Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Sy Hersh has done it again, published a devastating report on what he calls the manipulation of intelligence by the Obama Administration to support its short-lived plan to intervene militarily in Syria and to delude Congress and the American public on real and dangerous question of who might have used, and who might still retain CW capability there.

The piece, published by the London Review of Books (a.k.a. LRB) on December 8, was called to my attention by stalwart reader Tobe Berkovitz of the Boston University School of Communications (and my revered brother-in-law).

In his report, Hersh, citing sources within America’s military and intelligence communities, makes at least 5 important assertions.

1)     That military forces loyal to President Bashar-all Assad are not the only ones in Syria capable of manufacturing the lethal chemical weapon Sarin, and arming munitions with it.

2)     That President Obama cherry-picked the intel to create a falsely air-tight public case against Assad.

3)     That Obama and his representatives misled the American news media into thinking the Administration had real-time evidence that tied Assad’s forces to the war crime, rather than deductive assumptions based on back-tracking communications intercepts which could, at best, suggest rather than prove the Administration’s case.

4)     That, even after Administration sources corrected this mis-impression (in response to angry charges from Syrian rebel allies that the US had stood by and watched the build-up to the chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians), major organs, including specifically the Washington Post, continued to sell the Administration’s “rock-solid” case against Assad.

5)     That the net-net of Obama’s eventual policy, to collaborate with the Russians and, later the UN, to disarm the Syrian government forces of their chemical weapons, could be to leave the Al-Nusra Front, allegedly closely allied with Al Qaeda, as the only sarin-capable forces in the Syrian war zone.


Below are some crucial citations from Hersh’s piece, but I urge you to real the whole, scathing report.

1)  “Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin.…  [B]y 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,” [the area from which the sarin attack is believed to have come.]

2) “[I]n 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. One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration’s assurances of Assad’s responsibility a ‘ruse’. The attack ‘was not the result of the current regime’, he wrote. …  The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident.”

3)  “A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening. … A keyword or two would be selected and a filter would be employed to find relevant conversations. ‘What happened here is that the NSA intelligence weenies started with an event – the use of sarin – and reached to find chatter that might relate,’ the former official said. ‘This does not lead to a high confidence assessment, unless you start with high confidence that Bashar Assad ordered it, and began looking for anything that supports that belief.’ The cherry-picking was similar to the process used to justify the Iraq war.”

4)  A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence responded to the complaints. A statement  to the Associated Press said that the intelligence behind the earlier administration assertions was not known at the time of the attack, but recovered only subsequently: ‘Let’s be clear, the United States did not watch, in real time, as this horrible attack took place. ... But since the American press corps had their story, the retraction received scant attention. On 31 August the Washington Post, relying on the government assessment, had vividly reported on its front page that American intelligence was able to record ‘each step’ of the Syrian army attack in real time, ‘from the extensive preparations to the launching of rockets to the after-action assessments by Syrian officials’. It did not publish the AP corrective, and the White House maintained control of the narrative.”

5)  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.”

A footnote:  Seymour Hersh’s report in length and style strongly resembles past reports published by The New Yorker.  So far, I haven’t heard back from Hersh as to whether this article had been offered to the New Yorker before its publication by LRB.  I hope to be able to update you on this issue.

UPDATE:  Eliot Higgins, on the Foreign Policy magazine website, offers a refutation of (one part of) Seymour Hersh’s report, that the munitions used against civilians could have been made and launched, not by President Assad’s military, but rebel forces, most-likely the Al Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front.

Most of Higgins’ evidence is culled from YouTube videos, and raises a lot of good questions, although his challenge to MIT expert Ted Postol seems pretty labored to me.

“Theodore Postol, a professor of technology and national security at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Hersh that the Volcano is "something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop" -- in other words, a weapon the rebels could make. Postol also stated that various organizations' flight path analysis of the Aug. 21 Volcanoes, which put the point of origin of the munitions at a Syrian military base more than nine kilometers away from the impact locations, were "totally nuts." Postol's analysis, Hersh wrote, had "demonstrated that the range of the improvised rockets was 'unlikely' to be more than two kilometres." 

All of this is presented as an argument that perhaps the Syrian government wasn't responsible for the Aug. 21 sarin attack, despite the claims of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration. But during my ongoing discussions with Postol's colleague, Richard M. Lloyd, Lloyd has told me he believes the evidence collected so far would suggest the Volcano has a range of at least 2 to 2.5 kilometers. It's worth noting that some examples of the larger Volcano rocket have been recorded with a basic nose cone, which increase the range of the munition by more than one kilometer.”


But, if I’m remembering correctly, the Administration’s analysis claimed the sarin-filled missile had been fired by Syrian troops based 9 km away.

More troubling is Higgins’ expert’s argument that Al-Nusra lacks the capability to build weapons of the sort used in Eastern Ghouta.

“I asked chemical weapons specialist Dan Kaszeta for his opinion on that. He compared the possibility of Jabhat al-Nusra using chemical weapons to another terrorist attack involving sarin: the 1996 gassing of the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

‘The 1994 to 1996 Japanese experience tells us that even a very large and sophisticated effort comprising many millions of dollars, a dedicated large facility, and a lot of skilled labor results only in liters of sarin, not tons,’ Kaszeta said. ‘Even if the Aug. 21 attack is limited to the eight Volcano rockets that we seem to be talking about, we're looking at an industrial effort two orders of magnitude larger than the Aum Shinrikyo effort. This is a nontrivial and very costly undertaking, and I highly doubt whether any of the possible nonstate actors involved here have the factory to have produced it. Where is this factory? Where is the waste stream? Where are the dozens of skilled people -- not just one al Qaeda member -- needed to produce this amount of material?’"


It does make one want to ask Sy’s sources what made them confident that Jihadist rebel groups were sarin-capable.

But, as I noted earlier, Higgins, whose piece is headlined “St Hershe’s Chemical Misfire,” concentrates on the ballistics question, real and important, but just a fraction of a report that concentrates on the Obama Administration’s alleged “manipulation” of intelligence.  Of that, Higgins says only this, in his closing paragraph: “Hersh rightly expresses concern about the way in which the U.S. government's narrative of the Aug. 21 was built.”

“Rightly,” indeed.  Hersh says the Administration cherry-picked its evidence, misdescribed its methodology, and may well have misjudged the whole situation.  Video clips of various missiles, valuable as they are, are only part of the evidence for part of the story.

And thanks to David Isenberg for pointing me to the FP report.





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