In April 2014, the London Review of Books published an article by Seymour Hersh, entitled ‘The Red Line and the Rat Line’, which challenged the Obama administration’s claim that only the Assad regime could have been responsible for the chemical weapon attacks in Ghouta on August 21st 2013.
The article attracted a lot of criticism and attempted ‘debunkings’, some of which I blogged about here.
The latest attempted ‘debunking’ comes from Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, an author and journalist, and has been published in the L.A. Review of Books.
It’s being widely circulated among those who have long been critical of Hersh’s claims in regards to Ghouta, with – for example – Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch tweeting:
Not only is Hersh being accused of being wrong, then, but he’s being accused of being both a liar and a propagandist – a couple of very serious, and potentially libellous, accusations.
For Bouckaert to justify making such serious allegations against Hersh, Ahmad’s article would have to demonstrate conclusively that Hersh is both a liar and a propagandist. And in my opinion, it fails to do so.
Let’s just deal with some of the claims made against Hersh:
1. Claims of Responsibility
Ahmad writes that:
Hersh claims that the Assad regime was innocent of the August 21 massacre, that indeed the attack was carried out by the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, as part of what Hersh’s source describes as “a covert action planned by [Turkish Prime Minister Recep] Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line.”
This is Ahmad’s first error, and one that is commonly made among those seeking to ‘debunk’ Hersh.
Hersh is not in fact saying that the regime was innocent, and that the rebels were to blame, and has clarified this on a number of occasions.
In an interview with Mint Press News in April 2014, he said that:
No one is saying they know what happened . . . We don’t know.
In an interview with Democracy Now! in December 2013, he said that:
I certainly don’t know who did what, but there’s no question my government does not.
And in an interview with Almayadeen in April 2014, he said that (starts at 21:54):
I am not saying I know that one particular unit . . . we know nothing about who did what. Was there an Al Nusrah wing that did it? Was it done by a rogue unit of the Syrian army? Maybe, who knows? I’m not ruling out . . . I’m just saying what the President was told by the Joint Chiefs: the Sarin that we found was not military grade.
So Ahmad starts off by attributing an opinion to Hersh that he’s never actually held, and that he has openly denied holding on at least three separate occasions. Ahmad continues to repeat the error throughout the rest of the article.
Hersh is instead saying that there are people within the U.S. Intelligence community who suspect rebel culpability; who believe certain rebel groups have the capability to manufacture Sarin; and that this therefore directly contradicts the Obama administration’s initial claims that only Assad and Assad alone could have been responsible.
2. U.N Reports
In his article, Hersh relays claims that Sarin samples collected on the ground in Ghouta by a Russian agent were later tested by British defence scientists at Porton Down. These scientists apparently concluded that ‘the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal’, and so a message was relayed to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff ‘that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up’.
In response, Ahmad quotes a U.N. report from February 2014. Here is what Ahmad says exactly:
Samples were also recovered from the site by the UN. Hersh makes no mention of these. Whatever discoveries Porton Down might have made, they were superseded by what the UN inspectors extracted and studied first hand. The UN’s remit did not include assigning responsibility, but its judgment leaves little room for doubt. The perpetrators, it concludes, “had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents.”
And here is what that U.N. report says in full:
The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents.
– p.19 (emphasis mine)
As you can see, Ahmad leaves the words ‘indicated’ and ‘likely’ out of the quote, perhaps because they’re qualifiers and do in fact suggest a degree of doubt.
That reading is strengthened by what the report says three paragraphs later. Namely, and in regards to allegations of chemical weapon usage in Syria in general, that:
In no incident was the commission’s evidentiary threshold met with regard to the perpetrator.
Again, if the U.N. are themselves saying that the evidentiary threshold has not been met in regards to the perpetrator, then quite a significant degree of doubt *is* suggested.
Ahmad then moves onto the alleged chemical weapon attack in Khan al-Assal in March 2013. Hersh quotes an anonymous source from the U.N. as saying that:
Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know
Ahmad again responds by quoting the U.N. report from February, which says:
Concerning the incident in Khan Al-Assal on 19 March, the chemical agents used in that attack bore the same unique hallmarks as those used in Al-Ghouta.
He then accuses Hersh of not having read the report.
But the report doesn’t pin the blame on the regime, does it? It just says the chemical agents allegedly used had the same hallmarks as those used in Ghouta – an attack for which, like all the others, no ‘evidentiary threshold was met with regard to the perpetrator’.
Further to this, a previous and more indepth U.N. report, released in December 2013, had said of the Khan al-Assal attacks that there is:
credible information that corroborates the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013 against soldiers and civilians
– p.19 (emphasis mine)
A reasonable question to ask here might be ‘Why would the Syrian regime gas its own soldiers?’.
And for what it’s worth, Hersh’s anonymous U.N. source is not the only person from that organisation who has pointed the finger of suspicion at rebel groups, in regards to chemical weapon attacks carried out in the early part of 2013.
Carla Del Ponte, one of the overseers of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, was reported as saying in May 2013 that:
According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated . . . I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got . . . they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition.
Ahmad is entitled to his interpretation of the February 2014 report, and I would agree that it does, to an extent, look damning for the regime.
But he has clearly stripped all of the qualifiers out of the report he is quoting, which do indeed leave room for doubt. He then – at least in regards to the Khan al-Assal attack – ignores previous U.N. reports, and quotes from named and senior U.N. officials, which, in turn, look damning for the rebels.
Ahmad then quotes Hersh as saying, in regards to the U.N. team who investigated the Ghouta attack, that:
[Their] access to the attack sites, which came five days after the gassing, had been controlled by rebel forces
This quote actually comes from Hersh’s first LRB article on the chemical weapon attacks in Ghouta, ‘Whose Sarin?’, which was published in December 2013.
In Ahmad’s reading, this is Hersh ‘suggesting that the UN may have been constrained by the presence of the rebels’, while neglecting to mention that, in Ahmad’s words, ‘the visit “came five days after the gassing” because the regime refused access to the sites and instead subjected them to unrelenting artillery fire‘.
Ahmad, on the basis of this, accuses Hersh of employing ‘the distortion of a propagandist’.
Another way of looking at Hersh’s sentence is that it is simply true.
The U.N. investigative teams access to the affected areas had indeed been controlled by rebel forces, as the report itself says. Here is the relevant passage:
A leader of the local opposition forces who was deemed prominent in the area to be visited by the Mission, was identified and requested to take ‘custody’ of the Mission. The point of contact within the opposition was used to ensure the security and movement of the Mission, to facilitate the access to the most critical cases/witnesses to be interviewed and sampled by the Mission and to control patients and crowd in order for the Mission to focus on its main activities’.
Hersh’s article also quoted the part of the U.N. report which says that:
‘During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated’.
The report, then, is clear: the teams access to the affected areas was controlled by the opposition, and the team also had concerns about the potential moving and/or manipulation of evidence.
Hersh doesn’t misrepresent or distort the report in any way.
The most Ahmad can pin on Hersh is that he didn’t outline why there was a five day delay in getting to the affected areas, but frankly, it’s weak tea indeed, and in no way justifies the description of ‘distortion’ and ‘propaganda’.
3. Technical claims
Ahmad takes issue with Hersh’s use, in an interview with Democracy Now!, of the phrase ‘kitchen sarin’, writing that:
one would also have to accept Hersh’s related claim that sarin can be produced in a kitchen. Bashar al-Assad shares this view, but chemical weapons experts understandably disagree. Sarin is a deadly substance; its production is a substantial technical, financial, and logistical undertaking. It is not the kind of thing one can conceal in a house; nor is it something one can load into homemade rockets using kitchen gloves.
But it’s clear from the full quote that Hersh is not saying that he thinks sarin can be ‘produced in a kitchen’. Here is the full quote:
And so, the Brits came to us with samples of sarin, and they were very clear there was a real problem with these samples, because they did not reflect what the Brits know and we know, the Russians knew, everybody knew, is inside the Syrian arsenal. They have—professionals armies have additives to sarin that make it more persistent, easier to use. The amateur stuff, they call it kitchen sarin, sort of a cold phrase.
The phrase ‘kitchen sarin’, then, is being used as a slang term to distinguish professionally manufactured sarin from ‘the amateur stuff’. I very much doubt it was intended to be taken literally, or that Hersh seriously believes sarin can be knocked up on a stove with a few pots and pans.
There is then an overview of the debate regarding the launch points of the rockets used in the Ghouta attacks, and about who is in possession of such rockets.
This basically pits Ted Postol, a well regarded defence technology expert at MIT, and Richard Lloyd, a former UN weapons inspector, against Eliot Higgins, a British blogger renowned as an expert on the munitions used in the Syrian conflict.
Postol and Lloyd are the main sources for Hersh’s technical claims, and Ahmad himself concedes that ‘They have produced valuable analyses on the payloads and ranges of the rockets used on August 21’, and that ‘There is little reason to doubt their expertise in this area’.
I’m not going to attempt to analyse the competing claims and counter-claims in this regard, because i’m not qualified to do so.
But Hersh relying on the expertise of Postol and Lloyd in making some of his claims in regards to the technical aspects of the attack doesn’t strike me as being particularly outrageous. They may be right, they may be wrong, but they are competent and credible sources.
Nevertheless, Ahmad then accuses Ted Postol of a ‘determination to validate’ Seymour Hersh’s work, and in doing this, ignoring ‘all evidence that undermines them’. He quotes Emile Durkheim as calling this the ‘ideological method’, defined as ‘the use of “notions to govern the collation of facts, rather than deriving notions from them”.
But Postol himself has said that when he first started investigating the attacks, he was sure that no-one but the regime could have been responsible. To quote Post0l himself:
My view when I started this process was that it couldn’t be anything but the Syrian government behind the attack. But now I’m not sure of anything.
If anything then, Postol’s trajectory has been the exact opposite of the one Ahmad attributes to him. When he started his investigations, he was sure that the regime was culpable, and that Hersh was wrong. But the facts he uncovered in the course of that investigation lead him to doubt and then discard his initial hunches.
That doesn’t stop Ahmad essentially dismissing some of his work as ideologically motivated.
Ahmad then accuses Hersh of a similar ideological motivation, saying that:
He ignores or obfuscates established facts that contradict his theory: the fact that the delivery system used in the attacks is peculiar to the regime, or that the UN has established that the sarin could only have come from government stockpiles
But you could argue that it is Ahmad who is obfuscating here.
The UN has never categorically reported ‘that the sarin could only have come from government stockpiles’, saying only that the perpetrators ‘likely’ had access to government stockpiles, but that the evidentiary threshold in regards to the perpetrators hasn’t been met.
Postol and Lloyd are both of the opinion that the ‘delivery system used’ could have been manufactured by a rebel group, and needn’t be peculiar to the regime.
Ahmad himself also ignores other evidence – such as Carla Del Ponte’s claims, or that regime soldiers appear to have been targeted in some cases – that points to rebel culpability for at least some of the chemical weapon attacks in Syria.
Ahmad finishes by wondering whether Hersh is just ‘credulous’, or whether ‘something less benign is at play’.
He basically accuses Hersh of wanting to see Assad retain his chemical arsenal, based on this paragraph from ‘Whose 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’.
Ahmad calls this ‘a dog-whistle case for Assad keeping his arsenal’, and expresses astonishment that LRB would publish it.
But I don’t see it as anything of the sort. Ahmad’s reading of Hersh here is, at best, tenuous and uncharitable, and at worst an outright smear that is the polar opposite of Hersh’s stated beliefs.
In his December 2013 interview with Democracy Now!, for example, Hersh said in regards to Obama’s acceptance of the Russian brokered disarmament deal:
He (Obama) decides overnight to go to Congress, and then he accepts a very rational deal—and I’m glad he did—that the Russians put forward, with the Syrians, to dispose of the chemical arsenal or the chemicals that are in Syria.
So Hersh thinks the deal was ‘very rational’, and he is ‘glad’ Obama accepted it. Some ‘dog whistle’.
In summary, then, these are the most obvious and immediate errors and misrepresentations I found in Ahmad’s article:
1. That Hersh thinks the rebels were to blame for the attacks in Ghouta. This is flatly false, as Hersh’s own words show, and is not the point he’s making at all. Ahmad gets the basic premise of Hersh’s argument – which is that doubt over culpability exists where the Obama administration insists there is none – completely wrong.
2. That Hersh misrepresents, obfuscates or ignores U.N. reports to make his case. Again, this isn’t true, and if anything it’s Ahmad who has selectively quoted some U.N. reports, while totally ignoring others/senior U.N. officials, to make it look like they’re categorically blaming the regime.
3. That Hersh is wrong in regards to the technical claims, and that his sources are ideologically motivated.
All I can say is that it’s clear the technical debate is still raging, and that Hersh has some very credible sources on his side – one of whom, despite Ahmad’s insinuations, actually started his investigations convinced that the regime was to blame, and that Hersh was wrong.
It should also be noted that Ahmad’s own main source, Brown Moses, is far from infallible, and is less qualified and less experienced than both Postol and Lloyd.
4. That Hersh might not just be well meaning but ultimately wrong, and instead has another agenda, such as wanting Assad to keep his chemical weapon stockpile. This is based on the most uncharitable reading of Hersh’s work possible, is extremely tenuous, and is directly contradicted by Hersh’s own words.
Ahmad finishes by saying:
By now even the most dogmatic among Hersh’s publishers must have realized that they were hoaxed. Their ideological proclivities and eagerness for clicks made the deception easier. They got played — they relayed what is in effect pro-fascist propaganda.
And while this may ultimately turn out to be true, he doesn’t come anywhere near close to demonstrating it to be the case.
Nor is there any convincing evidence presented of Hersh being a liar or a propagandist, as opposed to just conveying claims from his sources that are potentially dishonest or mistaken.
But for those who are desperate to see Hersh discredited if not destroyed, I suppose it’ll have to do until the next attempt.