A new piece by veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh argues that the Obama administration’s case against Syria over a sarin gas attack last August relied on cherry-picked intelligence.
Hersh’s piece was not published in the New Yorker, where so much of his work appears. And it apparently was not of interest to the Washington Post either (Huffington Post, 12/8/13). Instead, Hersh’s article appears in the London Review of Books (12/8/13).
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.
Hersh bases this on “interviews with intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present,” who argue that the White House does not possess intelligence to support its claims that the Assad regime was responsible for the attack. One even compares it to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964.
Hersh points to several different problems. The daily intelligence summary delivered to various government officials, according to one source, did not flag any particular warnings right before or after the August 21 attacks. The administration would eventually claim that it had important intelligence leading up to the attack that implicates the Assad regime. If that is so, why wasn’t it showing up in the intelligence reports?
Hersh also points to a Washington Post report (8/29/13) based on a document leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, which concerns a “secret sensor system inside Syria, designed to provide early warning of any change in status of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal.” According to Hersh, this system did not produce evidence of any unusual activities at Syria’s known chemical sites.
So what was the intelligence that led the White House to conclude Assad was responsible for the attacks? Hersh reports that the NSA and other intelligence agencies had access to some information that could be analyzed after the fact:
Once the scale of events on 21 August was understood, the NSA mounted a comprehensive effort to search for any links to the attack, sorting through the full archive of stored communications. 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.
Hersh contends that the White House, after compiling this kind of case, were ready to take it to the media:
On 30 August it invited a select group of Washington journalists (at least one often critical reporter, Jonathan Landay, the national security correspondent for McClatchy, was not invited), and handed them a document carefully labelled as a “government assessment,” rather than as an assessment by the intelligence community. The document laid out what was essentially a political argument to bolster the administration’s case against the Assad government. It was, however, more specific than Obama would be later, in his speech on 10 September: American intelligence, it stated, knew that Syria had begun “preparing chemical munitions” three days before the attack. In an aggressive speech later that day, John Kerry provided more details. He said that Syria’s “chemical weapons personnel were on the ground, in the area, making preparations” by 18 August. “We know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.” The government assessment and Kerry’s comments made it seem as if the administration had been tracking the sarin attack as it happened. It is this version of events, untrue but unchallenged, that was widely reported at the time.
There was one problem that arose: Syrian opposition forces were outraged that the US government apparently had intelligence warning of an attack but failed to let any of them know about it. Hersh reports that the government then walked this line back, with an official telling the Associated Press (9/4/13), “Let’s be clear, the United States did not watch, in real time, as this horrible attack took place.” Hersh thought this to be a rather significant admission:
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.
Subsequent reporting by the New York Times (9/18/13) went further. Relying on a UN report analyzing the attacks, the Times found that the apparent flight plans of the rockets meant they were likely fired from a Syrian air base.
But Theodore Postol of MIT was skeptical. Hersh writes:
Postol, who has served as the scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations in the Pentagon, said that the assertions in the Times and elsewhere “were not based on actual observations.” He concluded that the flight path analyses in particular were, as he put it in an email, “totally nuts” because a thorough study demonstrated that the range of the improvised rockets was “unlikely” to be more than two kilometres. Postol and a colleague, Richard M. Lloyd, published an analysis two weeks after 21 August in which they correctly assessed that the rockets involved carried a far greater payload of sarin than previously estimated. The Times reported on that analysis at length, describing Postol and Lloyd as “leading weapons experts.” The pair’s later study about the rockets’ flight paths and range, which contradicted previous Times reporting, was emailed to the newspaper last week; it has so far gone unreported.
Hersh also contends that US intelligence has expressed concern that some elements of the opposition in Syria could produce sarin on their own:
Already 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-Qaeda 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.
According to one of Hersh’s sources, some of the reticence in military circles about possible US intervention was based on the concern that US forces could face a sarin attack by anti-Assad forces.
On Democracy Now! (12/9/13), Hersh said:
The point was that at no time did the United States ever consider Al-Nusra to be a potential target of investigation. They were simply excluded from the conversation. And the narrative was Bashar did it. And it was bought by the mainstream press, as we all know, and by most people in the world. And this is why, you know, creepy troublemakers like me stay in business.
As FAIR argued throughout, Hersh is correct that much of the corporate media coverage of the administration’s Syria case was simply not all that skeptical, treating what were claims offered without evidence as if they were facts. Hersh’s account suggests that it’s plausible that opposition forces could have launched the August 21 attacks, but there is little evidence that would bolster that scenario either. The main takeaway from Hersh’s piece should be that the “official story” on Syria should be subjected to additional scrutiny.
UPDATE: Syria blogger Eliot Higgins, more popularly known as Brown Moses, has responded to Hersh’s article in a piece at Foreign Policy (12/9/13). Higgins offers a compelling argument against Hersh’s suggestion that Syrian rebels could have launched the August 21 attacks, compiling the evidence that leads to the conclusion that the weapons used in the attack were part of the Syrian government’s arsenal. That part of Hersh’s argument, as I noted above, was weak. Higgins does not dwell on the main part of Hersh’s piece, whcih was about the White House’s handling of the Syria intelligence; he writes that “Hersh rightly expresses concern about the way in which the U.S. government’s narrative of the Aug. 21 was built.”