In December last year investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an explosive expose on Syria. Hersh’s article explained how the Obama Administration had “cherry-picked intelligence” about the 21 August 2013 chemical weapons attack on Ghouta “to justify a strike against Assad”. Acting more like a herd of animals rather than the independent, questioning journalists they are supposed to be, shockingly the UK news media ignored Hersh’s report. Luckily, the planned US attack on Syria was averted when political considerations forced the White House to pause, which allowed Russia to propose the deal that is currently destroying Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Confirming Marx’s dictum that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce” Hersh’s latest expose on Syria and chemical weapons has once again been blacked out by the UK news media (the exception being a short interview on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight).
Published in the London Review of Books in April, Hersh quotes an unnamed former senior US intelligence official who says Turkey, in attempt to get the US to attack Syria, was behind the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta. Hersh cites a message sent by a senior CIA official: “It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this”. Hersh also argues that when the US Government claimed that only the Syrian Government had access to sarin gas they knew this to be false – a June 2013 Defence Intelligence Agency briefing had noted the Al-Nusra Front, a jihadi rebel group, maintained a sarin production cell.
A number of other news reports suggest Hersh may be on to something.
On 29 August, a week after the chemical attack, Associated Press reported that “multiple US officials used the phrase ‘not a slam dunk’ to describe the intelligence picture”. ‘Not a slam dunk’ is a reference to the then-CIA Director’s insistence in 2002 that the intelligence on Iraq’s WMD was a “slam dunk”. The Associated Press story went on to note that some US intelligence officials “have even talked about the possibility that rebels could have carried out the attack in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war.” With the US attack set to begin on 2 September, it is important to note that on 8 September the Associated Press reported “the public has yet to see a single piece of concrete evidence produced by US intelligence – no satellite imagery, no transcripts of Syrian military communications – connecting the government of President Bashar Assad to the alleged chemical weapons attack”. In the same week the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported that German intelligence was convinced Assad did not order or approve the chemical weapons attack on 21 August. Ake Sellstrom, the Swedish chemical weapons expert who heads the UN inspection team in Syria, raised more questions in December 2013 when he told the Wall Street Journal both sides in the conflict had the “opportunity” and the “capability” to carry out chemical weapons attacks.
A recent study of the rocket used in one part of the chemical attack by former UN Weapons Inspector Richard Lloyd and Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts of Technology, has further challenged the US Government narrative. “My view when I started this process was that it couldn’t be anything but the Syrian government behind the attack”, Postol told McClatchy Newspapers in January. “But now I’m not sure of anything. The administration narrative was not even close to reality. Our intelligence cannot possibly be correct.”
Another interesting aside to Hersh’s assertion that Turkey was behind the attack is the recently leaked recording that appears to show Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish intelligence, planning a false-flag operation in Syria. The discussion centred on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, a site of national importance to Turkey located in Syria, which an Islamist rebel group had threatened to destroy. In response the Turkish Government had threatened to retaliate if harm came to the tomb. On the recording Fidan says “If there is to be justification, the justification is I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land [in the vicinity of the tomb]. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.”
So are Hersh’s latest assertions on Syria correct? The simple answer is we don’t know. What we do know is Hersh has a history of uncovering the dark side of US foreign policy – he broke the story of the My Lai massacre in 1969 and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. We know Hersh has good contacts within the US intelligence community and that he cited a number of (unnamed) former and current intelligence officials in both of his articles on Syria. We also know many of his conclusions are echoed by several other news accounts.
Of course, the best way of checking the veracity of Hersh’s expose would be for the rest of the media to assign some serious resources and manpower to investigate the story. However, as the press and television news have effectively implemented a blackout of Hersh’s report we are very far from getting to the truth at this current time.
Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair