Over the weekend, the London Review of Books published another Seymour Hersh article on the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, Syria, last August 21. The article follows another that Hersh published in December. The first article was wrong, and the second is worse.
Word was that the New Yorker, where Hersh usually publishes, had concerns about the sourcing of that first article. In the second, Hersh quotes five sources: a former senior US intelligence official, a Defense Department consultant, a person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria, a former senior Defense Department official, and a US intelligence consultant. He seems to be careful in using those designations. The use of anonymous sources makes it impossible to judge which interests these people are putting forth; sources always have a point of view. However, Hersh refers only to the first source more than once. There is no indication that any of the sources confirmed any other source’s information.
Hersh also refers to two documents. It’s not clear whether he has actually seen those documents or is relying on his sources to tell him what they say. Both are said to be highly classified. The Defense Intelligence Agency has specifically denied the existence of one of those documents. It’s hard to say what that means – they might deny its existence no matter what the truth is – but it’s an unusual step for an intelligence agency.
It’s easy enough to figure out Hersh’s use of sources: it took me a half-hour or so of cutting ans pasting. It’s surprising that the LRB didn’t bother with that simple exercise.
Further, the only physical evidence Hersh refers to is a single sample analyzed at Porton Down and supplied by a Russian, who he says is reliable. Apparently Hersh does not understand the concept of chain of custody, where everyone responsible has to sign off on the way the sample was collected and transported in order to show that the sample has not been tampered with and that it is from the place certified, taken by the methods certified. And he ignores the UN evidence, which was taken in that way, plus the evidence supplied by various intelligence services, which may or may not have relied on a chain of custody. (French report here.)
I won’t go into a lot of detail because a number of other excellent articles on different problems with Hersh’s article have appeared over the past few days. I’ll give short summaries of those articles; all are worth reading if you are interested what Hersh got wrong. Many of the flaws in his argument, taken singly, could invalidate the article; there are quite a few. I think a pattern is emerging, which I will discuss after listing those pieces.
Ryan Goodman at Just Security makes the point about trusting a Russian source with additional detail and that Hersh does not address the intelligence findings.
Brown Moses (Eliot Higgins) reviews the evidence on the munitions used, which points uniquivocally to the Syrian army. This is more of the previous evidence that Hersh simply ignores.
Dan Kaszeta analyzes the article’s claims from a chemical weapons viewpoint. A couple of gallons of antifreeze is not evidence of production of sarin or its precursors on the scale needed for the Ghouta attack.
Aaron Stein analyzes Hersh’s discussion of Turkish politics and finds it absurd. He also analyzes a tape posted to YouTube that Hersh cites, allegedly of Erdoğan and his associates, that included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria.
Update: The White House response to Hersh’s article. Short version: it’s nonsense.
The first question I would ask of a source coming to me with the story that Hersh’s source has provided him is whether what the source is claiming is physically possible. Hersh seems to get wrapped up in the political intrigue, and, perhaps, that the story is consistent with his predelictions. But could the rebels produce their own sarin or precursors and the munitions in the amounts needed for Ghouta? A fairly significant manufacturing facility would be needed for this, with very specialized equipment. Some of that equipment, and the chemicals needed for starting material, are under export controls. It’s hard to believe that all of that could be smuggled or hidden in some way. Possible, but unlikely.
And there would have to be a largeish building, probably on the order of a factory manufacturing, say, detergent. But if the source knows so much, could he point it out on a satellite photo? If he could, there might be other clues that would illuminate the building’s purpose, like truck traffic.
Physical evidence like this seems to be alien to Hersh’s thinking and is the subject of Eliot Higgins’s and Dan Kaszeta’s takedowns. It really does help one’s reporting to know something about technical matters.
Venturing into the realm of speculation, I’ll point out that we seem to be seeing a lot of claims of false flag operations lately. Hersh’s and others’ claims that the Ghouta attack was false flag by the rebels. The claims that it was the demonstrators in the Maidan who mounted the sniper attacks and now that American military contractors are operating in Ukraine. We’re also seeing a lot of intercepted phonecalls appearing on YouTube. Victoria Nuland and Gregory Pyatt, American diplomats on Ukraine. Urmas Paet and Catherine Ashton, European diplomats on snipers in Maidan. Turkish government officials mentioning a false flag operation. And the ever-popular false flag conspiracy theories of Malaysia Airlines 370 and 9/11.
Someone is intercepting those phonecalls, and it probably isn’t the NSA that is posting them on YouTube. Considering the classic question of who benefits by these postings, Russia would benefit by discrediting the Ukrainian government or the Syrian rebels. The Russian intelligence services are also thoroughly acquainted with false flag operations and are quite willing to use them, probably more so than other governments. Name me one unambiguous false flag operation in the past few years.
That’s a pattern I’m seeing. It’s not unambiguous, but it is something to keep in mind as more tapped phone conversations are made public and more claims are made of false flag operations.
Graphic from here, where you can find more false flag fantasies.by