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Dan Kaszeta

Why Seymour Hersh has it wrong this time

The chemical strike on East Ghouta is not as mysterious as Seymour Hersh suggests

Bodies lined up after the August 21 chemical attack on East Ghouta

The noted author and journalist Seymour Hersh has recently published a lengthy article in the London Review of Books on the subject of the August 21st chemical attacks in Syria.  This article raises a number of issues that are at variance with much of the widely-accepted narrative surrounding the use of sarin in Syria. 

 

Mr. Hersh, who won a Pulitzer prize in 1970, makes a number of assertions in his December 8th article. Perhaps the most important claim is that the US government’s efforts to collect, analyze, and disseminate intelligence on Syria are deficient. Having spent many years in the classified world in Washington DC, I can categorically state that “the intelligence community is a shambles” is not exactly a breathtaking journalistic statement:  it is an article of faith among my many friends and colleagues from my years in government, including the many who work within the intelligence community.  On this point, Mr. Hersh and I agree.  It is a shambles, and has been for many decades.  But on his many other assertions, Mr. Hersh is quite wrong.

 

First, let me address the issue of “cherry-picking” intelligence.  The art and science of intelligence analysis is to take an awful lot of information and winnow it down to summarized, digested paragraphs to give to decision-makers.  This is a very messy process not unlike a sausage factory.  The simple fact is that one man’s “cherry-picking” is another man’s “analysis,” and without access to the full haul of raw information, which neither the end user nor the journalist will end up seeing (for reasons as much to do with volume as with security), the charge of “cherry-picking” is one that can be neither proven nor disproven. 

 

Secondly, the reliance on a single “highly-placed source within the intelligence community” is both a logical problem and an editorial one.  From the logical standpoint, Washington is full of “highly-placed sources,” and there is (and always has been) a wide diversity of opinion within the intelligence community.  You can get someone to support nearly any opinion that one might have.  There are well-known former intelligence employees who clearly have strong opinions and an axe to grind.  I can find them in 10 minutes on the internet, so one concludes that Mr. Hersh can find one as well.  And as an editorial matter, how can one reliably build an argument on a single informant who is anonymous, particularly when there are dozens if not hundreds of sources saying the opposite.  There’s a word for this: “cherry-picking.” The Huffington Post hints that credibility of sources may be one reason why Mr. Hersh’s article did not get into the Washington Post.

 

Mr. Hersh goes on to assert, by relying heavily on the work of Dr. Theodore Postol in the New York Times, that the rocket systems used for the 8/21 attacks were crude, homemade devices.  This leads Mr. Hersh to the conclusion that non-state actors were to blame. In saying this, Mr. Hersh is clearly unaware of the wealth of analysis that has occurred in intervening months.  Among other issues, much information has become available to show that the “Volcano” rocket in use for 8/21 is in use by the regime;  Eliot Higgins, both in his blog and in his Foreign Policy magazine article, reviews this evidence with great detail and clarity that I cannot pretend to equal.

 

The most damaging assertion made by Mr. Hersh is his insinuation that the insurgent group Jabhat al-Nusra may have been responsible for the chemical attacks. As a life-long professional in defense against chemical weapons, it seems increasingly improbable to me that a non-state actor, Nusra or otherwise, perpetrated the sarin attack on 8/21.  Even if Nusra has an individual who might understand the science of how sarin is be made, there is a wide gulf between understanding the basic chemistry and perpetrating the 8/21 attacks.

 

Mr. Hersh patently ignores the practical barriers to al-Nusra, or any other Syrian non-state faction for that matter, producing enough sarin to have done the 8/21 attacks.  A large, but still indeterminate number of people (Hersh is right to point out discrepancies in the fatality figures) over a large area were killed or injured.  The practical reality of chemical warfare is that it is far less efficient, in terms of amount of material required, than most laymen understand.  Numerous casualties over a large area require a large amount of material.  A lot of sarin was used.  My own attempts to apply Cold War-era methodologies to reverse-engineer the attack gave me a rough range of sarin from 370 kg to 4400 kg of sarin.  Although my methods are too lengthy to state here, my best guess is that the real answer is somewhere in the middle of this range, perhaps a ton.  The current total of "Volcano" rockets so far discovered is eight, giving a yield of perhaps 400-420 kg of sarin, well within this range.

 

Mr. Hersh seems unaware of just how hard accumulating a ton of sarin might be. It can’t be summarily waved away as he does by saying (I paraphrase) that “Nusra has a guy who knows how to do it.”  A ton of sarin is no easy undertaking for anyone to manufacture, regardless of expertise or access to precursors.  Sarin manufacture, as I pointed out in various places, is complex and can’t be done in a kitchen or bathtub, and certainly not in the quantities needed for the 8/21 attack.  To put it into proper perspective, in 1994-1995 the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan built a purpose-built facility, spent many millions, and had a number of chemists and engineers.  (Amy Smithson describes the Aum operation quite well in her book, “Ataxi.”)  But the best that Aum could do, despite mastering the mechanics of the process, was to produce bucket-sized quantities.  To produce at the scale required for the 8/21 attack, a large, sophisticated, and very expensive factory-scale facility is needed.  By hinting that Nusra performed the attack, he implies the presence of such a factory somewhere.  Where is it?   Sarin doesn’t get conjured up out of nothing.

 

I also find it interesting that Mr. Hersh does not address the physical evidence, which is summarized in various UN and OPCW documents.  Sarin was used (at least Hersh doesn’t deny that fact), and the joint UN/OPCW team found physical traces of sarin, its byproducts, decomposition products, and additives in Ghouta.  But the biggest fact of all is that Assad’s regime has now admitted to a chemical weapons research, development, and production infrastructure which has now been inspected and inventoried by OPCW inspectors.  As a specialist in chemical weapons, one of the things I have found most interesting are the close correlations in chemistry (such as hexamine, a possible sarin additive) between the trace evidence found in the field and the inventories disclosed by the OPCW.  There are many ways to make sarin, and it appears to me that the way the regime went about it correlates very closely with the physical evidence reported by the original UN/OPCW inspection team. 

 

Finally, Mr. Hersh’s assertions about Nusra fail to meet a basic test of logic. Who is more likely to have committed the sarin attack?  The regime, which has confessed to chemical weapons production facilities (verified by inspectors) and has declared a stockpile of chemicals that match the 8/21 chemistry very well, and which has the actual weapon system used in its inventory?  Or Nusra, with their alleged un-located factory, no trace of either supply chain or waste stream, and no known expert staff?  Surely, Nusra would have found a more efficacious use of the tens of millions of dollars it would have cost.

 

If Mr. Hersh’s principle assertion is that intelligence analysis in Washington is a mess, I have no argument.  Nor would a lot of people.  But his assertion that the sarin attack was an improvised home-made affair done by parties other than Assad regime is clearly very wrong. 

 

Dan Kaszeta is a former US Army and US Secret Service specialist on chemical, biological, and radiological defense, now working as an independent consultant based in London.

Not murky at all. (AFP Photo/Shaam News Network)

"As a specialist in chemical weapons, one of the things I have found most interesting are the close correlations in chemistry (such as hexamine, a possible sarin additive) between the trace evidence found in the field and the [regime] inventories disclosed by the OPCW."

  • Syricide

    Still enjoy reading this article. Not for its insight or any clue of a revelation that can be drawn from its words but from the patently obvious bias to protect a view first showboated by "ChemicalDan" that it was L A R G E sarin attack so it must be Regime. I mean .. a TON of Sarin? Seriously? Without wanting to state the obvious .. but I must. Where the hell are all the victims? A TON OF SARIN?!! The sheeple are washed along on this evidenced-less hyperbole as they frequently are when sitting down every evening to gorge themselves on the quadrilateral MSM phallus, ejaculating its cowpers fluid upon its willing sucklers. The lies surrounding Ghouta are slowly unravellling and eventually the truth will surface that it was NOT a L A R G E sarin attack and those culpable incepted this deed to invite the West to bomb Syria. If "ChemicalDan" had any sense he would ask NOW.media to discreetly withdraw this article because that head-line is gonna hang around his neck like a burning tyre.

    January 19, 2014

  • TylerDurden

    JIM.JEKYLL I just realized your post was in sarcasm. Yes it seems Mr Kaszeta had misgivings about the earlier UN Report and now he references it above. He cant make his mind up. And there is a reason for that. HE IS NOT A QUALIFIED SPECIALIST. A qualified specialist knows the UN report is just stitched together and doesn't prove anything. As it has been pointed out many times, the insurgents were in control of the crime scene for at least 6 days. Case dismissed.

    December 15, 2013

  • jim.jekyll

    Wow, an US expert for chemical warfare needs several tons of nerve agent to kill some 1k people! Now it´s all clear what the purpose of all these SCUD missiles is (and how to become promoted from a high-ranking intel specialist to an independent advisor BTW)! And finally - the thousands of clips from the burial ceremonies for the gas attack victims uploaded on Youtube prove the nun´s testimony false!

    December 15, 2013

  • jim.jekyll

    Guess in order to increase efficiency, gassy Assad will have to order some old stocks of Saturn V rockets from NASA!

    December 15, 2013

  • Dan Kaszeta

    The little-known truth about chemical weapons is that they are rarely more efficient than their modern conventional counterparts. (...)

    December 16, 2013

  • Syricide

    ABOUD.DANDACHI.9 < You need to let go of your Mother Agnes complex. The world is waking up to the fact that she is right and that Assad was right too. UN report confirmed SAA soldiers tested positive for sarin contamination. Conclusion: rebels are in possession of chemical munitions. The LIE is dead. Long live the TRUTH.

    December 13, 2013

  • AboudDandachi

    "there is a wide gulf between understanding the basic chemistry and perpetrating the 8/21 attacks" Exactly, very well put, and those who continue to be in denial about Assad's culpability in this regard have never really had much to go on, except the rantings of a nun.

    December 13, 2013

  • Taylor Fadden

    This is troubling. Mr Kaszeta in your "comments" document of September you previously and rightly highlighted a searing anomaly in the UN report regarding the red flag sarin signature of myosis in what for me was just one of many discrepancies culminating in the extraordinary and unsupported conclusions that were drawn. In this piece you appear to be laying your stall by its findings. As a semi professional in the field of molecular biology, I am currently knee deep in research for a PhD in neuropharmacology. The extrapolation and incontestable correlation of data is the basis for any forensic investigation requiring at its most basic level an evidentiary triad which was and is inexplicably absent from Sellstrom's UN report. Put quite simply, the conclusions of the UN report from a scientific viewpoint are not supported by its own data. But the larger question for me is why would any self respecting professional in this field put his name to a report so lacking in the basics of 1st rule forensics. As a consequence the stance you now appear to be taking is all the the more perplexing.

    December 12, 2013

  • Dan Kaszeta

    The final UN report was released today and does provide greater clarity. Also, it turns out that the assay technique for blood analysis was fluoride reactivation, a fact only confirmed to me this morning when I read the final report. I must dig deeper into this, but it seems to me that exposure to Sarin below the miosis threshold concentration would still yield positive blood samples using fluoride reactivation.

    December 13, 2013

  • clayclai

    Thank you for this excellent article. I disagree with you on one point. I think you were too kind to Hersh when you said "Hersh is right to point out discrepancies in the fatality figures" He played games here too. He said "Médicins sans Frontières put it at 355; " MSF didn't say 355 total died in the attack. They said 355 died in hospitals they had contact with they didn't survey all the hospitals and dead people aren't always brought to hospitals. Also the question should be ask of all those that claim jihadists used sarin in Syria, why haven't the jhadists used sarin in Iraq, Afghan or anywhere else. If they know how and have made sarin, why only in Syria? I have written my own critique of the Hersh piece. I focus on where Sy Hersh is coming from. He wants Assad to win. Sy Hersh became a hero to me for exposing the cover up of the My Lai massacre, now I have to remember him for trying to cover up a a massacre. You can read my piece at: http://claysbeach.blogspot.com/2013/12/whose-seymour-hersh.html

    December 11, 2013

  • Dan Kaszeta

    Indeed, it is my policy to err on the side of civility when possible... He takes the MSF figure out of context, and thank you for pointing that out. I'll read your piece when I get a chance.

    December 12, 2013

  • Dan Kaszeta

    Abusive comments directed towards me (the author) will not be answered

    December 11, 2013

  • Syricide

    Predictable sidestep. When on the back foot seek cover from anywhere. Avoids my point that you know well and good (well I assume you know as you purport to be an expert in the field of chemical warfare). The UN report is a sham of an investigation and you have completely undermined your credibility as an "expert" by referencing it WITHOUT drawing attention to its many pitfalls. I called you out before and you ran away. This poorly compiled 'expose' of yours proves my point indelibly. FAIL. Thank you. :)

    December 11, 2013

  • Syricide

    A ton of sarin!! My guestimate is that you are a military man that took a basic course in biology cross fertlisation a long time ago and since entering civvie street you have been wearing suit with a badge ever since. ......A TON of Sarin!! LOLOLOL

    December 11, 2013

  • Syricide

    Mr Kaszeta this is a an awful misdirection. The fact that you reference the UN report suggests you are either confident enough that no one will address the verity of your testimony or the "detail" the sham UN report. I am so moved that I even question your qualifications. Your whole premise is built on the supposition that a "large" amount of sarin was used simply because of the geographic spread of the "affected" area. You know very well from the UN reports there is a gross discrepancy in the UN reports data on the sarin found in relation to the "alleged" sarin munitions that were inspected. You know also only 5 impact sites were inspected. You also know that ALL the impact sites that were inspected were wholly controlled by the insurgents. You also know that it is perfectly feasible and indeed many would argue the only reasonable mitigating circumstances for this perceived "large" area of impact to be explained by the disparate "travel" of "affected" casualties. As for the sarin and HOW it was detected it leaves one's senses numb at the cynicism being surgically applied to deliberately avoid the truth. Just as in 94 and 95, the investigation could have, if conducted correctly deduced peak levels in the "victims". Knowing peak levels could help make sense of the array of symptoms. But more importantly from this, discovering the ratios of pre-cursor to sarin that the subjects were exposed to. This would help determine origin. Crude synthesis of sarin such as the insurgents would likely employ leaves a relatively high concentration of pre-cursors, while a sophisticated synthesis such as Assad would employ produces a cleaner sarin. We know the report had an ulterior "commission" to discover sarin at all costs. I am left in serious doubt about your credibility and as you are a UK NGO with a very specific clientele one is left feeling if there are other motivations here.

    December 11, 2013