Last weekend, journalist Seymour Hersh (pictured) published his second attempt to pin last August’s chemical weapons attacks on insurgents, rather than the Assad regime.
We have dissected Hersh’s “evidence”, such as the “Russian intelligence” that the attack’s chemical toxins could not have come from the Assad regime and the journalist’s distorted presentation of “homemade rockets”. Others such as Eliot Higgins, Dan Kaszeta, and Aaron Stein have also taken apart Hersh’s theory and assertions.
See Syria Special: Dissecting Hersh’s “Insurgents Did Chemical Weapons Attacks” — A Sequel
Syria Special: There is No Chemical Weapons Conspiracy — Dissecting Hersh’s “Exclusive” on Insurgents Once More
However, the veteran reporter is firmly standing behind his story.
So who are his sources?
Hersh does not go beyond general descriptions. The primary source for his claims, as well as the documents that supposedly back them, is a “former senior US intelligence official”. There are brief references to “a Defense Department consultant”, “a person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria”, “a former senior Defense Department official”, and “a US intelligence consultant”.
Fortunately for us, Hersh’s language gives us clues to the men behind these labels. Indeed, a bit of scratching below the conspiracy surface reveals that the journalist’s “exclusive” claims were in circulation in September, only days after the chemical weapons attacks near Damascus.
1. THE ORIGINAL SOURCE FOR THE “TURKISH-SUPPORTED INSURGENT ATTACK” — THE ANTI-IMPERIALIST LINKED TO ASSAD’S UNCLE
The heart of Hersh’s grand conspiracy theory — dressed up with a lot of background information, most of it tangential — is that Ankara was behind the insurgency’s chemical assault:
As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. “We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. “They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors” –– who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas –– ‘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.”
But this assertion is far from new. On September 1, Yossef Bodansky — former director of the US House of Representatives Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare and a senior editor of the website Global Research, a vehement critic of American foreign policy — wrote, “Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?“:
On August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major and irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and representatives of Qatari, Turkish, and US Intelligence [“Mukhabarat Amriki”] took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors.
Very senior opposition commanders who had arrived from Istanbul briefed the regional commanders of an imminent escalation in the fighting due to “a war-changing development” which would, in turn, lead to a US-led bombing of Syria.
Bodansky claimed that, in preparation for the offensive to accompany US intervention after the chemical attack, opposition forces were given more than 400 tons of weapons, “distributed from store-houses controlled by Qatari and Turkish Intelligence under the tight supervision of US Intelligence”.
The proof of the claims? Bodansky merely asserted “a growing volume of new evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its sponsors and supporters”.
The editor did have powerful connections behind his article, albeit not with the Syrian opposition. He is linked to Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of the President, promoting him as a potential leader of Syria.
Rifaat al-Assad fell out with his family in the 1980s and has criticized his nephew; however, he is also firmed opposed to Sunni Islamists.
2. THE AMERICAN CONDUIT — THE FORMER INTELLIGENCE OFFICIALS
A day after the August 21 attacks, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern told the BBC, “These reports of chemical weapons attacks are very suspect, given the timing with the UN inspectors in Syria already.” Later he would tell Iran’s State outlet Press TV in a lengthy interview, “There may be a false flag attack on one of those US destroyers just off the coast of Syria blamed on guess who? Syria or maybe Syria’s ally Iran and then all hell will break loose.”
On September 6, McGovern was joined by 11 other members of the Veteran Intelligence Professonals for Sanity — a group of retired US intelligence officials — in an open letter to President Obama setting out the Saudi-Turkish-insurgent conspiracy theory:
There is a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters — providing a strong circumstantial case that the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters. The aim is reported to have been to create the kind of incident that would bring the United States into the war.
Yet, despite the reference to “numerous sources in the Middle East”, the wording of the letter appeared to be a direct copy from one source — Yossef Bodansky:
We have learned that on August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major, irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and Qatari, Turkish and U.S. intelligence officials took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, now used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors.
Senior opposition commanders who came from Istanbul pre-briefed the regional commanders on an imminent escalation in the fighting due to “a war-changing development,” which, in turn, would lead to a U.S.-led bombing of Syria.
Nothing else in the letter pointed to a source for the Saudi-Turkish-US-insurgent conspiracy, other than Bodansky’s article published five days earlier.
However, there is one detail in the letter that would be highly significant seven months later:
We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this.
Those “British intelligence officials” also have a starring role in Hersh’s article:
British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal.
The letter’s 12 signatories fit four of the five generic labels that Hersh gives for his sources: “former senior US intelligence officer”, “Defense Department consultant”, “former senior Defense Department official”, and “US intelligence consultant”.
3. THE 2ND AMERICAN CONDUIT — THE FORMER DEFENSE DEPARTMENT STAFFER
The VIPS letter reached a wider audience the next day, courtesy of a former staffer of the Defense Department in the George W. Bush Administration, F. Michael Maloof, whose security clearance was revoked in 2003 over alleged links to a gun-running scheme to West Africa.
On August 28, Maloof told Iran’s Press TV that insurgents “clearly have the capability” to carry out a chemical weapons attack:
Poison gas was produced in Iraq by Saddam Hussein holdovers and then shipped to the (Jabhat) al-Nusra plants in Turkey. None of this has been investigated.
Ten days later, he could claim support for his theory, featuring VIPS on the right-wing website, WorldNet Daily:
Former U.S. intelligence analysts claim current intelligence analysts have told them Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not responsible for the Aug. 21 poison gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, which killed 1,429 people, of whom more than 400 where children.
They claim the “growing body of evidence” reveals the incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters.
But Maloof did not just recycle the VIPS claims. Four days later, he added an original assertion that would take on importance in the Hersh article:
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.
Seven months later, this is Hersh’s summary of what appears to be the same document:
On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page “talking points” briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was “the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort”….
The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies: “Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators,” it said, “were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria”.
(A spokesperson for the Director of National Intelligence, cited in Hersh’s article, denied that the document exists, “No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.”)
Pulling together all the thread, Maloof linking back to the original source of the allegations:
The NGIC depiction of the variety of sarin as “bench-scale” reinforces an analysis by terrorism expert Yossef Bodansky, who said the recent findings on the chemical weapons attack of Aug. 21 on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, was “indeed a self-inflicted attack” by the Syrian opposition to provoke U.S. and military intervention in Syria.
4. HERSH’S FIRST ARTICLE IN DECEMBER
Hersh’s first article for the London Review of Books, “Whose Sarin?“, did not go as far in setting out the conspiracy theory, but he set out the elements of an insurgency with chemical weapons capability:
In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports…citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.
The journalist again used general labels for his supporting sources: “In recent interviews with intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present, I found intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence.”
There is an e-mail from a “high-level intelligence officer” and quotes from a “former senior intelligence official” and a “senior intelligence consultant”, who gave him — or summarized for him — the June 20 document from the Department of Defense. There are no named sources for the assertions about the insurgents and the August 21 chemical weapons attack.
5. HERSH’S SECOND ARTICLE IN APRIL
Hersh’s specific evidence — as opposed to background information — for Turkish-insurgent chemical weapons attacks on August 21 rests on the following:
1. A mysterious claim — from his primary source, a “former (US) intelligence official” — that a “Russian military intelligence operative” passed samples from the chemical agent in the attacks to British military intelligence, who sent them to the chemical weapons laboratory at Porton Down for analysis.
The “former intelligence official” said the Russian operative was “a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy”. However, neither he nor Hersh explain why Russia, an ally of Assad, would pass vital evidence to Britain, who oppose the Syrian leader — or why Britain would accept evidence from Russia as reliable and not misinformation.
2. The June 20 document from the Department of Defense
3. An assertion from the “former intelligence official”: “There was no way (the US military) thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war.”
4. An assertion from the “former intelligence official” that Turkish inteligence was training Jabhat al-Nusra members in chemical warfare;
5. A claim from a “US intelligence consultant” of a classified briefing which warned that the Turkish leadership, worried about the prospects of the insurgency, had expressed “the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response”.
6. The claim of the “former intelligence official: “We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line.”
In summary, Hersh’s specific claims of a Turkish-insurgency conspiracy rest on two — and only two — unnamed sources. Neither person, like the members of VIPS and F. Michael Maloof, is currently employed by the US Government.
Of course, Hersh may have a source or sources who are not listed above. However, without information beyond his general labels, we have no way of establishing this.
Instead, we are left with the language of Hersh’s summary and the one document that he cites. Both the language and the document are remarkably similar to assertions — which put forth no evidence, apart from one claimed Department of Defense document — put out by the following, all of whom cite each other in the recycling of claims:
1. Yossef Bodansky, a former staffer for the US House of Representatives who is now senior editor of the Global Research website, notable for its criticism of US foreign policy and claims of conspiratorial US interventions, and who is linked to President Assad’s uncle;
2. The retired officers of the Veteran Intelligence Professonals for Sanity;
3. F. Michael Maloof, a former staffer of the Department of Defense.
(h/t Linux Beach)