Syria Special: There is No Chemical Weapons Conspiracy — Dissecting Hersh’s “Exclusive” on Insurgents Once More

Scott Lucas
By Scott Lucas April 7, 2014 10:57 Updated

Syria Special: There is No Chemical Weapons Conspiracy — Dissecting Hersh’s “Exclusive” on Insurgents Once More

UPDATE Syria Special: Identifying the Sources for Hersh’s “Insurgents’ Chemical Weapons Attacks”
Syria Special: Dissecting Hersh’s “Insurgents Did Chemical Weapons Attacks” — A Sequel

In December, 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 — tried to pin last August’s chemical weapons near Damascus on insurgents in an article for the London Review of Books, “Whose Sarin?”

Joanna Paraszczuk and I dissected the piece:

See Syria Special: Chemical Weapons Conspiracy That Wasn’t — Hersh’s “Exclusive” Dissected

1. Hersh’s allegations amounted to a red herring — a misleading claim about American “secret sensors” inside Syria — a deliberate or unwitting misunderstanding of casualty figures, and a dubious source, “a former senior intelligence official” who is possibly F. Michael Maloof, a staff member of the Department of Defense in the George W. Bush Administration.

2. To spin his conspiracy, Hersh ignored the bulk of evidence about the attacks, including the fact that several munitions were fired at multiple targets, the fact that insurgent-held areas were the sites affected, the nearby location of regime military bases, and the preparations for a regime ground offensive to follow the attacks.

This morning Hersh tries again, again given space by the London Review of Books, “The Red Line and the Rat Line“. Through a combination of “fact” and insinuation, he argues that the Obama Administration pulled back from military intervention after the attacks because it had discovered that insurgents — and Turkey — were likely to be responsible for a “false flag” operation to pull foreign powers into the Syrian conflict.

So has Hersh finally carried out genuine investigative reporting to prove his dramatic case?

No.

HERSH’S CASE

1. Hersh quietly drops two of the four claims in his December article: that the US initially ignored the chemical weapons attacks and that a US “secret sensor” system inside Syria had not picked up any evidence of regime movement before the August 21 assault.

2. Now Hersh argues that the US, far from ignoring the attack, was very concerned about it — “Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing”. However:

A. The Pentagon was concerned about the size of the operation.
B. The Obama Administration received an analysis from the British chemical warfare laboratory at Porton Down that “the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal”.

3. Hersh repeats his December claim that Jabhat al-Nusra was working with sarin in experiments for a chemical weapons attack.

4. The August 21 attack was “a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line”.

WHAT HERSH IGNORES

Hersh continues to ignore the detailed context, both from immediate witness reports and from months of enquiries. As we noted in Ddecember:

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….

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’S EVIDENCE

1. Hersh repeats his December claim of a Defense Intelligence Agency briefing, issued in June 2013, that said the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell.

It is unclear whether or not Hersh actually saw the briefing. His summary of it is remarkably similar to put out by F. Michael Maloof, the former Department of Defense official who claimed in September that insurgents had carried out the August 21 attacks.

2. An unnamed “person with knowledge of (United Nations) activities” who asserts that insurgents were responsible for a March 2013 chemical weapons attack that killed 26 people in Khan al-Assal in Aleppo Province.

3. The analysis from the British chemical weapons facility — Hersh has not seen the report but claims:

Within a few days of the 21 August attack…Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down….

The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the (US) joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, “We’re being set up here.”

Let’s start with a fundamental: given Russia’s political and propaganda interest — starting almost immediately after the August 21 attacks and continuing to today — to pin the blame on insurgents and absolve Assad, “Russian military intelligence operatives” may not be objective and disinterested supplies of “evidence”.

See Russia Analysis: Diplomacy, Delay & Disinformation — How Moscow Gained The Upper Hand In Syria

So who are Hersh’s sources who reassure us of authenticity? Only one: the “former senior intelligence officer” who may be Maloof.

4. A lengthy description of US-Turkish tensions over supply of weapons to Syria’s insurgents

None of this offers any evidence of an attempt by Ankara to foster a chemical weapons attack by the opposition, but a source gives Hersh the killer lines:

We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line.

They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors (inspecting previous attacks) were there. The deal was to do something spectacular.

Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey – that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.

And who is the source providing the smoking chemical gun?

The “former senior intelligence official”.

CONCLUSION

So Hersh’s four points “proving” the insurgent attack likely come from a single source: the “former senior intelligence official” who may be the Bush Administration staffer pushing his own conspiracy theory since last September.

The only portions of Hersh’s story that are corroborated by multiple sources are that: 1) the US military was opposed to widespread intervention in Syria after August 21; 2) the US and Turkey disagreed over the scale of support for Syria’s insurgents.

These are important dimensions of the Syrian conflict — which is why we have written about them often.

Hersh could have done the same to investigate the complexities and tensions between foreign powers and the insurgency. He chose not to do so.

Instead, finding (or being found by) a source with an agenda — to discredit the Syrian insurgency, the former reporter of My Lai and Watergate ran with the line, adding flourishes if not facts. And, after his article was turned down by leading US newspapers, he found an esteemed London journal to publish the “exclusive”.

Twice.

But does this really matter, as the August 21 attacks recede into the murk of “history”?

Yes, because history never dies.

Last week, as regime forces fought insurgents in the Damascus suburb of Jobar, Syria’s Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar al-Jafari declared that he had “proof” of “terrorist” planning of chemical weapons attacks in the area.

Al-Jafari said, in letters to the UN Secretary-General and President of the Security Council, that the Assad regime had proof from “a phone call between terrorists monitored by the authorities”.

Of course, the record of the incriminating phone call never surfaced, just as the regime has never produced its supposedly-definitive evidence pinning the attacks of last March and last August on the insurgency.

But that’s not the point. If Al-Jafari and the regime can make people think that opposition fighters are responsible, then at least the shroud of uncertainty is cast over last August — there is no need to act because we will never know if the Assad regime killed its own civilians with chemical weapons rather than airstrikes, artillery, and barrel bombs. Perhaps the regime might even achieve more, pinning the stigma of the attacks on the opposition.

And then there are the objectives of the present. If the onus of blame remains on the insurgency, then the way is clear for regime to carry out further attacks, conventional or beyond: amid claims by activists that the Syrian military may have used chemicals in Jobar last week, al-Jafari said:

The purpose of this (insurgent) talk is to use toxic gas once again to accuse the government of the attack, just like what happened last year in Ghouta area in Damascus Countryside and in Aleppo before it

Any assault by Assad forces has immunity, because we are told that the insurgents may have done worse. Any talk of an alternative to the President is suspect, because that alternative is tainted.

Hersh is not actively supporting this regime campaign.

But his “reporting” serves that purpose: with its exaggeration, insinuation, and distortion, it gives the cloak of credibility to those who — whether or not they carried out the deadly mission of August 21 — do so every day with or without chemicals.

And it sets the obstacle that, just as the Obama Administration did nothing to halt those attacks last autumn, we cannot legitimately do so today.

Scott Lucas
By Scott Lucas April 7, 2014 10:57 Updated
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39 Comments

  1. Paveway IV April 10, 03:05

    I have to chuckle a bit at your contribution to the Hersh-bashing party, Scott. Not at your observations about Hersh’s vague network of contacts – that’s all fair; he’s provided no verifiable legal proof of anything and has not published birth certificates, home addresses and photos of his inside contacts. He could just be fabricating everything because he’s an Assad-lover.

    What everyone seems to miss is that the primary reason Hersh wrote the two Syrian articles wasn’t to prove anything about Syria or CWs. That’s only the context. If the U.S. government wasn’t involved, he would never have bothered writing them. It’s not that he doesn’t care about Syria, it’s just not his area of expertise.

    Hersh’s expertise is providing insight into how the psychopaths inhabiting the broken machine of Washington D.C. think, work, game the system, control information and generally be their evil selves. He started being passionate about investigative journalism when he wrote about the My Lai trials. The revelation he had then wasn’t that the Army covered up the massacre or the Government lied. He was mostly pissed that no reporter in the Western media covering Viet Nam two years earlier thought the U.S. Army executing over a hundred civilians was worth reporting. It wasn’t even that much of a secret after it happened, it was simply ignored or self-censored by mainstream media.

    Could you nitpick all of Hersh’s details on My Lai and find faults? Probably – he wasn’t trying to prove anything in court. Did he ID all his sources by name and verify everything they said with two other independent sources? Hell no – what Army contact or administration insider would be so stupid to agree to be outed? How could he cross-verify multiple details of a covered-up, censored story that the government denied, then claimed ignorance of, then wouldn’t say anything about?

    All that horribly weak evidence and vague sources, yet history shows he managed to get 95% of it right. That’s hardly the track record for either a rube, a serial fabricator or irresponsible, speculative hack with an anti-American anti-military agenda. At least that’s what mainstream media initially labeled him. The Pulitzer only came after a year or so of attacks.

    He used the same questionable investigative journalism techniques to reveal the U.S. complicity in the KAL700 disaster (also ignored mainstream media and also which proved essentially accurate later on).

    Same technique used to gather details of Clinton’s bombing of the Sudanese CW factory (otherwise censored, and which was proven to be just a basic little drug manufacturer.)

    How about Iraq 1&2? Hersh starts outing Bush’s machinations with his same old mystery sources and shadowy contacts back in *2002* and continued right through the fake WMD justification. He was slammed all over again by a new generation of corporate media and government sycophants. Oh, and he was pretty much spot on with that one.

    U.S. Army abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib? You probably would never have heard about it except for Hersh’s crazy-unpatriotic, speculative, unverifiable, government-denied secret source reporting.

    Of course none of this guarantees *anything* Hersh is reporting is accurate on the U.S. administration, intelligence and military involvement regarding CWs in Syria. He might have everything wrong because he didn’t check Twitter. And he’s never seen your blog or Brown-Moses’. Maybe he’s getting lazy and senile and wrote the entire piece using a single, questionable source that’s feeding him a line. Maybe he just made *everything* up this time.

    Nothing wrong with questioning Hersh’s reporting – he would be the first to insist people do that. It’s just that I’ve been watching people try to discredit his reporting for thirty-some years now and paint him as an imbecile, fabricator or conspiracy nut. They eventually slink away and are long gone when time eventually proves Hersh got it right once again.

    But, hey – you deserve your shot at Hersh’s articles just like everyone else. Who knows – you may be the one that takes that old U.S.-hating conspiracy snake and his army of anonymous informants down once and for all! He can’t possibly keep his investigative journalism charade up much longer. Besides, he’s getting old and confused about Syria – go for the jugular!

    Reply to this comment
    • Scott Lucas Author April 10, 06:09

      Paveway,

      There is a significant difference between Hersh’s commendable reporting in previous cases and in the case of the Syrian chemical weapons attacks.

      In previous cases, he took account of the existing evidence — indeed, he often produced reliable evidence — for the context around the claims of his sources.

      In this case, he has often disregarded, or does not know, that context.

      S.

      Reply to this comment
  2. Ali Toufic April 8, 08:58

    One more thing in support of you article:
    On 21 August, Russia FM Lavrov, via Syria’s UN Ambassador Jaafari, claimed/presented satellite proof that the opposition are behind the attack. Three days later, on 24 August, Putin told Cameron on the phone that there is no proof that any chemical attack took place. I have the above contradiction “innocently” supported by “Russia Today” itself.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Joni Simonishvili April 8, 08:30

    What goes around comes around and this is but the tip of the iceberg, and the Georgian connection is especially interesting. That has been under the watch of Russian intelligence for some time.

    Reply to this comment
  4. UNF April 8, 01:13

    Proof positive that this story is severely scrambled, is the ludicrous notion that British Intelligence would accept Russian-supplied chemical ‘samples’ from the Ghouta attack site as genuine evidence, test them and then blithely report to the Yanks, “Regret to say, old chaps, it’s a trap!”

    They are bastards, alright, but not babes in the wood.

    Moreover, at the time, MI6 would surely have been in a better position to retrieve such samples directly themselves from areas controlled by their Rebel underlings than to rely on the mercies of Mr Putin.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Jim Pivonka April 7, 20:03

    So the neocon spots an obvious strategy on the part of Erdogan, creates a narrative that is more thought experiment than instantiation of the strategy, creates a very neoconservative typical web of lies to make the scenario real (these guys don’t live in the despised “real world”, remember), and sells the fabrication to Sy Hersh. OK, that makes Hersh a sucker for neoconservative myth making. What does it make Turkey?

    Reply to this comment
  6. Kevin April 7, 14:33

    Hersh has never met a bloody dictatorship that he was unwilling to support as long they are as anti-American as he is. He hasn’t done anything remotely relevant since the 70′s. I think he should retire and not embarrass himself any further.

    Reply to this comment
  7. Moritz Reichelt April 7, 10:45

    I don’t see your claims supported by any source either, so it boils down to another opinion.

    Reply to this comment
    • Scott Lucas Author April 7, 10:58

      Moritz,

      Thank you. We have documented the chemical weapons attacks and their aftermath extensively since August 21, using eyewitness testimony and reports of inspectors and supporting this with analysis based on coverage of the conflict since March 2011.

      I stand on this as a basis for an assessment which is far more than opinion.

      S.

      Reply to this comment
      • Paco Charte April 11, 00:46

        And what documented evidence, aside from the circumstantial witness accounts of simultaneous attacks with chemical weapons, followed by shelling with standard weaponry, do you present as to the origin of the sarin used in the attacks?

        As another commenter asked, why would British Intelligence accept a sample supplied by Russia, when they had their own sources much closer to the action in the insurgency itself? Why was there never a report of a sample tested and confirmed to be consistent with Syria’s stockpiles, and why was the issue dropped by the Obama administration so abruptly?

        Reply to this comment
  8. Abdurrahman Ibrahim Abdurrazzaq April 7, 10:25

    To Scott Lucas,

    Thanks firstly for the work, it’s lovely to find a newssite that dissects the war giving the goods and bads of both sides (unfortunately most news sources are either extremely pro-rebel or pro-regime with a few exceptions).

    I get the feeling that Syria is a bit of a blind spot for Sy Hersh, who has long railed (in my view correctly to SOME extent) against Western vilification and exaggeration vis a vis Iran, which is far more pragmatic and shrewd than most of its Western detractors would admit. He also sees the world, unfortunately, in a “with Iran or against Iran” light. He is therefore unable to think clearly in terms of Syria and is manufacturing pretty pathetic defences of the Iranian-backed regime.

    The Iranian regime doesn’t thrill me, but I don’t think it’s as blighted as some news outlets would claim. On the other hand nor is it as saintly as PressTV, RT and Sy Hersh would have you know. In fact Iranian and Western interests have diverged surprisingly often in the past decade, both in terms of backing Afghanistan’s Northern Front and also in terms of backing Nouri Maliki’s regime.

    It is of course nonetheless a fact that Turkey is champing at the bits to get into Syria, which I think is not necessarily a bad thing except that continued and escalated militarization is not the answer but part of a problem.

    Reply to this comment
  9. Jon H April 6, 23:25

    So, ehhhh… while I largely agree with your wider conclusions, I’m not sure what you’re getting at on one specific point; do you mean to refute the assertion that Jabhat al-Nusrah has been trying to develop Sarin or other gas for offensive purposes?

    Reply to this comment
    • Scott Lucas Author April 7, 06:16

      Jon,

      Jabhat al-Nusra may be trying to developing Sarin or other gas — and here I would be grateful for any concrete evidence.

      My argument here is that, so far, there has been no evidence linking JAN development of Sarin to the Syrian conflict. The Turkish case cited by Hersh is far from conclusive.

      S.

      Reply to this comment
  10. Aboud Dandachi April 6, 22:38

    Hersh has not been able to debunk a single bit of incriminating evidence presented that proves the Assad regime’s culpability, among which;

    The munitions used in the attacks were of a type undoubtedly in possession of the regime. Their forces have uploaded videos of themselves loading and launching munitions types that correspond exactly to the ones used in the attacks. In contrast, no one has presented any evidence whatsoever to show that the rebels had access to such munitions.

    The massive scale of the attack and the quantities of chemical agents used could only have been manufactured over many years, and by a party possessing sophisticated manufacturing techniques, capabilities which are beyond that of the Syrian opposition. The Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo spent millions of dollars and years of effort to produce sarin that in the end, only managed to kill 13 people, and that in a very confined space, the Tokyo subway.

    On March 5th 2014 the UN team investigating the attack concluded that the chemical weapons used in the attack could only have come from the Syrian army’s stockpiles. Since the regime has not claimed that any of its stockpiles of chemical weapons had been stolen or have gone missing, this finding rules out any possibility whatsoever of anyone except the Syrian army being responsible for the chemical weapons attacks.

    The presence of hexamine in the weapons used is by itself enough to prove the culpability of the regime. It has been described by chemical weapons experts as being “akin to the police finding red lipstick in a woman’s purse that matches collar stains on a murder victim”

    Doctors Without Borders were present in Ghouta during the attacks, and reported on treating hundreds of patients with symptoms that were consistent with that of a chemical weapons attack.

    The rockets used in the attacks had a range of 2.5 km, putting the affected areas well within range of advance regime positions at that date, as evidence by reporting from the area by the Russian language ANNA News

    Jabhat Al-Nusra, the group that pro-regimists claim launched the chemical weapons attacks, were never active anywhere near Ghouta, which had been besieged and surrounded by the regime for over a year.

    Reply to this comment
  11. Heywood Jableauxme April 6, 21:34

    Hersh actually quotes, repeatedly I might add, from the 20 June DIA memo. Then you ignore the work of Ted Postol, who completely debunked and destroyed the NY Times claim that the rockets came from Government controlled areas. Nope. The rockets were improvised and belonged to the rebels. You also, for whatever reason, ignore the fact that neither of the two rockets recovered by the UN in August 2013 were in the Syrian military inventory.

    What you also ignore is the failure of the US intel community to report anything, either prior to or in the days immediately after, about the attack. Hersh has multiple sources. All you have are uninformed opinions.

    [edited by moderator]

    Reply to this comment
    • Scott Lucas Author April 6, 22:05

      Heywood,

      1. Hersh quotes from the 20 June DIA memo — whether he has seen that memo or has had the quotes fed to him by his source, the “former senior intelligence official”, is not clear from the article.

      2. Ted Postol did not “debunk” the analysis that rockets came from Government-controlled areas.

      Postol did question a New York Times article which put the distance of the rockets at several kilometers. Richard Lloyd later argued that the maximum range of the rockets were 2.5 kilometers.

      However, regime forces had positions within 2.5 kilometers of the areas hit on August 2013. Indeed, the Syrian military had moved to some of those position in the weeks before the attacks.

      3. Full rockets were not recovered by the United Nations. Fragments of rockets and their engines were recovered, and these do match munitions held by the Syrian military and supplied by Russia.

      4. The US intelligence did report movement of Syrian forces and chemical weapons in the days before the August 21 attacks.

      5. Hersh muddies the water over his “sources” with some slippage in his language. The only clearly identified one who can be matched to the claim of insurgent responsibility for the attacks is the “former senior intelligence officer”.

      S.

      Reply to this comment
  12. TeaJunkie April 6, 19:07

    Fair points; however an equal insinuation of his possible source(s) to include a former Bush Administration stooge with his own conspiracy theory is equally problematic, don’t you think? And you mentioned that repeatedly above…

    States do rotten things; however I think you give too-little credit to the lunatic jihadists in Syria that Western governments refused to believe were there in the early days of the anti-Assad protests (I have friends who within two or three months had fled their homes and gone to neighbouring Iraq as a result of these lunatics threatening to and actually killing them because they blonged to a minority sect…). we’ve let these guys run riot over Syria. Think any military intervention on our part will stop them trying to establish their emirates or caliphates in Iraq? Heck, look at their behaviour in the post-Saddam Iraq or in the newly ‘free’ Afghanistan?

    I wonder, what does the author make of the recent allegations/evidence surrounding Turkeyks talk of a false flag for entering Syria if that shrine is destroyed or threatened with attack?

    Reply to this comment
    • Scott Lucas Author April 6, 19:55

      TeaJunkie,

      You make a good point about the recent leaked audiotape of Turkish officials discussing a pretext for intervention in Syria.

      The problem in Hersh’s article is that he has no evidence that, seven months earlier, Ankara was preparing such a pretext — let alone colluding with insurgents on a chemical weapons attack to kill hundreds of civilians.

      S.

      Reply to this comment
      • Veskit April 9, 14:54

        Imprisoning insurgents who have sarin gas with them and then releasing them without charge seems like colluding to me.

        And the audiotapes may have been leaked recently, but do we know when they were recorded? Since the leaks started in the middle of December it is reasonable to assume that it was at least recorded before that. If you have proof of a plan to stage a false flag attack just 4 months or less (or 7 if you place the audiotapes in March 2014) after the chemical attack in August 2013, it is foolish to assume that the same sentiment could not have existed before. In fact it is reasonable to assume the opposite.

        Reply to this comment
      • Thomson April 9, 17:30

        Hersh’s article makes many points about Turkey and Saudi Arabia, not just about the gas attacks.

        Why hasn’t the US refuted them all? Too busy? Computer not working? Too tired? Got a headache?

        We now know from actual recordings that Turkey was planning a false flag attack on the Turkish tomb inside Syria as an excuse to invade Syria. This tells us that Turkey makes (and carries out) sneaky plans, which we might not ordinarily know about if not for the leaked tape.

        But the mainstream press acts as if the Turks’ false flag planning is just ho-hum. “Gee, a false flag attack to start a war? What’s the big deal?” The US would absolutely love to see a false flag plan put into effect by Turkey and a subsequent attack by Turkey on Syria. The US would cover it up, defend Turkey, and blame Assad or the opposition. This all makes me suspicious that criticism of Hersh comes from the same place. The US wants Assad overthrown even if that means the radicals take over. Turkey feels the same way. So do some commentators, though they would not admit it.

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