Syria Special: Chemical Weapons Conspiracy That Wasn’t — Hersh’s “Exclusive” Dissected
This week Seymour Hersh — the investigative reporter who broke the My Lai story and reported on Watergate before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein picked up the trail — splashed a dramatic exclusive in the London Review of Books, “Whose Sarin?”
Hersh effectively claims that the Obama Administration lied when it said it had intelligence about the Assad regime’s responsibility for the August 21 chemical weapons attacks near Damascus. He then implies that the insurgents are really the culprits, as the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra and possibly the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham had “worked with” the nerve agent.
It’s a dramatic and important story, if it was well-researched, well-supported, and well-developed.
Hersh’s argument is based on only four arguments:
1. The Morning Report, a daily summary of important military events for a select group of high-level US officials, did not mention Syria or chemical weapons attacks on August 20, 21, or 22. Thus the US was not concerned with the possibility of an assault or even with its immediate aftermath.
2. US intelligence services have a secret sensor system inside Syria to pick up indications of the movement of chemical warheads and their loading with sarin. According to Hersh, those sensors reported nothing before August 21.
3. One of the rockets carrying the chemical weapons, identified by United Nations inspectors in their September report, was an “improvised munition that was very likely manufactured locally”, according to one of Hersh’s sources.
4. US intelligence services reported in late May and June that Jabhat al-Nusra was working with sarin and that the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham “understood the science of producing sarin”.
CHERRY-PICKING EVIDENCE: WHAT HERSH DOESN’T BOTHER TO MENTION
Before considering Hersh’s four points, it is important to note what he does NOT consider:
MULTIPLE ATTACKS AGAINST AT LEAST 7 SITES ACROSS EAST & WEST GHOUTA
The reporter does not take into account that multiple sites, not just one, were hit with chemical agents on August 21. Reports on the day and subsequently indicated that 7-12 sites were attacked with chemical agents at the same time. In other words, whoever was responsible for the attacks launched multiple surface-to-surface rockets with chemical payloads against opposition-held towns in East Ghouta and one town in West Ghouta, near Damascus.
These attacks were immediately followed by very heavy conventional attacks.
This map, posted by activists, shows the areas hit by the chemical weapons.
A report by Human Rights Watch includes a map showing the impact sites of 12 330mm chemical munitions in the Zamalka area of East Ghouta alone.
In omitting these details from his argument, Hersh does not bother to ask who would have had the capability and the capacity to carry out such a widespread operation against multiple, opposition-held targets at the same time.
Hersh also does not examine how insurgents could fire multiple chemical warheads on opposition-controlled towns like the West Ghouta Moadamiyyat ash-Sham. That town, one of the first places that started to demonstrate against the Assad regime over two years ago, has been under a tight regime siege for over a year and is literally surrounded by key regime military strongholds. It is right next to the Mezzeh Military Airport, the site of fierce fighting between regime and insurgent fighters, and just south of the 4th Armored Division base, Sumarieh residences, and key police housing. So while it is easy to see how regime forces could fire on Moadamiyyat ash-Sham from outside the town — indeed, the regime is firing conventional weapons at the town on a daily basis — it would be practically and logistically impossible for insurgents to fire at short-to-medium range from outside the town.
Nor does Hersh bother to examine motive. Why would insurgents fire multiple chemical weapons at Moadamiyyat ash-Sham, a strategically-important opposition-controlled town that had resisted a siege for almost a year at the time of the August 21 attacks? Who would want to weaken the town by causing mass casualties and mass panic?
SEVERAL MUNITIONS, NOT JUST ONE, WERE USED TO HIT MULTIPLE TARGETS
By omitting to mention that that August 21 chemical attacks hit multiple sites, Hersh is able to leave out another salient fact — that not one, but several rockets were deployed.
The UN report notes that, “Information gathered about the delivery systems used was essential for the investigation. Indeed, several surface to surface rockets capable of delivering significant chemical payloads were identified and recorded at the investigated sites.”
Hersh has no real excuse — beyond his need to cherry-pick to make his conspiracy theory stick — to omit this detail, as the UN inspectors say they “carefully measured, photographed and sampled” several of the rockets and rocket fragments from two sites.
One ordnance found and analysed by the UN team in the opposition-controlled town of Moadamiyya, West Ghouta (which is surrounded by regime military bases) was detailed in the UN report as having engravings in Cyrillic on the bottom ring of the engine.
A munition linked to one impact site in Zamalka in East Ghouta was reported as “indicatively matches one of the variants of the M14 artillery rocket”. The warhead was not observed at the impact site and was surmised to have been “either an original or an improvised warhead”. A munition linked to another impact site in Zamalka was described as “by observed and measured characteristics indicatively matches a 330 mm caliber, artillery rocket”.
WHO ARE HERSH’S SOURCES AND HOW RELIABLE ARE THEY?
Hersh claims that his work is drawn from “an awful lot of people in the government who just were really very, very upset with the way the information about the gas attack took place”, but he bases his argument on information from only three (possibly two) sources. These are: an unnamed “senior intelligence consultant”, an unnamed “former senior intelligence official” (it is not possible to tell whether these are the same individual), and Theodore Postol, named as a “professor of technology and national security at MIT”.
It is impossible to know for sure, of course, who unnamed former officials are, but it there is a high likelihood based on the information given that the “former senior intelligence official” is F. Michael Maloof, a former staffer in the Undersecretary of State of Defense’s office in the George W. Bush Administration.
Here is Hersh’s passage on Islamist factions handling chemical toxins:
By late May, the senior intelligence consultant told me, the CIA had briefed the Obama administration on al-Nusra and its work with sarin, and had sent alarming reports that another Sunni fundamentalist group active in Syria, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), also understood the science of producing sarin. At the time, al-Nusra was operating in areas close to Damascus, including Eastern Ghouta. An intelligence document issued in mid-summer dealt extensively with Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, who was said to have moved into Syria and to be operating in Eastern Ghouta. The consultant told me that Tariq had been identified ‘as an al-Nusra guy with a track record of making mustard gas in Iraq and someone who is implicated in making and using sarin’. He is regarded as a high-profile target by the American military.
And here is Maloof writing on the right-wing website WorldNet Daily in mid-September:
In a classified document just obtained by WND, the U.S. military confirms that sarin was confiscated earlier this year from members of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, the most influential of the rebel Islamists fighting in Syria.
The document says sarin from al-Qaida in Iraq made its way into Turkey and that while some was seized, more could have been used in an attack last March on civilians and Syrian military soldiers in Aleppo.
The document, classified Secret/Noforn – “Not for foreign distribution” – came from the U.S. intelligence community’s National Ground Intelligence Center, or NGIC, and was made available to WND Tuesday.
It revealed that AQI had produced a “bench-scale” form of sarin in Iraq and then transferred it to Turkey.
A U.S. military source said there were a number of interrogations as well as some clan reports as part of what the document said were “50 general indicators to monitor progress and characterize the state of the ANF/AQI-associated Sarin chemical warfare agent developing effort.”
“This (document) depicts our assessment of the status of effort at its peak – primarily research and procurement activities – when disrupted in late May 2013 with the arrest of several key individuals in Iraq and Turkey,” the document said.
“Future reporting of indicators not previously observed would suggest that the effort continues to advance despite the arrests,” the NGIC document said.
Maloof repeated his claim six days later on Russia Today, which had campaigned for weeks to link the insurgents to the August 21 attacks.
This, however, was far from the first time that Maloof had condemned the insurgency as foreign-supported terrorists linked to Al Qa’eda. In March, he denounced a lifting of the European arms embargo on the insurgency, telling Iran’s Press TV:
They have no guarantee into which hands these arms will go. We’ve got al-Nusra leading the charge with the rebels up there in Damascus and they’re very, very powerful and they’re the ones that are al-Qaeda related and they’re probably going to gain the arms and there would be no control over who gets them, how they’re going to be used.
If Hersh’s main source is Maloof — which fits the public assertions — there is a telling irony. Condemning the Obama Administration’s “cherry-picking” of intelligence over Syria, Hersh compares it to the Bush Administration’s selection of “evidence” on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
That selection of raw intelligence was taken over in 2002 by Undersecretary of State Douglas Feith’s office — of which F. Michael Maloof was a key member.
Hersh is on less controversial ground when he uses Postol as an appeal to authority over the rockets. However, in the attempt to dismiss the report of the UN weapons inspectors, Postol — or at least Hersh’s citation of the source — gives the false impression that the UN inspectors only found and analysed a single rocket.
The one rocket, Hersh has Postol lead us to believe, “fails to match the specifications of a similar but smaller rocket known to be in the Syrian arsenal”.
Postol claims that the maximum range of the rocket was 2 kilometers, suggesting it could only have been fired from insurgent-held territory.
Eliot Higgins (“Brown Moses”), the closest observer of the Assad regime’s use of munitions, has written this morning that the two rockets found by the UN were a Soviet M14 140 mm artillery rocket — held only by Syrian forces — and a “Volcano”, also used by pro-regime units.
Higgins also counter Postol’s claim on the range of the Volcano. He says, from conversation with Postol’s co-author Richard Lloyd, that the rocket can travel up to 2.5 kilometers, putting its launch site within Damascus suburbs seized by the regime in June 2013.
Even if one accepts Postol’s partial critique, there is a further problem. The claims exist publicly only because of Hersh’s revelation of an e-mail exchange. In contrast to the UN findings and the considerations of other close observers, such as Higgins, Postol and co-author Richard Lloyd have not published their latest study projecting the range and flight path of the rocket — presumably because, as Hersh reveals, they have been trying to get the New York Times to print a summary of the study.
WHAT ABOUT HERSH’S ARGUMENTS?
Obama Administration’s Intelligence Before and After the Attacks
Hersh’s supposed dramatic revelation that the daily Military Report did not mention the chemical weapons issue in Syria from August 20 through August 22 is little more than a red herring.
Key developments in intelligence are summarized in memoranda such as the President’s Daily Brief.
Nor does Hersh’s lengthy exposition on the secret sensors “proof” that there was no movement of chemical stocks and munitions by the regime before the attacks. It is based on an assumption that the system was 100% complete and 100% effective — a bit of a stretch in the real world.
But, in fact, the sensors may have worked. Indeed, if you pick apart Hersh’s story, you will find the “truth” that he struggles to deny: US intelligence agencies had some information about the regime’s chemical activities — the problem lay in communicating and interpreting that intelligence. From the Wall Street Journal, after a lengthy investigation, on November 23:
As Syrian troops battled rebel forces in the Damascus suburbs Aug. 18, U.S. eavesdropping equipment began picking up ominous signals.
A special Syrian unit that handles chemical weapons was ordered closer to the front lines, officials briefed on the intelligence say, and started mixing poisons. For two days, warning signs mounted until coded messages went out for the elite team to bring in the “big ones” and put on gas masks.
U.S. intelligence agencies didn’t translate the intercepts into English right away, so White House officials didn’t know what the Syrian regime was planning until the assault began.
The significance of those intercepts would only come out after the attacks, as the US Government conducted a review. Hersh refers to that review — “Once the scale of events on 21 August was understood, the NSA [National Security Agency] mounted a comprehensive effort to search for any links to the attack” — but for him, it is not the logical quest to ascertain what had occurred. Instead, it is an attempt to the Obama Administration to set up Assad as the villain.
Doing so, Hersh casts aside a compelling argument: namely, that problems of communication within the Obama Administration prevented a US response to deter the attacks. He cites Razan Zaitouneh, “It’s unbelievable they did nothing to warn people or try to stop the regime before the crime,” but quickly moves on.
Why? Because Hersh’s acceptance that the US had intelligence pointing to an attack but failed to act on it would undermine his real effort: to absolve the Assad regime and blame the insurgency.
The Casualties and the Rockets
Hersh’s cherry-picking and distortion of the evidence around the chemical weapons — discussed above — is compounded by serious questions of his handling of casualty figures. He asserts:
The number of deaths attributable to the attack varied widely, from at least 1429, as initially claimed by the Obama administration, to many fewer. A Syrian human rights group reported 502 deaths; Médicins sans Frontières put it at 355; and a French report listed 281 known fatalities. The strikingly precise US total was later reported by the Wall Street Journal to have been based not on an actual body count, but on an extrapolation by CIA analysts, who scanned more than a hundred YouTube videos from Eastern Ghouta into a computer system and looked for images of the dead. In other words, it was little more than a guess.
There are enough errors in this one paragraph to put a question mark over the entire article.
1. Hersh does not name the “Syrian human rights group”, which might alert astute readers to his sleight-of-hand. (It’s likely to be the lowest figure by the organization claiming to hold casualty figures — in this case, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.)
The most detailed study of the casualties, carried out since August 21 and continuing, is by the Violations Documentation Center — who only “confirm” a death when they have verified information from a medical source or multiple witnesses. Their latest total is 950, but it is likely to be conservative, given that some bodies were not recovered or were buried quickly.
2. Médicins sans Frontières never claimed that “355” was the total number of deaths. They said, in the days after the attack, that it was the total from three field hospital with whom their personnel had worked in the past. There were far more field hospitals that MSF could not or did not access.
3. The “French report” is probably based on the French Government’s initial claim of at least 281 deaths, which was based on the MSF findings (Paris later revised the total to 355, matching MSF).
4. The Obama Administration’s “striking precise” claim of “at least 1429” was probably based on the information put out by the opposition Local Coordination Committees. There was a slight error, however — LCC put out 1429 as the total number of deaths across Syria on August 21, of which about 1360 were in East Ghouta and West Ghouta.
The Insurgency and Sarin
Apart from the claim which appear to be based on — or at least closely parallel — F. Michael Maloof, Hersh appears to be recycling a story from May.
Initially, it was reported that 12 men allegedly affiliated to Jabhat al-Nusra had been detained in Turkey for possession of sarin. However, six were quickly released, and Turkish authorities soon said that the other six suspects had chemical which might be used to make sarin — and not the nerve agent itself.
The prosecution reiterated at the trial of the six in September that the charge was handling of precursors. At no point was it alleged, let alone proven, that the six had the facilities or the know-how to make sarin — and definitely not on the scale of the toxins used on August 21.
A source adds another key point:
In areas where they have no significant presence, Jabhat al-Nusra sometimes has small teams for networking and reconnaissance, but as far as I know, they did not have strength in the areas hit on August 21.
Rest assured, Jabhat al-Nusra did not hit civilians on that day.
Hersh adds the allegation that “Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, …moved into Syria and [was] operating in Eastern Ghouta”. Hersh’s intelligence consultant, who may or may not be Maloof, added that Tariq Ahmad had been identified “as an al-Nusra guy with a track record of making mustard gas in Iraq and someone who is implicated in making and using sarin”.
Hersh pronounces, “[He] is regarded as a high-profile target by the American military.”
So high-profile that a search does not reveal any information whatsoever about “Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed”.
Sometimes a story is not what is true, but what the author — and his sources — want to be true. As Hersh tries to conclude with a flourish:
While the Syrian regime continues the process of eliminating its chemical arsenal, the irony is that, after Assad’s stockpile of precursor agents is destroyed, al-Nusra and its Islamist allies could end up as the only faction inside Syria with access to the ingredients that can create sarin, a strategic weapon that would be unlike any other in the war zone.
There is one statement of fact in that sentence: after carrying out the August 21 attacks, the Assad regime — primarily to avoid military retaliation and/or political setback — committed itself to a handover of its remaining chemical stocks.
But the rest of the sentence is polemic, not information. Hersh’s article is based on suspect, unnamed sources and precious little examination of the evidence — the real evidence — that has accumulated since August 21.
When the WorldNet Daily publishes this type of story, it is regarded as the propaganda of a right-wing, conspiracy-chasing outlet. Should a famed investigative reporter be exempt from that same verdict?