Sy Hersh just published an article in the London Review of Books questioning whether it was, indeed, Syrian government forces that carried out the August 21 attack that almost led to an American attack on Syria and to the disarming of Syria’s chemical arsenal. I won’t go into the details of the evidence Hersh presents; I’ll leave that for the very capable Brown Moses, who is tweeting his analysis as I write (@Brown_Moses). I’ll focus on the logic of Hersh’s argument and his sources.

Update (December 9, 2013): Brown Moses (Eliot Higgins) weighs in.

Hersh presents a number of statements from the usual anonymous sources. It’s impossible, of course, to evaluate statements from “intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present,” “high-level intelligence officer,” “former senior intelligence official,” “senior intelligence consultant.” Only three appear to be quoted; it’s always hard to tell with anonymous sources. It’s possible Hersh talked to others he didn’t quote.

Yes, everyone uses anonymous sources, and yes, there may be good reasons for them to remain anonymous. But it weakens any argument. People may inflate their importance and pay back old grudges, which is much easier to do anonymously. Three sources aren’t enough to provide confidence that their information is reliable. Hersh himself complains about a government briefing, “No specifics were provided, nor were those who provided the reports identified.” I think it works both ways.

According to Hersh, the administration had no advance warning of the attack on Ghouta and reconstructed what they could from the signals intelligence that had been routinely collected on Syria. He cites a Washington Post report on the national intelligence budget released by Edward Snowden to show that Assad’s office was a difficult target. He also says that the Post article “provided the first indication” that the National Reconaissance Office monitors sensors secretly placed near Syrian chemical weapons sites. Unfortunately, no link is provided to the article so that Hersh’s claims can be checked.

There have been rumors for years of “smart rocks” dropped around Iran’s and Syria’s critical sites that broadcast to satellites. It’s hard to imagine a smart rock smaller than a backpack that could include sample intake, a mass spectrometer or spectrophotometer, satellite transmission, and battery power. Perhaps some micro analyses that report color changes could miniaturize the smart rock. I’d like to see this worked out in more detail before I believe that every Syrian chemical site is continuously monitored by the NRO.

Looking back at intelligence already collected is part of the analysis process. It’s not necessarily fixing the intelligence or cherrypicking, as Hersh implies, although, as he says, it’s not as firm as watching things happen in real time.

Hersh cites Theodore Postol, partly from a New York Times article and associated slide presentation, and partly from an e-mail exchange between the two. (The Times’s search function is more helpful than the Post’s.) He says that Postol has concluded that flight path analysis by the Times indicating that the munitions used in the August 21 attack were launched from government positions “are nuts,” but this is in the e-mail exchange, not the Times material. Hersh says nothing about the several analyses posted in the Brown Moses blog that consistently support the Times analysis.

Hersh then turns to the possibility that a rebel group could have mounted the attacks. His evidence:

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.

An intelligence document issued in mid-summer dealt extensively with Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, who was said to have moved into Syria and to be operating in Eastern Ghouta. The consultant told me that Tariq had been identified ‘as an al-Nusra guy with a track record of making mustard gas in Iraq and someone who is implicated in making and using sarin’.

a four-page top secret cable summarising what had been learned about al-Nusra’s nerve gas capabilities … confirm[ed] previous reports that al-Nusra had the ability to acquire and use sarin.

“[U]nderstood the science of producing sarin,” “implicated in making and using sarin,” and “the ability to acquire and use sarin” are far from the ability to produce the quantities of sarin used in the August 21 attack. Nowhere in the article does Hersh suggest how any of the rebel groups might have made or acquired the sarin used in that attack. It’s not something you can whip up in your kitchen.

Hersh then writes as if rebel possession of sarin were verified fact, starting here and continuing for a couple of paragraphs:

In both its public and private briefings after 21 August, the administration disregarded the available intelligence about al-Nusra’s potential access to sarin and continued to claim that the Assad government was in sole possession of chemical weapons.

His evidence doesn’t support rebel possession of sarin, but this is a central part of his argument.

There’s more I find dubious, but let’s start with this.

Update: (December 9, 2013): More problems detailed here.

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