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Dissecting Seymour Hersh’s Account of the Sarin Attacks on Ghouta

I greatly admire Seymour Hersh’s investigative journalism, especially his revelations of the My Lai massacre and Abu Ghraib. If he were judged by those works alone, we should consider him a national treasure. In this post, I attempt to put his report of the sarin attacks in Syria in its most favorable light. I conclude, however, that the report does not withstand scrutiny.

I. Understanding Hersh’s Principal Claims

It is important to understand Hersh’s argument in its most persuasive form, especially because that version of it neutralizes some of his critics.

The element of timing: what the President did not know and when he did not know it

Hersh’s principal claim is that the President did not have sufficient certainty that the Assad regime was responsible for the sarin attack at the time the White House attempted to publicly justify a military strike.

In other words, Hersh’s central point would not be negated if information subsequently comes to light providing much stronger evidence that the regime was responsible. This is important because the leading published criticism of Hersh — Eliot Higgins’ piece in Foreign Policy — bases much of the response to Hersh on “a growing body of evidence” showing that the regime carried out the attacks. The key question is what the White House knew in August and September 2013.

The standard of proof: How unlikely is it that al-Nusra was responsible

Hersh claims that the White House irresponsibly excluded the possibility that a rebel force, the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, carried out the chemical attack. Once again, Hersh need not prove that al-Nusra actually conducted the attack—just that it was likely enough such that the White House did not have a sufficient case for going to war (and the administration should have been more honest with the American people about the level of uncertainty). Again, the leading criticism by Higgins misses the target here. He relies on a quote from weapons specialist Dan Kaszeta who asks and answers the following question: “Who is more likely to have done the deed?” But that’s not the question Hersh’s story raises. Indeed, Hersh could admit that it is “more likely” that the regime was responsible, but if it is nevertheless highly plausible or very possible that the rebels were responsible, Hersh would be vindicated.

II. Evaluating Hersh’s Account

Although the foundation for Hersh’s claims is ultimately hollow (see below), it is important to acknowledge some of Hersh’s account that is more persuasive. These include his reporting:

  • passive sensors, which the US planted near the regime’s chemical weapons depots, did not detect sarin prior to the August 21 attack;
  • the US relied on YouTube videos taken at the scene to count the official fatalities (caveat: this issue is a bit of non sequitur);
  • the administration engaged in some obfuscation at least with respect to when it knew about the regime’s preparations for the attack and whether Assad himself was directly responsible; and
  • quotations from at least one “former senior intelligence official;” one “senior intelligence consultant;” and an email exchange from a “high-level intelligence officer” to a colleague.

Despite these more persuasive elements of Hersh’s account, his major factual claims are weak. Before turning to them, it’s important to note some elements that Hersh omits.

Missing element 1: Motive

Hersh’s account depends on a President (hell) bent on a military attack (think George W. Bush and Iraq). But the notion that this President has those motivations is implausible. Indeed, Hersh’s own theory is that President Obama quickly backed off when the evidence (according to Hersh) started to look thin. And, the account that Hersh has given in subsequent interviews advances the theory that Obama felt forced to respond militarily after having drawn a “red line” against Assad. If that’s true, wouldn’t Obama have been motivated to show that Assad had not used chemical weapons?

Missing element 2: Independent verification of US intelligence findings

Hersh never mentions the inquiries and assessments of other intelligence agencies (e.g., France, United Kingdom) and organizations (NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Arab League, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation) with different interests at stake—each of which concluded that the Syrian state forces were responsible. Also never mentioned by Hersh is an extensive report by Human Rights Watch which concludes that the Syrian government was “almost certainly responsible,” and states that the regime had produced “no evidence” to support its claims that the rebels carried out the attacks (also p. 20). Reports by such independent institutions do not fit, and find no mention in, Hersh’s narrative.

Let’s assess four of Hersh’s affirmative claims.

Hersh Claim 1. At the start of the civil war, Assad discovered and effectively disabled US electronic eavesdropping of his inner circle.  

Hersh states, “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.”

This claim is a red herring. The US reportedly intercepted other highly important communications of Assad’s regime, even if those did not involve communications between Assad himself and his inner circle.

The administration released an unclassified Government Assessment that refers to multiple intercepts. Indeed, later in the LRB story, Hersh himself refers to the extensive “chatter [that] is routinely stored on computers,” which US intelligence agencies sorted through after August 21. (Hersh does not reconcile this inconsistency.) Furthermore, one of the key communications —which Hersh astoundingly never mentions—involved a high level official discussing the attack. Foreign Policy’s The Cable broke the story, which was then covered in news media around the world. Here is the lede from that story:

in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.

In his remarks on August 30, Secretary Kerry also referred to intercepts following the attacks: “We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.”

Hersh Claim 2. The administration created a misleading narrative that it had knowledge of the Syrian military’s preparations leading up to the attack in real time.

Hersh states that “there was no intelligence about Syrian intentions in the days before the attack.”

First, Hersh’s statement is a bit misleading. The intelligence had been collected before August 21, but the analysis of the information occurred only after the attacks. Admittedly, initial statements from the administration could have been clearer, but they did not state expressly that the US had knowledge or awareness of the events in real time. The following excerpt of the Government Assessment admittedly leaves open the interpretation that the administration knew in real time, but its words were chosen carefully:

“In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack. …  Our intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons.”

Regardless, this is largely another red herring. That is, why does it matter that the analysis of the collected information occurred subsequent to the attack? Indeed, Hersh points to a thoughtful, if not ingenious, approach on the part of the intelligence community: examine the Syrian government’s actions in preparing for prior uses of chemical weapons and see if there is evidence of similar actions leading up to August 21. Hersh labels this process “cherry picking,” but doesn’t explain or demonstrate how this method of analysis or identification of evidence was improper.

Moreover, buried deep— almost half-way down—in Hersh’s story is an explicit and unequivocal statement by the administration that it collected the information before August 21 but analyzed that information only afterwards. The spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated to the Associated Press:

“Let’s be clear, the United States did not watch, in real time, as this horrible attack took place. The intelligence community was able to gather and analyze information after the fact and determine that elements of the Assad regime had in fact taken steps to prepare prior to using chemical weapons.”

To his credit, Hersh reproduces the statement in full.

Finally, it is easy to understand the motive on the part of the administration not to reveal initially that it failed to have advance or “real time” knowledge of the attack. Indeed, it could save hundreds of lives if the Syrian regime believed that any further move on its part to use chemical weapons would be detected by US intelligence agencies.

Hersh Claim 3: US intelligence and military officers believe the White House purposefully manipulated intelligence.

Hersh states that “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.”

First, this claim is curiously non-specific with respect to the number of people who hold these views. For example, one could conduct interviews with “dozens” or even “hundreds” of officers and “find intense concern and on occasion anger”–and the latter refer only to two or three individuals.

More fundamentally, Hersh suggests that the concern about “manipulation” of intelligence may simply refer to the claim discussed above—namely the false impression that the US had real time knowledge of the events prior to August 21. And, if that is all the “intense concern” and “anger” was about, it is not very damning. Guess what? It does seem as though a lot of the concern boiled down to that very issue of timing. As Hersh states: “The complaints focus on what Washington did not have: any advance warning from the assumed source of the attack.”

Hersh Claim 4: The administration states that there is no evidence that al-Nusra has acquired or used chemical weapons, but the administration has intelligence information to the contrary.

Hersh states: “The White House further declared: ‘We have no reliable corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.’ The statement contradicted evidence that at the time was streaming into US intelligence agencies.”

It is strangely easy to show what’s wrong with this claim. First, there is an enormous difference between: (1) actually “acquiring” and “using” chemical weapons and (2) everything shy of those actions (e.g., having the ability to acquire, the knowledge to manufacture, or the capacity to use). Indeed, many state and nonstate actors around the world fall into the second category, but not the first. And none of the evidence that Hersh writes about with respect to al-Nusra is in the first category. All his evidence is in the latter. And thus there is nothing in his LRB story to “contradict” the White House statement (or Samantha Power’s statement that “we have no evidence that the opposition possesses sarin.”). Here are the examples that Hersh includes:

  • a June 20 top-secret cable that “did confirm previous reports that al-Nusra had the ability to acquire and use sarin”
  • a former intelligence official statement that an Operations Order included an intelligence threat assessment that the rebels forces “were able to produce the lethal gas…[which relied on] the expressed intention and technical capability of the rebels”;
  • “available intelligence about al-Nusra’s potential access to sarin”

Furthermore is the question of scale. Hersh states that al-Nusra “was capable of manufacturing [sarin] in quantity.” What does “in quantity” mean? I am no expert in these matters, but Hersh needs to answer expert analyses which state that it is highly implausible, if not inconceivable, that al-Nusra could: produce the quantity of chemicals used in Ghouta (HRW, Kaszeta), have the launch and delivery system of that scale (HRW, Higgins), and have the ability militarily to conduct the sarin attacks simultaneously in two locations 16 kilometers apart (HRW, Paraszczuk & Lucas). It is no use for Hersh to repeat, in interviews, that al-Nusra had the capacity to produce and use sarin without answering these second-order questions about scale. And, there’s even an inconsistency in Hersh’s own report. He notes that the US contingency plans for a US ground invasion included “hav[ing] to guard the Syrian rocket fleet: accessing large volumes of the chemicals that create sarin without the means to deliver it would be of little value to a rebel force.”

Notably in two interviews since the report, Hersh has stated that al-Nusra has “produced” sarin (Democracy Now!) and possesses it (“They have it. We know it.” (CNN’s Jake Tapper at 5:57)). It is curious that these statements are in interviews and not in the fact-checked and edited publication.

In sum, there is a part of me that wishes for the sake of investigate journalism that Hersh’s report had a stronger foundation. I am glad for the sake of our country that it doesn’t.


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About the Author

is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. Follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.