In the empirical universe, President Barack Obama responded to the August sarin gas attacks in Syria by threatening force against Bashar al-Assad, who promptly surrendered his chemical stockpiles. In the imaginary universe of Seymour Hersh, the truth is something more like an Alex Jones special:
Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.
Begin with the fact that sarin gas is actually hard to make, and also difficult to weaponize, and you can start to understand the totality of this exercise in delusion from Mr. Hersh. I have seen no evidence that al-Nusra has accessed, much less manufactured the Soviet-era BM-14 rocket launchers used to fire sarin-tipped rockets on Ghouta. Whereas Syria’s chemical weapons program has existed for decades, “reports” in a Pentagon warplan do not necessarily authenticate the actual existence of any al-Nusra sarin factories. Syria’s chemical weapon factories have been dismantled, and the US Navy is not parking aircraft carriers in the Eastern Mediterranean; they are instead sending a ship to safely destroy Syria’s stockpiles. These things are happening because Syria has had an actual, real, not-imaginary WMD program, whereas al-Nusrah’s alleged program is more aspirational than factual.
But the “cherry-picking” charge is where Hersh really departs from fact-based journalism into op-ed madness, because Hersh is the one cherry-picking intelligence sources. Having just plucked the existence of an intelligence report from within a warplan (that he has not actually read) while shouting “eureka!,” Hersh then dismisses an entire major branch of the intelligence business:
The NSA would of course monitor Assad’s office around the clock if it could, the former official said. Other communications – from various army units in combat throughout Syria – would be far less important, and not analysed in real time. ‘There are literally thousands of tactical radio frequencies used by field units in Syria for mundane routine communications,’ he said, ‘and it would take a huge number of NSA cryptological technicians to listen in – and the useful return would be zilch.’ But the ‘chatter’ is routinely stored on computers. Once the scale of events on 21 August was understood, the NSA mounted a comprehensive effort to search for any links to the attack, sorting through the full archive of stored communications. A keyword or two would be selected and a filter would be employed to find relevant conversations. ‘What happened here is that the NSA intelligence weenies started with an event – the use of sarin – and reached to find chatter that might relate,’ the former official said. ‘This does not lead to a high confidence assessment, unless you start with high confidence that Bashar Assad ordered it, and began looking for anything that supports that belief.’ The cherry-picking was similar to the process used to justify the Iraq war.
After so many months of hype and linkbaiting about the NSA gathering mass-metadata, it is ironic to have Mr. Hersh suddenly acknowledge what the press largely has not examined: that the primary use of intelligence collection is to respond to events, not prevent them. Yes, the dirty secret of the NSA is that it is much better at responding to attacks than stopping them in their tracks. (The NSA shares some of the blame for this misperception, as the agency has touted its anti-terrorism mission so much in order to win its share of funding.) Yet Mr. Hersh is not acknowledging this reality in order to be fair. On the word of an unnamed source who dismisses signals intelligence professionals as “weenies,” he flatly states that their reports should be disregarded out of hand.
But those unverified reports of al-Nusra sarin factories? Those are totally credible to Mr. Hersh. Continue reading