Pulitzer-award journalist says Obama admin made up intelligence for war on Syria

Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh, 76, received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for exposing the My Lai Massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War.

In an article for the London Review of Books, December 9, 2013, Hersh maintains that:

  • The Obama administration made up the intelligence to justify a war on Syria.
  • The official account of the Navy SEALs’ assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan is fiction.
  • U.S. military and intelligence officials are immensely frustrated with Obama and the White House for “making up intelligence as they go along.”

Here are excerpts from Seymour M. Hersh’s article, “Whose Sarin?,” London Review of Books, December 8, 2013:

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, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – 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.

In his nationally televised speech about Syria on 10 September, Obama laid the blame for the nerve gas attack on the rebel-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta firmly on Assad’s government, and made it clear he was prepared to back up his earlier public warnings that any use of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line’: ‘Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people,’ he said. ‘We know the Assad regime was responsible … And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.’ Obama was going to war to back up a public threat, but he was doing so without knowing for sure who did what in the early morning of 21 August.

He cited a list of what appeared to be hard-won evidence of Assad’s culpability: ‘In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighbourhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.’ Obama’s certainty was echoed at the time by Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, who told the New York Times: ‘No one with whom I’ve spoken doubts the intelligence’ directly linking Assad and his regime to the sarin attacks.

But 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. 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 along?”’

[…] there was no intelligence about Syrian intentions in the days before the attack. […] In other words, the NSA no longer had access to the conversations of the top military leadership in Syria, which would have included crucial communications from Assad, such as orders for a nerve gas attack. […]

A chemical warhead, once loaded with sarin, has a shelf life of a few days or less – the nerve agent begins eroding the rocket almost immediately: it’s a use-it-or-lose-it mass killer. ‘The Syrian army doesn’t have three days to prepare for a chemical attack,’ the former senior intelligence official told me. ‘We created the sensor system for immediate reaction, like an air raid warning or a fire alarm. You can’t have a warning over three days because everyone involved would be dead. It is either right now or you’re history. You do not spend three days getting ready to fire nerve gas.’ The sensors detected no movement in the months and days before 21 August, the former official said.[…]

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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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 […]

So when Obama said on 10 September that his administration knew Assad’s chemical weapons personnel had prepared the attack in advance, he was basing the statement not on an intercept caught as it happened, but on communications analysed days after 21 August. The former senior intelligence official explained that the hunt for relevant chatter went back to the exercise detected the previous December, in which, as Obama later said to the public, the Syrian army mobilised chemical weapons personnel and distributed gas masks to its troops. The White House’s government assessment and Obama’s speech were not descriptions of the specific events leading up to the 21 August attack, but an account of the sequence the Syrian military would have followed for any chemical attack.

[…] The White House’s misrepresentation of what it knew about the attack, and when, was matched by its readiness to ignore intelligence that could undermine the narrative. That information concerned al-Nusra, the Islamist rebel group designated by the US and the UN as a terrorist organisation. Al-Nusra is known to have carried out scores of suicide bombings against Christians and other non-Sunni Muslim sects inside Syria, and to have attacked its nominal ally in the civil war, the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA). Its stated goal is to overthrow the Assad regime and establish sharia law.

[…] In other words, the White House had no direct evidence of Syrian army or government involvement, a fact that was only occasionally noted in the press coverage. Obama’s tough talk played well with the public and Congress, who view Assad as a ruthless murderer.

[…] 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-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), also understood the science of producing sarin. […] On 20 June a four-page top secret cable summarising what had been learned about al-Nusra’s nerve gas capabilities was forwarded to David R. Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. ‘What Shedd was briefed on was extensive and comprehensive,’ the consultant said. ‘It was not a bunch of “we believes”.’ He told me that the cable made no assessment as to whether the rebels or the Syrian army had initiated the attacks in March and April, but it did confirm previous reports that al-Nusra had the ability to acquire and use sarin.

[…] Independently of these assessments, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assuming that US troops might be ordered into Syria to seize the government’s stockpile of chemical agents, called for an all-source analysis of the potential threat. ‘The Op Order provides the basis of execution of a military mission, if so ordered,’ the former senior intelligence official explained. ” […] We had technical analysts from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, weapons people, and I & W [indications and warnings] people working on the problem … They concluded that the rebel forces were capable of attacking an American force with sarin because they were able to produce the lethal gas.[…]”

[…] The administration’s distortion of the facts surrounding the sarin attack raises an unavoidable question: do we have the whole story of Obama’s willingness to walk away from his ‘red line’ threat to bomb Syria? He had claimed to have an iron-clad case but suddenly agreed to take the issue to Congress, and later to accept Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical weapons. It appears possible that at some point he was directly confronted with contradictory information: evidence strong enough to persuade him to cancel his attack plan, and take the criticism sure to come from Republicans.

[…] 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 [….]

Read the whole article HERE.

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25 responses to “Pulitzer-award journalist says Obama admin made up intelligence for war on Syria

  1. Misinformation + Propaganda = Public talking points, good for main stream media feed–to mislead the American Public on this issue and other situations that are piling up via the Obama Administration, on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts. Apparently the Obama administration likes to camouflage (forgive my twisted metaphor) a Vulture under the guise of an Eagle flying. And they try to explain why the Eagle keeps circling a dead animal corpse–when they really know it’s a Vulture under the Eagle costume!

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  2. It’s been a long time since My Lai. In the interim, Hersh has produced many articles of dubious veracity. Technical information that I have seen indiates that the Sarin used in the August attack was of the type produced from mixing binary ingredients. The type of Sarin produced by the rebels uses the “kitchen ” process which p[roduces smaller abount with a very different chemical profile. You can differentiate between types of products by examining the contaminants which wind up in the final product. The chemical byproducts are quite different. Plus the rockets containg the Sarin were fired from a governemnt inmstallation, not from a rebel area.

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    • Dick, may we have yours sources, please.

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      • All from open source news reports. I am a retired Army Chemical Corps officer so I know how to read these reports. And from a technical standpoint, the amount of Sarin required would be well beyond the capability of rebel forces. In the past, rebel use of Szarin has been agfainst individua;l buildings or compounds like police stations and small outbposts. Attacking an area the size of the area attacked in August woiuld have literally required truckloads of agent and the agent release would have been observed by groiund-based observers. Hersh would have uis beleived that a small reb]el force was able to capoture dozens of large rockets, load them with locally-produced Sarin and fire them from a government controlled area. To anybody familiar with the logistics of chemical weapons employment, this theory does not pass the giggle test. Hersh is not a trained technician as I am and would be unable to detect the tehnical flaws in his argument.

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        • So you’re saying all the defense and intelligence officials Hersh spoke to all lied?

          Please give us the links to all those “open source news reports.” Would the Washington Post report, which Hersh referenced in his article as one based on what the White House had fed the WP, be one of those “open source news reports”?

          Seriously, did you even read Hersh’s article?

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          • Yes, I read Hersh’s article. It is full of suppositions and statements from unidentified sources, some of which are seriously in error from a techbnical standpoint. I also reat the actual U N report. http://legalinsurrection.com/2013/09/u-n-chemical-weapons-report-on-syria-released/

            Hersh states that once sarin is loaded into arockert it has a udseeful life measured in days or weeks. This is totally false. The US Army has stored rockets loaded with nerve agents for 20+ years and finally destroyed them The last of these munitions was scheduled to be destroyed in 2013.
            http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/demil/closing_facilities.htm

            Per the UN report the 140 mm rockets bore Cyrillic markings and were fired from a Syrian Army base. .These rockets are normally fired form a BM-14 towed multiple rocket launcher which has a range of 8.9 km, not the 2 km that Hersh claims.

            Here are the specifications for the launcher. Does this look like something a bunch of rebels could smuggle into a Syrian Army base and fire without being detected?
            http://weaponsystems.net/weapon.php?weapon=dd05%20-%20bm-14

            The SWyrians use a binary form of Sarin. It is stored as two separate chemicals, both of low toxicity. These are mixed to form Sarin shortly before the Sarin is loaded into the rocket. Or it can be loaded as two separate batches with a partition that is broken in flight so that the agent mixes enroute to the target. In either case, mixing and loading the 16 rockets fired by the BM-14 will take 3-6 hours, not 3 days. This, of course, depends on the level of skill of the loading team.

            And if you think a bunch of rebels cam make Sarin in a basement lab, read this:

            http://www.pri.org/stories/2013-10-11/why-its-bad-idea-make-sarin-gas-your-kitchen

            i have told you my credentials in making my statements. What are yours?

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          • Dick:

            I do not appreciate your hostility.

            What I did was to post most of Seymour Hersh’s London Review of Books article. I did not make claims on my own, unlike you. What I did was to question your blanket assertions and to point out the implications of what you assert, namely:

            1. You are calling Hersh and his sources in defense and intelligence, liars.
            2. The “open source reports” you claim as your sources of information, according to Hersh’s sources who are CURRENTLY working in U.S. defense and intelligence (unlike you, a retired lieutenant colonel), are not reliable because the information contained in those “open source reports” came from the White House.

            For me to do the above requires no special credentials beyond intelligence and training in critical thinking, both of which are amply demonstrated by my record of a Ph.D., a full professorship (which is the military equivalent of a colonel; I know because I was met at the airport by a full colonel when I went to give a presentation at the Air War College), and scholarship comprised of 4 singly-authored books published by reputable academic presses and countless refereed articles in professional journals. None of which I recall seeing in your resume.

            But then I’m not the one to frame this as a matter of professional credibility based on “credentials.” It was you who took my questioning your assertions as challenging your “credentials,” from which I can only conclude that in your mind, I and other CODA readers are simply to bow to your “credentials” and just accept everything you say as Truth. Fascinating!

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        • And since when is the UN a credible source?

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        • @rthurs666:

          “Hersh is not a trained technician as I am and would be unable to detect the tehnical flaws in his argument”.

          Another thing. How does ANYONE know what the rebels have gotten into Syria? Intelligence from the administration? Pass the giggle test? For real? I am not an expert on chemical weapons nor do I throw about my being an ‘expert’ (trained retired technician) regarding anything. All I have is a degree in American Military history, Meteorology and Atmospheric physics nothing more, nothing less. I am pretty darn good at analytical thinking, analyzing reports from many different sources, interpret maps and forecasting models. Toss in a high degree of common sense and I am not impressed. There is no reason to trust you or anything that this regime, I mean administration, spews out to us.

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          • Thank you, Patriot USA. The Obama administration has lied to us about Fast & Furious, Benghazi (Not just lies but unfeeling callousness for the 4 Americans killed in Benghazi: O said they were mere “bumps on the road” while Sec. of State Hillary Clinton said “What does it matter”), Obamacare (“You can keep your doctor!”; “Your medical premiums won’t go up!”), and just about everything, including his fake personal documents like his Selective Service registration. The Obama admin. even stoops so low as to sic the IRS on those who disagree with him: TEA Party, conservatives, Christians, and even a man dying of cancer Bill Elliott.

            At this point, the Obama White House has zero credibility. I wouldn’t believe him even if he says the sun will rise tomorrow.

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      • I am sorry that you regard my pointing out the technical errors in Mr Hersh’;s article as evindence of hostility. My point is that if an unnamed person makes allegations and includes “facts” that I know to be incorrect, I am justified in questioning the veracity of the source. You asked me for my sources and I gave you several of them. You have given no source for your allegatiuons beyond the unnamed “defense and intelligence” persons mentioned in Hersh’s article.

        You sneer at my qualifications and then cite your Ph.D. and scholarly articles. Well and good, I congratulate you for them. But is your Ph.D. in chemistry, biology or any other field directly ly realetd to chemical warfare? If your Ph.D is in Economics, for example, I would not argue with you about economic theory, of which I have a rather dim grasp. Give me the same courtesy in my field of expertise.

        As for Mr Hersh’s Pulitzer, it was awarded for a story he wrote 40 years ago in a different war and on a different subject. It does not make him infallible in anything he writes today.

        Dr. C will tell you that I am not a fan of Barack Obama in any way, shape or form. I have made several disapaging remarks about him on this very forum. But I have no information to show me that the UN explanation of the August incident is anything but accurate. Do you have any information to the contrary? If so share it with us, so that we can evaluate it..

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        • All well and good. I was just making a point. Hersh, me and you are not infallible. I did not find your comments offensive, I questioned them. You can rake me over the coals and do it however you want. I never claimed to have other sources did I? It was questioning what sources you were using, not mine. If you took what I said the wrong, then I apologize.

          Why would I want to believe anything the UN states when the UN pushes something like Agenda 21 or supports Islam, shariah law and turns a blind eye towards the persecution of women, girls and then tries to show they do not turn a blind eye? Not going off track, but why would I trust the UN or the Obama administration? I shared my education in contrast. Why would I try to explain when you have pretty much done so, which I appreciated but questioned. You got your panties in a wad. Mine was personal opinion and and common sense, and critical thinking. Sorry, but there have been enough intelligence failures and lies from this administration that I would never trust it. and this also goes for many PAST administrations.

          When there are the likes of Ltc. Bateman mouthing off I have every right to question everything and I pretty much do. I have a lot friends who are vets both current and retired. They loathe what Obama has done and is doing to our military. I would post a link to Bateman but it has nothing to do with this discussion so I will not do so. He is an idiot.

          Thank you for your service. I come from a family that has served in military going back to WW1.

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          • Believe me I have no love for Obama or what he is doing and plans to do toi our military. And, like you, I question almost e verythibng that comes out of the administration and the media. In Syria we are dealing with a right bunch of bastards on both ssides. I am well aware that rebel groups have obtained small amounts of Sarin from Iraq and other places and have used a few kilos in small-scale attacks on governemnt forces. I simply don’t beleive they coiuld have launched an attack on the scale of the Damascus attack in August. There are pictures of the munitions found on site which are clearly Soviet-made 140 mm rockets. These require a fairly sophisticated military organization to transport, load and fire with any accuracy..

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  3. A. James Gregor, Ph.D. & Professor

    The Seymour Hersh article has produced a curious exchange.in the “comments” section of CODA. Hersh, an internationally recognized investigative journalist, who is not known as a critic of the Obama administration, has delivered himself of a reproof of Washington’s posture concerning the sarin gas attack on civilians in Syria (which turned out to be advanced as grounds for an armed assault on the Assad regime).

    Some have argued that Hersh’s criticisms lack any basis in fact. What are the plausibilities governing the case? Not being either an intelligence officer or one trained in chemical warfare, the only thing I can do, as a “low information” news consumer, is to carefully consider what I am expected to believe.

    I must either believe that Hersh, a prominent journalist, is prepared to jeopardize his stature and credibility by making a case against the administration he has, in general, favored–using doubtful logic and impaired sources (both easily discerned by others). Hersh is addressing an issue which has become prominent: Is the present administration credible?–against the background of Benghazi and a series of Middle Eastern fiascoes? We are expected to believe that Hersh, with all his access to resources, failed to be apprized of the most elementary facts. As a journalist of stature, Hersh had access to sources unavailable to the vast majority of us. In those circumstances, was there no one to tell him that the most elementary analysis of the sarin gas used in the attacks could easily identify it as a government product or rebel spawned? Was there no one to tell him, in the course of his investigation, that the least sophisticated assessment of the character of the delivery systems would immediately reveal the true source of the attack? Why would he venture on such an impaired criticism of a sitting president when all this counterevidence was there, within sight of the least informed among us?

    Given at least these considerations, I really think that as a lay-person, assigning credibility to Hersh’s account taxes my credulity far less than the alternative.

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  4. Assad and his military/intelligence/political apparatus are butchers. Muslim Brotherhood/al Qaeda/al Nusra/international Islamists are butchers. What is so hard about thinking that the most obvious answer is the right answer, and the Syrian military gassed some people in eastern Damascus?

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    • Because some people don’t let facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory, especially if it involves the US military or US intelligence services.
      All you need is an unnamed source and you have a story that will be accepted as fact in some circles. Even the best journalists are vulnerable to the “disgruntled employee” with an agenda of his/her own. But good journalists get independent verification before publishing rumours. If somebody told you a story about a conspiracy and then told you a raid was carried out with a non-nuclear Polaris missile fired from an F-16, would you suspect the source?

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    • Using your own words: “Assad and his military/intelligence/political apparatus are butchers. Muslim Brotherhood/al Qaeda/al Nusra/international Islamists are butchers.

      What is so hard about thinking that the Syrian jihadist “rebels” gassed some people in eastern Damascus?

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    • Since the rockets were fired into0 rebel strongholds, why is it logical to assume the rebels fired them. Wouldn’t it be more logical to fire their rockets into loyalist neighborhoods? AFAIK, the only reliable reports of rebvel Sarin use was about 5 pounds used on a governemnt outpost near the Turkiish border. I find it hard to ebeleui ve that tghe rebvels could smuggle a 2-1/2 to truck with a 16 barrelled multiple rocket launcher bounted on it to within 10 km of Damascus.

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