Dan Kaszeta

Hersh and the Red Herring

The East Ghouta chemical attack last August was most likely perpetrated by the Assad regime, not rebel fighters

Victims of the East Ghouta chemical attacks last August.

The recent article by Seymour Hersh called “The Red Line and the Rat Line” in the London Review of Books is a continuation of his previous work in this area. Although he weaves an interesting tale of intrigue, Mr. Hersh is still long on supposition and hearsay and short on actual facts. Unlike the early days after the August 21st chemical attacks in East Ghouta, we now have some interesting information at our disposal.


Mr. Hersh completely ignores the fact that the large majority of evidence clearly points to the Assad regime, not to Turkey or non-state actors. The weapon system used for the bulk of the East Ghouta chemical attack has repeatedly been noted to be used by the Syrian military, and has not been seen in rebel hands. A huge amount of information is available now on these so-called Volcano rockets, well summarized by Eliot Higgins. Excellent work on geolocation and bearing analysis of the rockets for the Zamalka attack, a Damascus suburb west of East Ghouta, also clearly point to launch sites from government-held terrain on August 21. 


The Sarin used in the attacks points toward the regime as well. Physical evidence found by the UN/OPCW mission at the scene of the rocket attacks is revealing. When combined with the Assad regime’s later admissions and declarations of its chemical weapons program, the evidence is condemning.


The Assad regime’s chemical weapons program, for instance, makes Sarin through what is known as a binary method, and samples collected from the field are consistent with this. The Syrian program uses hexamine, a chemical component hitherto unseen in the world’s chemical weapons programs. Field samples from Syria, tested by two accredited OPCW laboratories, are replete with traces of hexamine. Syria had freely and voluntarily claimed at an earlier date 80 tons of hexamine in its OPCW declaration to the UN/OPCW inspectors. As I have stated elsewhere, hexamine in the field plus hexamine in the declaration plus hexamine admitted to in the Syrian formula adds up to a high probability of regime culpability in the East Ghouta attacks. Not that you would know from reading Hersh’s articles. Sarin is Sarin, rockets are rockets, and the technical details are less important than a single, anonymous source in Washington. 

The article also either ignores or misunderstands other important technical details. Much is made of a sample of Sarin provided by Russian intelligence. Even under the best of circumstances, can we count on Russian intelligence services to have probity and objectivity, given Russia’s record of obfuscation on the issue of the Sarin attacks? After all, Russian state media has been ruthless in pursuing alternative narratives in this case. Hersh also makes much of matching samples of Sarin. By its very definition, all Sarin, binary or otherwise, is made by a batch process and not a continuous production process. Even with the best, highest grade of stockpile-quality US Sarin, there were differences between batches even though millions were spent to have a standardized product. Consistency was hard to achieve. Certainly, Iraq could not produce consistent batches. With binary Sarin, the differences can be particularly pronounced, as the product is typically made in much smaller quantities at a time. The Sarin from the first pouring from the mixing vessel can be much different than the last one. Given these differences, the ubiquitous presence of an additive, hexamine, is ever more pronounced. None of these important facts are mentioned in Mr. Hersh’s report. 


Another issue is Hersh’s reference to an alleged Jabhat al-Nusra operation to develop chemical weapons. For all I know, Nusra may really want to acquire chemical weapons, but the evidence is a shopping list of precursor chemicals, in the tens of kilograms and 2 kilograms of alleged Sarin. The list could be legitimate. But a list can be faked by anyone with a printer, and the alleged Sarin later proved to be antifreeze/engine coolant.


There is also a huge gap between 2 kilograms of antifreeze and a shopping list and the 400+ kilograms of Sarin that would be needed for the East Ghouta chemical attacks. You just don’t knock up a ton of Sarin in a kitchen. It is a very expensive and dangerous process that took industrial states with technical know-how a long time to master. The Aum Shinrikyo cult, a Japanese terror-designated group infamous for launching a Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in the 1980s, built a factory at great expense only to be able to produce 7 kilograms or so of Sarin in single batches. It should also be noted it takes about 9 kilograms of basic precursors to make 1 kilogram of Sarin, so tens of kilograms on a shopping list are vastly insufficient amounts needed for the attacks last August.


But of all Hersh’s claims, his biggest evidentiary pitfall is in the Turkish Sarin hypothesis. Somehow, Hersh would have us all believe that there is a large factory somewhere in Turkey, a member of NATO and signatory to the OPCW. A factory of the necessary size to make tons of short-shelf life binary Sarin would be huge, at least similar in scale to the UK’s pilot plant that once stood in Nancekuke, Cornwall. It would have many employees, a supply chain of controlled and prohibited chemicals, and a waste stream that would be noticed. Where is this factory? Let us have an OPCW challenge inspection.


More importantly, would Turkey risk the international opprobrium to produce a weapon that, after all, has only limited actual tactical use? Somehow, this Sarin was produced, using a secret hexamine acid reduction process hitherto unknown to the world, and only mastered by Syria’s chemical weapons program. It was put into rockets that are exact copies of Syrian ones, down to the paint and bolts. The Sarin-filled rockets were smuggled via the “rat line” into Syria to Damascus, without a single one being caught. And quickly, I should add, due to the short shelf life of binary Sarin. Then they were supposed to be fired onto rebel areas from government positions without the Syrian regime knowing about it? It defies belief.


Finally, we get to the biggest deficit of all. Seymour Hersh seems unencumbered by the fact that the Assad regime confessed to having a chemical weapons research, development, and production program. Which is the more likely scenario? The Turkish-produced Sarin tale, which relies on a very dubious “inside source” in Washington and no accompanying physical evidence? Or the idea that the Assad regime, using a chemical warfare agent made according to a formula they confessed to, used rockets in their own inventory to attack from their own positions against rebel-held territory? History will tell us, eventually. But one of these tales is sounding more probable than the other. 


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.

Victims of the East Ghouta chemical attacks last August. (AFP photo/ Shaam News Network)

"Seymour Hersh seems unencumbered by the fact that the Assad regime confessed to having a chemical weapons research, development, and production program."

  • TylerDurden

    "Then they were supposed to be fired onto rebel areas from government positions without the Syrian regime knowing about it? It defies belief." .... Kaszeta tries to obfuscate the issue here. They were fired onto civilians BEHIND the line of engagement between the Syrian Army and rebel forces. What is the point of that? If your forces are engaged with an adversary why would you fire the missiles BEHIND them on to civilians. What is the military strategy? This is kind of sneaky. He is merging and obfuscating to fit his own narrative. There simply is no motive nor any military advantage to be gained by firing munitions AWAY from your adversary.

    April 16, 2014

  • Syricide

    I've said it from the beginning Higgins and Kaszeta and the rest of the mainstream media are obsessed with this notion that Ghouta was a 'massive' attack and thus it follows it must be the regime. Well if you want to point to volcanos as evidence of SAA complicity, please point to 1700 or was it 2000 burials of the victims .. how about even some video of the funerals? Apart from a photo of 8 men wrapped in sheets in a ditch there is nothing. zip. zero. It is clear there was a chemical attack. We know the MSF (Doctors without Borders) stated approximately 300 bodies although they seem to have disappeared. We can point out obvious fallacies in the videos that were uploaded on the 21 August and we know of bodies being transferred between incident sites. How about the evidence in the videos themselves? Pharmacologist Dr Denis O Brien stated for the record it would be impossible for anyone to diagnose the victims as suffering from sarin exposure so how was this publicised within hours? This unaccounted for numbers of victims goes right to the heart of the issue that Higgins and Kaszeta will avoid at all costs. Because if you concede that maybe the attack was not as massive as has been portrayed you must also open up the parameter of suspects. Kaszeta and Higgins will not concede. They have dug in too deep now. Kaszeta is a CBRN consultant, he is fighting for his commercial reputation. All his customers are NATO agencies there is absolutely no surprise with the position he has taken and continues to pursue.

    April 16, 2014

  • LastWordFreak

    Highly amusing. The duo of Kaszeta & Higgins continue to entertain by completely missing the point as have some mainstream media outlets (although some are coming around). Hersh is and has always been a means for disgruntled and constitutionally minded members of the Intel community to publicly express their misgivings as it remains the only path of dissent without committing career suicide. It seems beyond their comprehension that Hersh didn't make this up. He was TOLD this. He has nothing to gain by imagining this information although it seems fairly obvious that Higgins and Kaszeta have more and more to lose as they dig themselves deeper and deeper entrenching themselves in a perspective garnered from a context that is at best second hand. As Hersh conveys, UK and US Intel confirmed the sarin did NOT match Syrian military stocks. That is fairly conclusive. You can sing and dance all you want but your reputation as an expert is unravelling quicker than the startling knowledge that you have no academic qualifications in this field, is pervading social media.

    April 16, 2014

  • TylerDurden

    I agree. I have just read yet another interview with Mr Kaszeta's here > http://www.diken.com.tr/english/brown-moses-who-opposes-seymour-hersh-about-the-chemical-attack-in-syria-talks-to-diken-are-we-to-believe-turkey-has-built-a-specialised-factory-for-the-rebels/ and it does re-emphasise what you are saying. The focus is on Hersh. Like some other mainstream media outlets, he completely misses the point that he is the messenger. He doesn't have to be an expert in chemical weapons, he's a journalist that a handful of intelligence professionals trust. That's all. The Intel community are clearly pissed off with how they were being managed and interpreted. If the sarin doesn't match and your leader is lying to the world to take your country to war as well as lying that its YOUR intel that gives him the basis, then obviously you want a way out. Just to reiterate Mr Kaszeta finishes with "Considering the severity of the claims Hersh is making, he seems to find it difficult to engage in a debate about points that are crucial to the veracity of his narrative." HE is not making the claims. He conveying intelligence fed to him. It is NOT his narrative. The sarin doesn't match.

    April 16, 2014

  • Charles_Wood

    The alleged chemical delivery system has never been seen in Government possession either. The Government does have 122mm HE missiles with a motor burn time of ~ 3 seconds which is a significantly non-standard burn time for 122mm missiles. The 'chemical' missiles had a burn time of 1.6 - 1.8 seconds which is consistent with a standard 'Grad' 122mm motor. An available inference is the 'chemical' missiles were reverse engineered in physical design but the custom motor could not be replicated so motors from 122mm rocket artillery were used instead.

    April 12, 2014

  • AboudDandachi

    I have seen wrecking balls that did not manage to achieve the level of demolition that Mr Kaszeta just inflicted on Seymour Hersh. Whatever his previous exploits, Mr Hersh's reputation and standing have been irreparably damaged by his espousing theories and notions that he just hasnt been able to back up. As Dan Kaszeta pointed out, Mr Hersh ignores every technical obstacle to the idea that the rebels somehow gassed themselves as a PR stunt, in favor of a single source whose validity we have no way whatsoever to judge. Peer review is an important aspect to the validity of any claim. The evidence put forward by experts such as Mr Kaszeta has been scrutinized and analyzed to death, and stood the test of many months of study. In contrast, it is well-nigh impossible to confirm any of Hersh's assertions. A sad end to a previously distinguished journalistic career.

    April 8, 2014