THE REPEATING history of concealment and distortion in high places is a common fact of American intelligence gathering and military intervention — not an automatic fact, but a fact often enough to have been somewhat predictable in our lifetimes.
A report written by veteran journalist Seymour M. Hersh and published Sunday in The London Review of Books presumes to draw a direct line from that history to near-current events of the Obama administration — and a more indirect connection between this nation’s contemplation of war in Syria and what Hersh says was the “manipulation of intelligence” that nearly got us into a third major international conflict in less than 15 years.
In Hersh’s exhaustive, provocative reporting, the Obama administration is blamed for extracting U.S. intelligence on the horrific sarin gas attack on civilians in a suburb of Damascus on August 21, and doing it in a way that suited the political objective of either launching a U.S. attack against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad or establishing the pretext for doing so at some time in the future, this in response to a chemical weapons attack that claimed perhaps 1,429 lives — an attack that Hersh maintains may not have originated with the Assad regime at all.
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Excerpts from Hersh’s reporting follow, with its British-style punctuation and spelling intact:
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 his nationally televised speech about Syria on 10 September, Obama laid the blame for the nerve gas attack on the rebel-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta firmly on Assad’s government, and made it clear he was prepared to back up his earlier public warnings that any use of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line’: ‘Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people,’ he said. ‘We know the Assad regime was responsible … And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.’ Obama was going to war to back up a public threat, but he was doing so without knowing for sure who did what in the early morning of 21 August.
But Hersh, a journalist of generally impeccable reputation, reports that some in the U.S. intelligence community registered “intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence.”
A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening. The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of the early bombings of North Vietnam.
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HERSH SUGGESTS that, at best, the Obama administration was behind the curve on events in Syria. Some of his assertions center on the Morning Report, a daily digest of big global military events (and whatever intel is available about them) regularly sent to the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security adviser and the director of national intelligence. During the events in August, then, those docs would have been delivered to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, national security adviser Susan Rice and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.
A senior intelligence consultant told me that some time after the attack he reviewed the reports for 20 August through 23 August. For two days – 20 and 21 August – there was no mention of Syria. On 22 August the lead item in the Morning Report dealt with Egypt; a subsequent item discussed an internal change in the command structure of one of the rebel groups in Syria. Nothing was noted about the use of nerve gas in Damascus that day. It was not until 23 August that the use of sarin became a dominant issue, although hundreds of photographs and videos of the massacre had gone viral within hours on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites. At this point, the administration knew no more than the public. ...
The absence of immediate alarm inside the American intelligence community demonstrates that there was no intelligence about Syrian intentions in the days before the attack.
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Equally provocative is Hersh’s assessment that the Obama administration was constructing a scenario against the Assad regime that was grounded in other than fact:
The White House needed nine days to assemble its case against the Syrian government. On 30 August it invited a select group of Washington journalists (at least one often critical reporter, Jonathan Landay, the national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, was not invited), and handed them a document carefully labelled as a ‘government assessment’, rather than as an assessment by the intelligence community. The document laid out what was essentially a political argument to bolster the administration’s case against the Assad government.
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SO WHO launched the attack in August? Hersh’s report made other claims, some directly contradicting the widely reported story that certain design specifications of the rockets used in the gas attack could only have come from the Syrian government. One of his sources, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “concluded that the large calibre rocket was an improvised munition that was very likely manufactured locally. He told me that it was ‘something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop.’”
“The White House’s misrepresentation of what it knew about the attack, and when, was matched by its readiness to ignore intelligence that could undermine the narrative. That information concerned al-Nusra, the Islamist rebel group designated by the US and the UN as a terrorist organisation.”
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.
Hersh reported that the former senior intel official had told him that, as far back as May — months before the August incident — “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. ...
“While the Syrian regime continues the process of eliminating its chemical arsenal, the irony is that, after Assad’s stockpile of precursor agents is destroyed, al-Nusra and its Islamist allies could end up as the only faction inside Syria with access to the ingredients that can create sarin, a strategic weapon that would be unlike any other in the war zone.”
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Almost as startling as Hersh’s assertions is the fact that, according to the journalist himself, he couldn’t find a home for his story in a publication originating in the United States.
A former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, former reporter for The New York Times and for decades an independent journalist, Hersh has had a long relationship with The New Yorker, a magazine renowned for its fact-checking and insistence on details.
But in an e-mail to Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post, Hersh said “there was little interest” for the story at The New Yorker.
BuzzFeed, but it was rejected there as well. BuzzFeed apparently reached out to The Post and New Yorker editor David Remnick for reasons why they rejected the Hersh story, but as of late Saturday hadn’t gotten responses from either publication.
Hersh, however, told Calderone that he was told, via an email that Post executive editor Martin Baron decided “that the sourcing in the article did not meet the Post's standards.”
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JOURNALISM is as much about being skeptical as it is about being curious (that could explain why both The New Yorker and The Post declined to publish). Events in Syria may or may not have transpired exactly as Hersh reports.
In a statement, Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence, said that "[t]he intelligence clearly indicated that the Assad regime and only the Assad regime could have been responsible for the 21 August chemical weapons attack. The suggestion that there was an effort to suppress intelligence about a nonexistent alternative explanation is simply false.” The administration’s refutation was published Monday in The Hill.
But reading the 5,371 words of the Hersh story, one’s also struck by the unmistakable dovetail of its overall thrust with actions of previous administrations and their willingness to selectively borrow from intelligence in a way that comports with geopolitical objectives already decided.
Hersh mentions the Gulf of Tonkin incident that never was; but there's also the rationale used by the George W. Bush administration to take the United States into an unnecessary war in Iraq. If the events of August went down the way he claims, it wouldn’t be the first time that cherry-picked intelligence led to conclusions that were athwart the truth.
If we can be skeptical of Hersh’s reporting, it follows that we’re obligated, for the sake of consistency, to be skeptical of the Obama administration’s explanation of events. That official rationale for the deaths of innocent Syrians generated a cottage industry of outrage. A number of media outlets fulminated at the Assad regime this past summer. More than a few bloggers drank from that cup of vitriol that may or may not have been administration Kool-Aid. This blogger certainly did. More than once.
Image credits: Obama: The White House. Assad and generals: The Associated Press. Assad headshot: source unknown. Susan Rice: Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press. Among the dead: Reuters. Young Syria gas victims: French Ministry of Defense. Washington Post logo: © 2013 The Washington Post Company.