The deployment, confirmed by Panetta to CBS Radio News correspondent Cami McCormick aboard a flight from Afghanistan to Turkey, is part of a NATO effort to help shield Turkey from any missiles fired by Syria, and it came as the defense chief said for the first time that previous intelligence indicated the Syrian regime was "very serious about potentially using" chemical weapons.
CBS News correspondent David Martin was told by senior officials last week that monitoring of roughly two dozen bases where President Bashar Assad is believed to have chemical weapons stored indicated the regime had begun preparing the materials, including sarin gas, for use. Satellites had seen trucks moving among the bunkers where the weapons and agents are believed to be stored. U.S. officials told Martin the evidence was strong, but circumstantial -- not definitive.
Friday was the first time Panetta himself had addressed the specific intelligence indicating Syria's chemical weapons preparations, telling McCormick, "we had intelligence they (Syrian forces) were in fact beginning to assemble the weapons for the use of sarin gas."
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"Once you start mixing the material for that, the next step then is ultimately to use those weapons," said Panetta. "The fact that they took that step is a clear indication that they were very serious about potentially using them."The defense chief said on Tuesday, however, that the intelligence indicating the preparation of Syria's chemical weapons had, "really kind of leveled off," and that there had not been "anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward in that way."
Panetta told McCormick on Friday that his remarks earlier in the week did not reflect a reassessment of the previous intelligence, only that there have been no new indications the regime is planning to take that "next step."
Under the NATO agreement, the U.S., Germany and Netherlands will also deploy Patriot batteries. The New York Times reports the three nations will send two batteries each, for a total of six, and they will be under NATO's command. The newspaper says the batteries are scheduled to be operational by the end of January.
Earlier this month, NATO Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen told reporters, "Patriots are effective as interceptors against chemical weapons."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said NATO's decision to send the missiles to Turkey is meant to send a clear message to Syria that Turkey is backed by its allies.
Clinton said the Patriots are solely for defensive purposes. But she says Damascus should take the move as further evidence of the resolve of the U.S. and its allies.
NATO is concerned that Syrian President Bashar Assad could order that missiles be fired into Turkey if his regime's position weakens enough as the civil war in his nation continues.