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Seymour Hersh’s Second Bite at the Apple: The Syrian chemical weapons conspiracy 2.0

In December 2013, Seymour Hersh published a potential bombshell story entitled, “Whose sarin?” The story purported to show that the White House knew it had insufficient evidence that Assad’s military forces — rather than the rebels — were responsible for the sarin attacks in Ghouta despite President Obama’s invoking those attacks as the public justification for going to war. In response, I published a post at Just Security which attempted to evaluate Hersh’s evidence in its most favorable light. But my conclusion was that his evidence was weak and, in important respects, misleading. Other analyses of Hersh’s story (Eliot Higgins and Joanna Paraszczuk and Scott Lucas) reached similar conclusions. The bombshell story seemed more like a dud.

This weekend, the London Review of Books published a new story by Hersh. This time, Hersh claims to show that Turkey was responsible for covertly supplying the Syrian rebels with the sarin used in the chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta, and that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s agents were responsible for helping bring about the false flag operation.

Others have already raised significant concerns (here and here) about Hersh’s latest report. I am not going to dive as deeply into Hersh’s new story this time, except for a few observations.

At the outset, I should note a couple observations in favor of Hersh. First, his latest story could provide answers to some of the questions raised by his earlier report. Most importantly, it might help to address the criticism that the rebels would not have had the capacity to produce the quantity of chemicals used in the attacks. The potential answer: they got it from Turkey. Second, other critics correctly note that key pieces of Hersh’s latest story rely on a single source, an anonymous “former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence,” and, indeed, this individual may not have even served in the Obama administration. That said, in defense of Hersh, significant parts of the story are also supported by a June 20, 2013 highly classified “talking points” paper produced by the US Defense Intelligence Agency.

That said, I have three significant concerns with Hersh’s latest story.

1. Trusting Russian intelligence on Syrian chemical weapons

According to the second paragraph in the story, the most critical piece of evidence came from British intelligence: a sample of the sarin from the attack site did not match the Syrian government’s stockpile. Hersh writes:

“British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff.”

However, buried much deeper in the story (eleven paragraphs later), one discovers that the source of that particular sarin sample was Russian intelligence. Hersh notes:

“Within a few days of the 21 August attack … Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down.”

Remarkably, in all his discussion of the US and Turkey’s motivations, Hersh discusses neither the interests and motivations of Moscow nor Moscow’s terrible record of duplicity in trying to bury the horrors, including chemical weapons use, of the Assad regime.   

It gets worse. In his near twenty-minute interview on Democracy Now! on Monday morning, Hersh does not mention once the Russian involvement in the sarin sample. Instead at the very outset of the interview, he frames his report in these terms:

“What we do know—I’m talking about the military, the Pentagon and the analysts—is that the sarin that was recovered wasn’t the kind of sarin that exists in the Syrian arsenal.” (my emphasis added)

The passive tense is revealing, because what Hersh does not inform his audience is that that particular sarin sample was “recovered” from Russian intelligence operatives. Moreover, later in the interview, he describes the sarin sample as though it came directly from the British: “Well, by this time, they knew from the Joint Chiefs of Staff—they knew that the British had come to us with sarin that had been analyzed at their laboratory and that—we share a laboratory on chemical and biological warfare issues with Britain, place called Porton Down. It’s their chemical warfare facility.”

2. Turkey fizzle

One might think that Hersh’s account of Turkey’s involvement is meant to build a case that the White House had information that the August attack involved a false flag operation with Turkish support for the rebels. Yet, the key part of that intelligence — including what Hersh’s source calls the “principle evidence” of Turkey’s involvement – actually comes to naught near the end of Hersh’s story. Three paragraphs from the end of the near 6000-word story, he writes instead:

“The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president.” (my emphasis added)

The whole story thus becomes much less credible. We are told that the White House was not even informed of the “principle evidence” of Turkey’s involvement, yet the President still somehow decided to reverse course because of internal doubts about the administration’s case against Assad. Also, I don’t see how a “great reluctance to contradict the President” squares with Hersh’s telling us earlier that “the Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president” and that “it was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course.” Which is it? The members of the US military, including the DIA, did not want to rock the boat and contradict the President’s determination that the Assad regime was responsible? Or the members of the military went to the President with evidence that the Syrian regime was not responsible and pushed Obama to change course?

3. Independent verification of US intelligence findings

Finally, Hersh replicates a problem with his previous report (see “Missing element #2” in my prior post). He fails to consider multiple independent sources that have reached the same conclusion as the US government with respect to the responsibility of the Assad regime. In the latest story, Hersh reports that, according to the former US official, “There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off.” If that is accurate, it is perhaps because credible independent sources have done so. One of these includes a United Nations report published in March 2014, which concludes that the sarin gas came from the government’s stockpile. The UN report states:

“The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military” (emphasis added).

Hersh’s account would be much more credible if it addressed, let alone could explain, the UN’s assessment—especially because that assessment squarely answers the question raised in the title of his first story (“Whose sarin?”) and contradicts the supposed smoking gun in his second (the Russian sample). 

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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. You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.