According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, President Obama's declarations about what U.S. intelligence agencies knew about who was responsible for the use of sarin gas in Syria this summer were not based on rock solid evidence.
In fact, according to new reporting publish in the London Review of Books on Sunday, Hersh contends that Obama—like his predecessor George W. Bush did in the case of Iraq—Obama administration "cherry-picked intelligence" surrounding the chemical attack outside of Damascus in order "to justify a [military] strike against" against the regime of President Bashar al Assad.
Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.
In his nationally televised speech about Syria on 10 September, Obama laid the blame for the nerve gas attack on the rebel-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta firmly on Assad’s government, and made it clear he was prepared to back up his earlier public warnings that any use of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line’: ‘Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people,’ he said. ‘We know the Assad regime was responsible … And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.’ Obama was going to war to back up a public threat, but he was doing so without knowing for sure who did what in the early morning of 21 August.
After extensive interviews with current and former military and intelligence officials, writes Hersch describes how there was "intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence" by members of the Obama inner circle.
One of the damaging bits of evidence, according to Hersh, is the absence of the chemical attack in Syria from the White House intelligence briefings in the days surrounding the August incident:
For two days – 20 and 21 August – there was no mention of Syria. On 22 August the lead item in the Morning Report dealt with Egypt; a subsequent item discussed an internal change in the command structure of one of the rebel groups in Syria. Nothing was noted about the use of nerve gas in Damascus that day. It was not until 23 August that the use of sarin became a dominant issue, although hundreds of photographs and videos of the massacre had gone viral within hours on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites. At this point, the administration knew no more than the public.
The implications of this, according to Hersh, is not that the White House invented evidence in any way, but that "when Obama said on 10 September that his administration knew Assad’s chemical weapons personnel had prepared the attack in advance, he was basing the statement not on an intercept caught as it happened, but on communications analysed days after 21 August."
Controlling the narrative of the attack with the press, Hersh contends, was the ultimate goal.
As Marcy Wheeler points out on her EmptyWheel blog:
Hersh does not say that Assad did not launch the attack. Nor does he say al-Nusra carried out the attack. Rather, he shows that:
- At some unidentified time since the beginning of the Civil War, Assad had discovered and neutralized wiretaps on his inner circle, leaving US intelligence blind to discussions happening among his top aides
- Sensors planted to detect any movement of Assad’s CW immediately had not been triggered by the August 21 attack
- By June, some intelligence entity had concluded that an Iraqi member of al-Nusra had the capability to manufacture sarin in quantity
And Hersh writes: "The White House’s misrepresentation of what it knew about the attack, and when, was matched by its readiness to ignore intelligence that could undermine the narrative."
The story was causing quite a stir on Twitter as it permeated the social network on Sunday:
Read the full story here.