Journalist Seymour Hersh Thinks The Evidence for Assad Regime Gas Attacks Thin

the London Review of Books
–in a story that both the
Washington Post and the New Yorker could have
but chose not to
, the Post having told Hersh they
didn’t find the sourcing solid enough–journalist Seymour Hersh
lays out at great length his reasons for thinking the case against
the Assad regime for poison gas attacks is unproven.

Excerpts and summation: Hersh’s first point is the
administration knew that the al-Nusra front, a rebel group with Al
Qaeda ties, also had access to sarin.

Then he found various (anonymous) sources he says should be in a
position to know who doubt the administration’s assurance of

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. 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. The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf
of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the
sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of
the early bombings of North Vietnam. The same official said there
was immense frustration inside the military and intelligence
bureaucracy: ‘The guys are throwing their hands in the air and
saying, “How can we help this guy” – Obama – “when he and his
cronies in the White House make up the intelligence as they go

The complaints focus on what Washington did not have: any
advance warning from the assumed source of the attack. The military
intelligence community has for years produced a highly classified
early morning intelligence summary, known as the Morning Report,
for the secretary of defence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff; a copy also goes to the national security adviser and the
director of national intelligence. The Morning Report includes no
political or economic information, but provides a summary of
important military events around the world, with all available
intelligence about them. A senior intelligence consultant told me
that some time after the attack he reviewed the reports for 20
August through 23 August. For two days – 20 and 21 August – there
was no mention of Syria. On 22 August the lead item in the Morning
Report dealt with Egypt; a subsequent item discussed an internal
change in the command structure of one of the rebel groups in
Syria. Nothing was noted about the use of nerve gas in Damascus
that day. It was not until 23 August that the use of sarin became a
dominant issue, although hundreds of photographs and videos of the
massacre had gone viral within hours on YouTube, Facebook and other
social media sites. At this point, the administration knew no more
than the public.

And Hersh argues that they probably should have known more than
the public if it was Assad, because of a supposedly very effective
“secret sensor system inside Syria, designed to provide early
warning of any change in status of the regime’s chemical weapons
arsenal” which allegedly worked last December to see a possible
sarin attack planned (or maybe just an exercise for one), which
triggered Obama’s first “red line” warning to Assad about using gas

Hersh goes on to make much of the fact that the intelligence
later presented indicating possible Syrian official preparation for
a gas attack was not obtained and understood in real
before the attack occured but merely
reconstructed later. (Given that he admits the U.S. lacks fully
efficient real time surveillance of all Assad regime communication,
this doesn’t seem such a slam dunk argument.)

The artillery rocket that supposedly delivered the sarin in the
August 21 attack near Damascus was said to be something only the
regime was known to use. But Hersh reports:

Theodore Postol, a professor of technology and national security
at MIT, reviewed the UN photos with a group of his colleagues and
concluded that the large calibre rocket was an improvised munition
that was very likely manufactured locally. He told me that it was
‘something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop’.
The rocket in the photos, he added, fails to match the
specifications of a similar but smaller rocket known to be in the
Syrian arsenal. The New York Times, again relying on
data in the UN report, also analysed the flight path of two of the
spent rockets that were believed to have carried sarin, and
concluded that the angle of descent ‘pointed directly’ to their
being fired from a Syrian army base more than nine kilometres from
the landing zone.

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.

What Hersh paints as the administration’s reluctance to publicly
admit rebels also had access to poison gas could be troublesome
down the line, he thinks:

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 may be more to

from Hit & Run

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