Does Seymour Hersh understand how hexamine fits into Syrian sarin?

On Democracy Now! today, Amy Goodman provided Seymour Hersh with an opportunity to summarize the contents of his article which appeared at the London Review of Books yesterday.

The only juncture in the interview where Goodman challenged Hersh on the substance of his claims, came when she cited a post written by Scott Lucas which appeared at EA Worldview yesterday. In that post, Lucas reiterated a point he had made last December in response to Hersh’s first article on the chemical attack, referring to one of the many reasons that the scale of the attack was an indication that only the regime had such capabilities:

Reports on the day and subsequently indicated that 7-12 sites were attacked with chemical agents at the same time. In other words, whoever was responsible for the attacks launched multiple surface-to-surface rockets with chemical payloads against opposition-held towns in East Ghouta and one town in West Ghouta, near Damascus.

In part of his response to this challenge, Hersh said:

You have a UN report, you have this independent report, saying [the missiles used in the chemical attack] went no more than one or two kilometres and so I don’t know why we are talking about multiple launched rockets. These were homemade weapons and it seems very clear to most observers, as I say even to the UN team that did the final report — the UN because of whatever rules they have, wasn’t able to say that, who fired what, they could just say, they could just describe the weapons and never make a judgement, but I can tell you, I quote somebody from inside that investigation unit who was very clear that the weapons [that] were fired were homemade and were not Syrian army. This was asked and answered.

Hersh has a habit of making stronger claims in interviews than he is willing to make in writing.

Although on Democracy Now! he said “I quote somebody from inside that investigation unit” in the article itself he merely quotes a “person with knowledge of the UN’s activities.”

If this person was actually inside the investigation unit, why didn’t Hersh put that in print?

In the interview, Hersh says this person “was very clear that the weapons [that] were fired were homemade and were not Syrian army,” yet quoting this individual he wrote: “Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas.”

Note: Hersh’s source refers to “investigators,” not “our investigation” — a suggestion that the source was not in fact inside the investigation — and the source makes no direct reference to the construction method of the weapons.

In tune with the interests of his audience, Hersh prefers to tell political stories. Technicalities serve as nothing more than stage props and for this reason, it should come as no surprise that his televised engagements are generally solo performances, which is to say, he doesn’t get interviewed alongside experts who could quickly expose the weakness of his arguments.

For instance, a pillar of the argument that Hersh is making about the chemical attacks in Ghouta was that the weapons and the sarin they contained were homemade.

hexamineNow if Amy Goodman had wanted to pose a really tough question to Hersh she could have asked: How do you explain the presence of hexamine found on the remains of the missiles used in the chemical attacks?

That’s not the kind of question Hersh is likely to have thrown at him by Goodman or any other interviewer since neither he nor the interviewer would be likely to understand its significance.

Still, when the subject is chemical weapons and the media is able to see whether Hersh’s claims can withstand expert analysis, then that is exactly how his reporting should be tested.

It’s safe to assume that Hersh will never divulge the identity of any of his sources and so their credibility cannot be separated from his credibility. But Hersh’s assertion that the weapons and warheads used in the attack were homemade and that they lacked the identifying characteristics of Syrian army weapons, is a substantive claim that has to be supported by evidence.

The only physical evidence Hersh cites is sarin collected by Russian military intelligence operatives and passed on to British military intelligence at Porton Down.

This is worthless. For Hersh to attest to the reliability of this evidence by citing his own source’s claim that “the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’” is a joke.

Russia is an ally of Syria. The whole point of having UN weapons inspectors gathering evidence is that they are international and independent.

Dan Kaszeta, a former US Army and US Secret Service specialist on chemical, biological, and radiological defense, last year laid out the reasons why neither al Nusra nor any other non-state actor would have the capabilities to produce sarin in the quantity used in the Ghouta attacks.

Having presented the technical reasons why rebel-produced sarin was highly implausible, Kaszeta went on to make an important discovery about a unique feature of the sarin produced by the Assad regime — something that has never been observed before: the use of hexamine.

Sarin used in chemical weapons contains hydrogen flouride — “one of the most corrosive chemicals in existence.” Although hexamine has a diverse array of applications, Kaszeta suspected that Syria was using it as the acid reducer in sarin to mitigate the corrosive effects of hydrogen flouride. That suspicion was confirmed by the UN/OPCW inspection mission.

Ake Sellstrom, the head of the mission, was interviewed by CBRNe World magazine in February and asked:

CBRNe World: Why was hexamine on the list of chemical scheduled to be destroyed – it has many other battlefield uses as well as Sarin? Did you request to put it on the list or had the Syrian’s claimed that they were using it?

Sellstrom: It is in their formula, it is their acid scavenger.

To summarize:

  • The Syrian government has never claimed that it lost control of any of its CW arsenal.
  • It has acknowledged that hexamine was part of its formula for producing sarin.
  • Nobody else has previously used hexamine as a sarin additive.
  • Hexamine was found in the field samples collected by CW inspectors in Ghouta after the attacks.
  • Syria included 80 tons of hexamine in its declared inventory for CW destruction.

Add these facts together and there can be little doubt that, as Dan Kaszeta says, “the Assad regime did the wicked deed.”

Then again, who wants to hear about hexamine when instead they can listen to Seymour Hersh spinning tales about false flags?

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  1. Sounds like SH is caught in the trap of pride. As a respected investigator he doesn’t like to admit he’s been “had” by others or otherwise made a mistake of his own. He must have had what he thought was a terrific story and didn’t do the checking that was (as it happened) needed. Poor SH.

    Best if he admit he needed help he didn’t get, advice he didn’ty solicit.

    This was, it now appears, a SCIENCE story, and most reoprters are POLITICS heavies, not science heavies.

    If you doubt this, just read the reporting (and take the pulse of the VAST non-reporting) on global warming/climate change, its current effects, its likely near-term, middle-term, and long-term effects, and how these effects change (in the direction of greater sedverity) as time does by without action taken to mitigate, — and THEN stories about the unknowns, the kickers, the surprises that might happen, etc.

    science reporting is FAR HARDER than this small Seymour Hersh matter.

  2. Paul Woodward says:

    It was a science story, a technology story, and a political story and none of these could be separated from the others. The problem is that whereas politics lends itself to explication through storytelling, science and technology do not.

    At Brown Moses blog, Eliot Higgins does a great job analyzing the munitions information he has been meticulously documenting. But this is dry stuff. I imagine a lot of people lose interest by the time they’ve got to the third or fourth video showing the mangled remains of a missile.

    Hersh on the other hand, engages his readers by creating the impression that he is pulling back the curtains revealing the secret workings of government. His playing a double role. On the one hand he’s presenting himself as having deep access inside the system. At the same time he wants to be seen as an outsider. Through this combination he conjures the impression that there are certain things that can only be discovered by listening to Seymour Hersh. This is both deceptive and self-deceptive. I think he really believes that he’s letting people in on secrets that they would otherwise never learn.

    His problem in reporting on the chemical attacks is that his starting point is his search for the story, but he shouldn’t be looking for the story without having first gathered hard information.

    Instead, he was willing to have the story served to him close to being ready-made. Ironically, the situation is closely analogous to the stovepiping in the Bush administration that he reported on in 2003. Indeed, it may have even involved one of the key players in those very events.

    But this time, instead of describing the stovepiping, he has become part of it, telling a story “without the information on which it is based having been subjected to rigorous scrutiny.”

  3. I’m no expert on sarin gas or chemical weapons in general, but there are experts who think they have solidly refuted your argument:

    I find it odd, to say the least, that you write as if the “experts” all agree wih you.

  4. josie milburn says:

    Just what did you mean, Paul when you wrote: In tune with the interests of his audience, Hersh prefers to tell political stories.? …..Just what were you inferring in that paragraph?

  5. Paul Woodward says:

    I’m not a CW expert either so when it comes to assessing the expertise of someone else, I need a bit more to work with than the fact that they have created a blog in which the only identifying information is that the author is male and calls himself “sasa wawa.”

    Be that as it may, he pointlessly describes the many other possible uses of hexamine without addressing the fact that Ake Sellstrom confirmed that hexamine is indeed the acid scavenger in Syria’s formula for sarin. Are we now going to have a debate about whether the head of the mission responsible for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal knows what he’s doing?

  6. Paul Woodward says:

    Josie – Hersh reports on the operations of power and the ways in which governments often function without accountability. He tells stories that need to be told and they shed light on politics. This is what he’s known for and this is what interests his readers.

    When it comes to the chemical attacks in Syria, a sound political analysis has to rest on a sound technical analysis and Hersh has not embraced the latter part of that equation.

    Although Hersh called on the ballistics expertise of Theodore Postol and Richard Lloyd to challenge administration assertions about the source of the missile attacks, in over 11,000 words of reporting on a sarin attack, Hersh gives no indication that he has spoken to a single expert on sarin production! The fact that he continues referring to “homemade” sarin makes it clear that he remains as ignorant about this subject as he was when he began reporting it.

  7. Paul,

    You make much of a single comment by Ake Sellström about hexamine in the Syrian sarin stockpile, but fail to actually link to its source, which isn’t the article you refer to, but (low and behold…) Elliot Higgins, who writes (

    “I’m constantly being asked this, here’s the Hexamine question from the CBRNe Sellstrom interview that didn’t make the edit, from Gwyn Winfield, the interviewer –

    Quoting/not quoting Higgins is doubly ironic, given your criticism of “sasa wara” as lacking in expert credentials: Higgins has made himself famous for the very fact that he doesn’t have any, either, but has still contributed expertly (if wrongheadedly, it seems) to the debate about Ghouta.

    As far as Ake Sellström himself goes, you might want to update your quotes. In a more recent interview than the purported hexamine quote you tried to link to, he said this, for instance:

    Were you able to conclude anything from the sarin used in Syria about its origins?

    When you find samples of sarin, you may also find other chemicals present that may indicate some of its history. We have not been able to compare this sarin with Syrian official stores or in any other way conclude anything about is origin.

    But some claim that there are indeed clues in the samples. When offering up its chemical warfare program to the UN and the OPCW for destruction, the Syrian government declared itself to be in possession of some 80 tons of hexamine, a chemical that can be used to make sarin. Your report notes hexamine traces in some of the samples from the Ghouta area. Does that mean that the sarin used on August 21 was produced by the government?

    Hexamine could be a stabilizer of sarin, but others have claimed that the hexamine found could also be a contaminant being present because of the explosives.” (

    So maybe addressing the actual evidence in Hersh’s damning article would be a better way to spend valuable time and energy, instead of tendentious quote mining to keep the “Assad did it” theory afloat at all cost.

  8. P.S. I meant to write “lo and behold”, not “low and behold”, sorry…

  9. Paul Woodward says:

    I wouldn’t call it tendentious quote mining – I didn’t glean the quote from Higgins, I took it from Dan Kaszeta. Both Higgins and Kaszeta are in frequent communication with Gwyn Winfield to whom the quotation is attributed. If it was inaccurate, I have little doubt that he and/or Sellstrom would have corrected it.

    Hexamine is only one element in this story. Attributing the attack to the regime does not hinge on the role of hexamine.

    Hersh has many other gaping holes in his story as many others have pointed out. As for addressing “the actual evidence” in Hersh’s article — what evidence? It’s all hearsay.

    He makes a big play of a DIA paper and quotes from it, but the DIA says the document does not exist. How come Hersh has not refuted that denial by publishing the paper?

  10. Jesus, Paul, are you actually saying that Hersh is *lying* about having the document? On antiwar radio yesterday, he said (, “it doesn’t matter that I have a document. I guess unless I publish it and expose my source to all sorts of trouble, the White House won’t accept it.” The question is, why are you and any number of other left-of-center journalists would take DIA or White House statements at face value, while insinuating that a journalist of Hersh’s proven caliber is either a dupe or a liea? I’m still making my way through the avalanche of what seems to me to be a sort of para-Establishment specialists blogosphere (egregious example here:, where the author argues basically that the Turks are just too nice to do something like this), but most of it amounts to an echo chamber quoting and requoting the same “experts”.

    You’re right about one thing: what happened on August 21 2013 doesn’t depend on hexamine (at least not the hexamine found on rocket parts so far). So why then write an article attacking Hersh entirely on that basis?

  11. Paul Woodward says:

    Matt – I did not suggest Hersh was lying about having the document. And I’m glad to hear that he confirms that it is in fact in his possession. I feared that he might have simply relied on selective quotations chosen at the discretion of his source.

    However, when he says “unless I publish it and expose my source,” he is willfully misleading his audience by fusing together two separate questions:

    1. Should he provide the context for the quotations he published?
    2. Should he expose his source?

    No one in his position would expose his source. He could, however, provide additional information indicating why his source is reliable and provide corroborating sourcing to make it clear that he was not relying on information provided by just one person.

    To imply that Hersh would inevitably expose his source by publishing the document is very questionable. If we are to assume that the DNI was lying when they denied the existence of the document, then we also know that based on the quotations Hersh has published, they already have more than enough information to positively identify which document is in his possession. The risk, therefore, to Hersh’s source would be no different after he publishes the whole document than it is now.

    The DNI denial said: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’

    They could have declined to comment, but instead they issued an unequivocal denial. Hersh said the document had been issued by “analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency” and DNI says no such document has been produced by DIA analysts or any analysts from any other branch of the intelligence community.

    Maybe Hersh slipped up in identifying the authors of the paper and they were not “analysts” and he thus unwittingly provided DNI with the opportunity to make their sweeping denial. But if he was to publish it, we probably wouldn’t need to engage in these kinds of guessing games.

    The whole premise of investigative journalism is that the public deserves the right to be adequately informed and not to be told either by government officials or journalists: “trust me. You don’t need to know what I know.”

    I certainly do not take DIA, DNI, or White House statements at face value, and when someone is in a position to provide documentary evidence that the government is lying, they have a duty to fully inform the public. So far, Hersh has failed to do that. He is claiming ownership of information that it is not his right to fully control and he’s playing games to protect this privileged position.

  12. For what it’s worth:

    I’ll let Sy Hersh speak for himself, maybe it’ll moderate your view… Thanks for the dialogue, regardless.

  13. Paul Woodward says:

    This is painful to watch. I have thus far refrained from questioning Hersh’s mental competence since there are plenty of people who retain sharp minds well into their late 70s and beyond. But Hersh repeatedly misspeaks — he refers to Iranians as “Sunni crazies”; he refers to “Obama” when he means Assad — and he rambles so much the interviewer repeatedly has to steer him back on topic.

    Perhaps the most interesting detail he reveals is that he supplied the London Review of Books with his own fact checkers — a couple of guys who had done the same for him at The New Yorker.

    When asked by the interviewer to comment on conversations that were picked by Israeli intelligence and relayed to the Obama administration, Hersh responds by talking about the U.S. monitoring Turkish communications. He’s either being evasive or he can’t think straight.

    For those who need a reminder, this is what was reported at the time:

    The 8200 unit of the Israeli Defence Forces, which specialises in electronic surveillance, intercepted a conversation between Syrian officials regarding the use of chemical weapons, an unnamed former Mossad official told Focus. The content of the conversation was relayed to the US, the ex-official said.

    The 8200 unit collects and analyses electronic data, including wiretapped telephone calls and emails. It is the largest unit in the IDF.

    Israel has invested in intelligence assets in Syria for decades, according to a senior government official. “We have an historic intelligence effort in the field, for obvious reasons,” he said.

    There’s certainly a pattern here. Whatever clashes with Hersh’s narrative, he frequently ignores.