In the London Review of Books–in a story that both the Washington Post and the New Yorker could have printed but chose not to, the Post having told Hersh they didn't find the sourcing solid enough–journalist Seymour Hersh lays out at great length his reasons for thinking the case against the Assad regime for poison gas attacks is unproven.
Excerpts and summation: Hersh's first point is the administration knew that the al-Nusra front, a rebel group with Al Qaeda ties, also had access to sarin.
Then he found various (anonymous) sources he says should be in a position to know who doubt the administration's assurance of blame:
One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration's assurances of Assad's responsibility a 'ruse'. The attack 'was not the result of the current regime', he wrote. A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening. The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of the early bombings of North Vietnam. The same official said there was immense frustration inside the military and intelligence bureaucracy: 'The guys are throwing their hands in the air and saying, "How can we help this guy" – Obama – "when he and his cronies in the White House make up the intelligence as they go along?"'
The complaints focus on what Washington did not have: any advance warning from the assumed source of the attack. The military intelligence community has for years produced a highly classified early morning intelligence summary, known as the Morning Report, for the secretary of defence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; a copy also goes to the national security adviser and the director of national intelligence. The Morning Report includes no political or economic information, but provides a summary of important military events around the world, with all available intelligence about them. A senior intelligence consultant told me that some time after the attack he reviewed the reports for 20 August through 23 August. 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.
And Hersh argues that they probably should have known more than the public if it was Assad, because of a supposedly very effective "secret sensor system inside Syria, designed to provide early warning of any change in status of the regime's chemical weapons arsenal" which allegedly worked last December to see a possible sarin attack planned (or maybe just an exercise for one), which triggered Obama's first "red line" warning to Assad about using gas weapons.
Hersh goes on to make much of the fact that the intelligence later presented indicating possible Syrian official preparation for a gas attack was not obtained and understood in real time before the attack occured but merely reconstructed later. (Given that he admits the U.S. lacks fully efficient real time surveillance of all Assad regime communication, this doesn't seem such a slam dunk argument.)
The artillery rocket that supposedly delivered the sarin in the August 21 attack near Damascus was said to be something only the regime was known to use. But Hersh reports:
Theodore Postol, a professor of technology and national security at MIT, reviewed the UN photos with a group of his colleagues and concluded that the large calibre rocket was an improvised munition that was very likely manufactured locally. He told me that it was 'something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop'. The rocket in the photos, he added, fails to match the specifications of a similar but smaller rocket known to be in the Syrian arsenal. The New York Times, again relying on data in the UN report, also analysed the flight path of two of the spent rockets that were believed to have carried sarin, and concluded that the angle of descent 'pointed directly' to their being fired from a Syrian army base more than nine kilometres from the landing zone.
Postol, who has served as the scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations in the Pentagon, said that the assertions in the Times and elsewhere 'were not based on actual observations'. He concluded that the flight path analyses in particular were, as he put it in an email, 'totally nuts' because a thorough study demonstrated that the range of the improvised rockets was 'unlikely' to be more than two kilometres. Postol and a colleague, Richard M. Lloyd, published an analysis two weeks after 21 August in which they correctly assessed that the rockets involved carried a far greater payload of sarin than previously estimated. The Times reported on that analysis at length, describing Postol and Lloyd as 'leading weapons experts'. The pair's later study about the rockets' flight paths and range, which contradicted previous Times reporting, was emailed to the newspaper last week; it has so far gone unreported.
What Hersh paints as the administration's reluctance to publicly admit rebels also had access to poison gas could be troublesome down the line, he thinks:
While the Syrian regime continues the process of eliminating its chemical arsenal, the irony is that, after Assad's stockpile of precursor agents is destroyed, al-Nusra and its Islamist allies could end up as the only faction inside Syria with access to the ingredients that can create sarin, a strategic weapon that would be unlike any other in the war zone. There may be more to negotiate.