptian government's transition to democracy and its efforts at economic reform.
By including Cairo on his first Mideast tour as defense secretary, Hagel was highlighting the Obama administration's hope of preserving influence with the Egyptian military as the country struggles with its transition to democracy.
Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The U.S. is deeply concerned, however, that continued instability in Egypt will have broader consequences in a region already rocked by unrest, including in the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula.