Former intelligence officials and false flags

In May 2008 I received an email from a former senior intelligence officer who I was working with at that time. The subject line: “same senario like in iraq/big lies.”

Naturally, I was eager to see the details in what turned out to be an analysis of the photographic evidence on the alleged Israeli strike on an alleged nuclear facility in Syria in September 2007.

I had followed this story closely since it was first reported and initially had been very skeptical about the idea that Syria would take the risk of attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

By late April 2008, however, it seemed to me (and many other independent observers) that the evidence supporting most of the allegations was thoroughly convincing. At that time I wrote:

As someone who voiced great skepticism about the initial claims that Israel destroyed a nuclear facility in the Syrian desert on September 6, 2007, I’ll be the first to admit that the evidence provided in the DNI background briefing presents proof that Syria was in fact close to completing the construction of a Calder-Hall type of nuclear reactor producing plutonium.

Even if one was to have dismissed all the intelligence as having been misinterpreted or fabricated, the fact remained that when Syria had the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that it was the innocent victim of an unprovoked act of aggression by its neighbor, Israel — IAEA inspectors could have immediately been called in to certify that the recently bombed site was “clean,” showing no evidence of nuclear materials or construction of a reactor — instead of calling in inspectors, Assad sent in the bulldozers to cover up the remains.

Nevertheless, athough in my mind it seemed like the case was closed, then as always, I was open to consider new evidence — especially if it was being passed on to me by someone who had served and advised at the most senior levels of government and been privy to the highest levels of classified information.

So what kind of “intelligence” did this email contain?

It was an article from a website and the first red flag jumped straight out: Rense.com.

For those who have never come across this site, it’s run by an American radio talk-show host called Jeff Rense. It is notorious for promoting conspiracy theories and the article in question, “Another Fake Syria Nuclear Site Photo?”, was no exception.

The article’s author was a man called Ted Teietmeyer. My immediate reaction to his method of analysis was that he seemed to be approaching this subject in the way someone might argue that the moon landings were faked. Sure enough, Teietmeyer believes that NASA faked the 1969 lunar landing.

Had the former intelligence official been taken in by what to my eye was transparently a bogus piece of analysis, or did he think that I could easily be duped? I’ll never know, because as soon as I told him this was a piece of nonsense he dropped the subject.

What I have observed over the intervening years is that this former intelligence official’s allegiances have become increasingly transparent and this perhaps explains why he sent me that article. He can at this point be fairly described as a loyal supporter of Bashar al-Assad. That’s not a slur — it’s an objective assessment.

Now let’s consider another former intelligence official. This one left a comment here on Tuesday evening. I recognized his name. He used to be a CIA analyst, now has his own blog and based on his style of writing comments, I think he can reasonably also be described as a “troll.”

His comment appeared under the post “Seymour Hersh as Dorian Gray,” where I had written that had such a thinly-sourced report as Hersh’s latest been written by anyone else, the London Review of Books (LBR) wouldn’t have touched it.

Since I have no intention of feeding this troll, his comment will remain in moderation — why should I or anyone else approve being addressed in this way? I did however write directly to the author using the email address he provides on his blog and he swiftly confirmed that he had indeed left the comment. The former intelligence official had commented:

You are a moron. Thinly sourced? Quoting from an actual Top Secret document, which the LRB thoroughly fact checked, is quite a distance from thinly sourced. Further evidence that you are a frigging tool is to assert that Hersh’s article is somehow pandering to the left and Obama supporters. Really? If you had actually read the article you would understand why the left hates him — it is a devastating indictment of Obama as a liar and a fraud.

The first thing I would say to anyone who wants to sustain the brand value of “former intelligence official” is this: It’s probably better to refrain from throwing around insults in public. It detracts from the authoritative voice most people associate or want to associate with those who have been entrusted to maintain national security.

I’ll break down what this former CIA analyst said both in order to address the specifics, but perhaps more importantly to show that when assessing the credibility of what someone says, we should never allow ourselves to be dazzled by their credentials.

I’ll leave it to others to decide whether I’m a moron and move on to the question of sourcing. Hersh, the former CIA analyst says, is “Quoting from an actual Top Secret document, which the LRB thoroughly fact checked” — that’s “quite a distance from thinly sourced.” Right? Not really. Here’s why.

Firstly, to say that this document was thoroughly fact-checked by the LRB implies that the fact checkers were able to confirm that the document was what Hersh claims it to be: a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd.

All that the fact checkers appear to have been able to establish is that the DNI says: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’

Moreover, as the CIA analyst may not be aware but as Hersh revealed in an interview on Tuesday, the LRB did not use its own fact checkers — it relied on fact checkers who came with Hersh from The New Yorker.

However celebrated the latter publication’s fact checking process might be, for the LRB to outsource fact checking in this way seems to defeat its purpose.

During the interview, Hersh brandished the “actual Top Secret document” but since he’s only revealed 134 words from its five pages, I don’t believe that he has in fact advanced much distance from thinly sourced. Wafting around a few sheets of paper hardly compares to reading their contents.

Whoever provided the veteran investigative journalist with this intelligence should be perfectly capable of determining how it might need to be redacted in order to preserve his own anonymity while also protecting national security.

Hersh’s choice to act as an intelligence gatekeeper raises reasonable doubts about whether he’s withholding information that might undermine his own narrative. Only by being able to review the document will we be able to determine whether he cherry-picked his quotations or used the information in a misleading way. Likewise, information he left out including dates, could turn out to be significant. Moreover, only by putting the document in the public domain will it be possible to determine whether it is genuine.

As for the former CIA analyst’s reference to “the left and Obama supporters,” anyone who has read my posts would know that I have not spoken once about Obama supporters. The former analyst’s comment seems to emanate from someone firmly stuck inside the Beltway who imagines that all of politics revolves around Democrats and Republicans.

Finally and significantly, the former analyst who jumped in here belongs to a group that has been promoting a false-flag narrative about the chemical attacks since soon after they occurred.

Like many former officials, they seem to engage in a practice commonplace among people who find it difficult to reconcile themselves with their own diminished status once outside government. They would have their audience believe that even if they no longer hold any positions in any government agency, their informal ties to the intelligence community and the Pentagon, provide them with a level of access and insight into the current workings of government, to which others are not privileged.

The secret that the former whatevers are often most reluctant to reveal is that the former commonly says much more than the whatever.

Those who were once inside the loop but are now stuck on the outside, can contrive all sorts of ways of resuscitating their insider status.

Consider for instance the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), the group I alluded to above.

On September 6, this group of former intelligence officials took it upon themselves to offer President Obama a briefing about what really happened on August 21 near Damascus.

In several interviews Hersh has portrayed the president as a victim of his own power. Which is to say, everyone around the president only tells him what he wants to hear.

It would appear that VIPS were assuming a role as what might be called intel elders, who hoped they could break through the bubble and inform Obama about what was really going on.

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed because your advisers decided to afford you the opportunity for what is commonly known as “plausible denial.”

Now here’s the strangest element in this appeal for sanity. The members of this group supposedly alerting the president, also apparently believed that the United States was implicated in the false flag operation about which they were alerting him.

In their September 6 memorandum to the president, VIPS wrote:

[O]n August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major, irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and Qatari, Turkish and U.S. intelligence officials took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, now used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors.

Although these former intelligence officials say they wrote this, it would appear to be more accurate to say they repeated it.

The original author was Yossef Bodansky. In “Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?” published on August 28, he wrote:

On August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major and irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and representatives of Qatari, Turkish, and US Intelligence [“Mukhabarat Amriki”] took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors.

It turns out that Bodansky, an Israeli-American who has served as a Defense Department consultant (as did one of Hersh’s sources) also has links to the Assad family.

Foreign Policy reported last September:

Yossef Bodansky

Yossef Bodansky

Bodansky is an ally of Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad — he pushed him as a potential leader of Syria in 2005. Rifaat is the black sheep of the Assad family: He spearheaded the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, but then was forced into exile after he tried to seize power from his brother, President Hafez al-Assad, in 1983. Despite his ouster, however, Rifaat is just as hostile to a Sunni Islamist takeover as other members of the Assad family — a position Bodansky appears to share. Ending Alawite rule in Syria, Bodansky wrote on another pro-Assad website, “will cause cataclysmic upheaval throughout the greater Middle East.”

While for Hersh, his narrative may seem to go back no further than one or two seemingly well-informed former intelligence officials, the story may in fact trace all the way back to Damascus, not as the center of events but to a factory of a kind; not one in which sarin is produced but one in which “intelligence” gets fabricated.

(Thanks to Clay Claiborne and Scott Lucas.)

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Comments

  1. Paul, I’ve read enough to realize that the question of who used the chem weapons is too technical for me to have a really good opinion on in a reasonable amount of time. But one thing always made me skeptical, from the beginning: why would Assad want to take the risk of using chemical weapons when he was already winning the war, and when there were so many observers around? That defies elementary logic, to me. That’s the key point which tilts me towards the VIPS position.

  2. Paul Woodward says:

    Scott — Here’s the point on which I think a lot of people stumble: starting off with the political logic instead of the evidence. That logic, as you express it, is perfectly sound. Likewise, the argument that Assad’s opponents would have a lot to gain if a false flag operation succeeded in triggering US or NATO attack.

    But the evidence, as gathered and assessed by the UN, does not support the theory that this was a rebel operation.

    In Al-Ghouta, significant quantities of sarin were used in a well-planned indiscriminate attack targeting civilian-inhabited areas, causing mass casualties. The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents.

    The existence, size, and nature of the Syrian CW arsenal is well-known and documented. Theories, such as the ones being propagated by VIPS and Hersh have not been substantiated in any way at all. They might seem logical, but without evidence they don’t have any weight. Statements made in alleged intelligence assessments do not amount to evidence.

    We’ve got Michael Maloof with his top secret document saying that AQI were producing sarin in Iraq, and now we’ve got Hersh with his top secret document saying that al Nusra were producing sarin in Syria. But as we all know, statements made in classified documents don’t acquire greater veracity simply because they are closely guarded secrets. On the contrary, narrowly circulated information has a tendency of being less reliable because it is less open to being refuted.

  3. josie milburn says:

    Which simply proves that everybody has an agenda, even you, Paul. The truth? Perhaps several years down the line or so when it is safe and sane. Perhaps, never. Seems sad that we have come to this.

  4. Paul Woodward says:

    Josie — By saying that you think I have an agenda but not spelling out what you believe that agenda to be, you’re implying that I am purposefully attempting to be deceptive.

    Why not take the trouble and take the risk of saying what you think my agenda is so that I have an opportunity to respond? I can’t respond to insinuations of the type you just made.

    That said, when someone makes this kind of insinuation, that strongly suggests to me that they’ve already made up their mind. And if that’s the case, then there is really no opportunity for dialogue.

  5. josie milburn says:

    Perhaps, Paul, “agenda” was the wrong word to use. I apologize. At no time do I ever think you are being deceptive. On the contrary, I believe you are an honest man trying your best to make sense of things. Or I would not even go to your site. However, I think that we humans, no matter how forecfully we believe we are truly objective, are not. That somewhere between all the verbiage, from all sides, is the truth. And unfortunely, it is sad that we should have to wonder which end is up.

  6. Paul Woodward says:

    Josie – no need to apologize. I agree that no one is truly objective in this sense: we each view the world from a particular vantage point. However, what objectivity as a practice requires is that we do not exercise selective attention — focusing on those elements that reinforce our preconceptions, while ignoring those that undermine them.

  7. Scott asks “why would Assad want to take the risk of using chemical weapons when he was already winning the war?” Short answer: he wasn’t. Except for Qusayr, which eh took only via the massive intervention of Hezbollah, the war had been totally stalemated for over a year before last August (nearly 2 years now); and especially in the south, up to the Damascus suburbs, rebels had been continually on the offensive. There may be other valid arguments, but that isn’t one of them.

  8. Paul Woodward says:

    Michael — that’s an important point you are making and it also raises another question that conspiracy theorists love: Cui bono? Who benefits?

    Even if for a few days after the chemical attack it looked like Assad might get clobbered by the U.S. (or at least attacked with “a level of intensity ‘just muscular enough not to get mocked‘ but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia”), as soon as Russia provided the U.S. with a convenient escape route — CW disarmament — it quickly became clear that Assad was the big winner.

    The U.S. and its allies made it perfectly clear that so long as Assad refrained from using chemical weapons to kill his own people, then barrel bombs or any other conventional means would provoke little more than finger-wagging from his critics. Both before and after the attacks, U.S. support for the opposition has been so restrained that it’s debatable whether it can even be called support. NYT: “many rebels say they believe that the Obama administration is giving just enough to keep the rebel cause alive, but not enough to actually help it win, as part of a dark strategy aimed at prolonging the war.”

    So, who benefited from the chemical attacks? Indisputably it was Assad. Does that mean everything went according to plan?

    I suppose that’s possible, but I think it’s very unlikely. We’d have to assume, for instance, that when Margaret Brennan from CBS asked John Kerry, “is there anything at this point that his government could do or offer that would stop an attack?” that this was a planted question.

    We’d have to assume that behind the scenes the Syrians, Russians, and Americans had colluded in determining what each would do. We could imagine that all of these machinations were spawned by Israel’s desire to see Assad remain in power since then as now he is surely viewed by them as the lesser of two evils.

    The fundamental problem with this kind of theory — like all conspiracy theories — is that it takes no account of the frequency with which mistakes are made; the extent to which decision-makers bumble along day-to-day with very little idea what is going to happen tomorrow; and the fact that much of the time, power is an illusion sustained through collective acts of belief.

    Much more likely, in a macabre way, is that Assad got lucky.

  9. Óscar Palacios says:

    I believe Assad’s forces are the culprits for the chemical attack. The entire war began because he’s consistently demonstrated that he doesn’t care at all about Syrians. He ordered his army to open fire on peaceful demonstrators. Let’s not forget that. I believe that after seeing with what seemingly ease Mubarak was overthrown, Assad made up his mind to stay in power no matter what. I never understood how and why so many people began to have some sort of second thoughts on Assad, and all of a sudden he was even kinda likable to many. I remember being completely shocked by the cold blooded violence against peaceful protests, and how even very young teenagers were being arrested, tortured and murdered. Is it really so hard to think Assad would order a chemical attack?

    Assad was 16 when his father ordered his army to attack Syrians, in 1982. One of his uncles was one of the army commanders. This is a man born into a family in power. Assad is a man educated to act ruthlessly if necessary.

    I’m not sure Assad had the foresightedness to know that Obama and the West in general wouldn’t attack, and that this would indeed provide him with the opportunity to now pose as a reasonable actor by getting rid of his chemical stockpile. No, he’s not a wizard and he couldn’t have anticipated everything. But he is a very cunning politician. I was amazed at how easily he evaded tough questions during an interview with Fox News. This guy is really something special. He is the most dangerous kind psychopath, the one that lies with a straight face and feels no remorse.

    All these conspiracy theories about western-backed rebels attacking a rebel-held area with CW seem to just be spreading FUD; fear, uncertainty and doubt. Yeah, Americans have done some really f****d up things in the past, including all kinds of genocides. Yes, Obama, in spite of his Nobel prize, adamantly refuses to check his policy of killing civilians in other countries, a policy I have a hard time separating conceptually from “terrorism”. But why would America secretly plan a false-flag CW attack, only to *not* use the political advantage it had acquired once the attack had been effectively carried out? The chemical attack was a nightmare for Obama. Assad had crossed the red line. Now he had to attack, or do something. Why would America go through all that trouble, only to back-out at the moment of truth?

    Nah. It was Assad.