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.