Why Seymour Hersh got it wrong this time

Following the publication of Seymour Hersh’s London Review of Books article, “Whose sarin?,” Dan Kaszeta, a former US Army and US Secret Service specialist on chemical, biological, and radiological defense, writes: 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. [Continue reading…]

Eliot Higgins, challenging many of Hersh’s assertions, provides additional analysis on the munitions used in the attacks.

In an interview on Democracy Now!, Hersh refused to provide any additional information about his source(s), but Joanna Paraszczuk and Scott Lucas engage in some interesting speculation based on a comparison made between Hersh’s statements and those coming from Michael Maloof, well-known for his role in the Bush administration’s Office of Special Plans.

It is impossible to know for sure, of course, who unnamed former officials are, but it there is a high likelihood based on the information given that the “former senior intelligence official” is F. Michael Maloof, a former staffer in the Undersecretary of State of Defense’s office in the George W. Bush Administration.

Here is Hersh’s passage on Islamist factions handling chemical toxins:

By late May, the senior intelligence consultant told me, 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. At the time, al-Nusra was operating in areas close to Damascus, including Eastern Ghouta. An intelligence document issued in mid-summer dealt extensively with Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, who was said to have moved into Syria and to be operating in Eastern Ghouta. The consultant told me that Tariq had been identified ‘as an al-Nusra guy with a track record of making mustard gas in Iraq and someone who is implicated in making and using sarin’. He is regarded as a high-profile target by the American military.

And here is Maloof writing on the right-wing website WorldNet Daily in mid-September:

In a classified document just obtained by WND, the U.S. military confirms that sarin was confiscated earlier this year from members of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, the most influential of the rebel Islamists fighting in Syria.

The document says sarin from al-Qaida in Iraq made its way into Turkey and that while some was seized, more could have been used in an attack last March on civilians and Syrian military soldiers in Aleppo.

The document, classified Secret/Noforn – “Not for foreign distribution” – came from the U.S. intelligence community’s National Ground Intelligence Center, or NGIC, and was made available to WND Tuesday.

It revealed that AQI had produced a “bench-scale” form of sarin in Iraq and then transferred it to Turkey.

A U.S. military source said there were a number of interrogations as well as some clan reports as part of what the document said were “50 general indicators to monitor progress and characterize the state of the ANF/AQI-associated Sarin chemical warfare agent developing effort.”

“This (document) depicts our assessment of the status of effort at its peak – primarily research and procurement activities – when disrupted in late May 2013 with the arrest of several key individuals in Iraq and Turkey,” the document said.

“Future reporting of indicators not previously observed would suggest that the effort continues to advance despite the arrests,” the NGIC document said.

Maloof repeated his claim six days later on Russia Today, which had campaigned for weeks to link the insurgents to the August 21 attacks.

This, however, was far from the first time that Maloof had condemned the insurgency as foreign-supported terrorists linked to Al Qa’eda. In March, he denounced a lifting of the European arms embargo on the insurgency, telling Iran’s Press TV:

They have no guarantee into which hands these arms will go. We’ve got al-Nusra leading the charge with the rebels up there in Damascus and they’re very, very powerful and they’re the ones that are al-Qaeda related and they’re probably going to gain the arms and there would be no control over who gets them, how they’re going to be used.

If Hersh’s main source is Maloof — which fits the public assertions — there is a telling irony. Condemning the Obama Administration’s “cherry-picking” of intelligence over Syria, Hersh compares it to the Bush Administration’s selection of “evidence” on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

That selection of raw intelligence was taken over in 2002 by Undersecretary of State Douglas Feith’s office — of which F. Michael Maloof was a key member.

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3 thoughts on “Why Seymour Hersh got it wrong this time

  1. Colin Smith

    I am inclined to believe Hersh over apparatchiks of the US govt, IMF, etc. He has far higher integrity. Since the Saudis finance the opposition there’s every probability that Saudi Arabia had a hand in processing and training the al Nusri front. The greatest stumbling block ro ascribing guilt to Assad i that of motivation. He simply had no reason to do this. It would have been counter-productive..in fact a serious ‘own-goal’. This smells of a typical false-flag operation by the Saudi financed opposition.

  2. Phlipn Pagee

    Anyone who analysied the sequence events up to and including the CW attack would have at best have doubts about who used the Sarin. Two key parts to the puzzle, Assad had no motive to launch a CW attack, absolutely none. Secondly, Obama’s abrupt about face came after the Russian provided the US will evidence, which it seems the rest of us were not privy too. Bandar and Netanyahu both there their tantrums like a petulant child caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Sadly, the internet is now littered with wana-be, has-been analysts and back bench flunkie, that can spin crap like cows in an auction.yard.

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