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.
I have no access to what American intelligence agencies collected in the three days prior to the attack on Ghouta, but having served in a collections role I can guess at the sort of traffic Mr. Hersh is so swift to dismiss: a unit deploying from its barracks makes radio noise. Artillery crews and fire control centers make radio noise. This chatter takes place on known radio nets using jargon and content that will be distinct from other kinds of Syrian military communications. For example, a chemical weapons crew will report when it is putting on protective gear, and then report again once it has finished, before handling their chemical ammunition. Regular artillery crews don’t do that. Furthermore, whenever possible, the positions of these radio emitters will be triangulated so that locations can be matched to traffic.
Not all of these sources will be military in nature: shortly after an attack, NSA operators will hear ambulance crews and other civilian agencies reporting the horror. Nor was the NSA the sole source of information about the attack on Ghouta, as German and Israeli and French intelligence agencies contributed to what the president knew when he rattled his saber.
There simply is no “cherry-picking” this intelligence in the way Hersh so blithely assumes, or in the manner of Colin Powell’s speech to the UN in 2003. Decade-old psychological scars about “evidence” of an Iraqi WMD program that did not exist are no excuse to deny the existence of Syria’s WMD program, which has been very, very real. The UN report on the Ghouta attack was not intended to assign blame, but it left little doubt as to who was responsible. Nothing about these two discrete events should be seen as analogous.
Perhaps Hersh imagines the Syrian Army just happened to hold a chemical weapons exercise in the area while rebels snuck in under their noses and carried out the attack. If this is what he wants to believe, then nothing will persuade him that it isn’t true, and any “unnamed official” with an ax to grind can easily feed him exactly the sort of quotes that fuel his fire. Only the actual intelligence professionals who have listened to the intercepted traffic will know better, and of course they won’t be talking. That provides huge polemical advantages to anyone who wants to cherry-pick and invent false narratives. Here is intelligence that Hersh chooses to believe about a
secret sensor system inside Syria, designed to provide early warning of any change in status of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal. The sensors are monitored by the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that controls all US intelligence satellites in orbit. According to the Post summary, the NRO is also assigned ‘to extract data from sensors placed on the ground’ inside Syria. The former senior intelligence official, who had direct knowledge of the programme, told me that NRO sensors have been implanted near all known chemical warfare sites in Syria. They are designed to provide constant monitoring of the movement of chemical warheads stored by the military. But far more important, in terms of early warning, is the sensors’ ability to alert US and Israeli intelligence when warheads are being loaded with sarin. (As a neighbouring country, Israel has always been on the alert for changes in the Syrian chemical arsenal, and works closely with American intelligence on early warnings.) A chemical warhead, once loaded with sarin, has a shelf life of a few days or less – the nerve agent begins eroding the rocket almost immediately: it’s a use-it-or-lose-it mass killer.
The sensors had worked in the past, as the Syrian leadership knew all too well. Last December the sensor system picked up signs of what seemed to be sarin production at a chemical weapons depot. It was not immediately clear whether the Syrian army was simulating sarin production as part of an exercise (all militaries constantly carry out such exercises) or actually preparing an attack. At the time, Obama publicly warned Syria that using sarin was ‘totally unacceptable’; a similar message was also passed by diplomatic means. The event was later determined to be part of a series of exercises, according to the former senior intelligence official: ‘If what the sensors saw last December was so important that the president had to call and say, “Knock it off,” why didn’t the president issue the same warning three days before the gas attack in August?’
And it’s forehead-slapping time, because it turns out that Syria actually was weaponizing sarin gas with 140mm rockets in early December. Videos of Syrians suffering from the effects of sarin gas turned up on YouTube almost immediately. That same month, the head of Assad’s military police defected to Turkey, where he charged the regime with using sarin gas in Homs. European, American, and Israeli intelligence all reported the regime apparently using chemical weapons more than once between December and April.
At the time the sarin was weaponized in December, it was reported that the rockets would have a 60-day shelf life. By August of 2013, whatever weapons were left from December’s manufacture would have deteriorated, so it should be no surprise that the sarin used on Ghouta was comparatively rather weak. (Perversely, conspiracy-mongers maintain that this relative weakness is proof that the sarin wasn’t manufactured by the regime at all, but in those yet-unconfirmed al-Nusrah factories.) Now in another dissonant turn, Mr. Hersh’s nameless source imagines that Obama’s warning when the weapons were mixed in December should have been repeated in August, even though no new mixing took place at that time for the NRO’s sensor network to detect.
Of course, all of this speculation-presented-as-fact is predicated on the notion that President Obama is a warmonger who really wanted to attack Syria. That simply isn’t true. By repeatedly and visibly crossing Obama’s “thin red line,” Assad brought the possibility of an American military response on himself — and remember, in the end no attack was ever actually carried out on the Syrian regime.
Unlike President Bush, for whom muscular intervention was an end in and of itself, the threat of force was Obama’s means to an end — that end being the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal, which was not safe in a country wracked by civil war. This worthy objective is being achieved through multilateral diplomacy, a process that Dick Cheney detested. It would have been impossible without a credible threat of force, but now Seymour Hersh would like everyone to believe that Obama’s threat was exactly the same as Bush’s actual invasion of Iraq.
I have seen this idea trending lately. For some reason, many people seem to have decided that this is the most important thing to talk about regarding Syria. They don’t care whether the sarin gas is destroyed; they just need to believe that Obama was lying about it, and that he lied in order to drag America into an attack that never actually happened. Hersh’s article in the London Review of Books will prove popular with the Antiwar.com crowd, but it certainly won’t advance the public debate about what to do in Syria now that the chemical crisis seems to have passed. It is much more likely to set that discussion backwards.