Brief Note on the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

In the new issue of the London Review of Books, Seymour Hersh reports that senior Obama administration officials appear to have misrepresented the evidence linking Syria’s Assad regime to sarin gas attacks:

[The president] cited a list of what appeared to be hard-won evidence of Assad’s culpability: ‘In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighbourhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.’ Obama’s certainty was echoed at the time by Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, who told the New York Times: ‘No one with whom I’ve spoken doubts the intelligence’ directly linking Assad and his regime to the sarin attacks.

But in recent interviews with intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present, I found intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence. 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?”’

Hersh is a polarizing figure among national security reporters, and it is fair to characterize him as someone who tends to skeptical of U.S. armed interventions. Yet his article raises important questions about the Syria debate, for the Obama administration and also for those who (like myself) were inclined to accept its interpretation of the sarin gas attacks. One of the more curious aspects of Hersh’s LRB story is that it appeared in the LRB at all, as Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post observes. It seems that The New Yorker wasn’t interested in pursuing the story, and the Washington Post decided at the last minute that the story did not meet its standards for sourcing. Christian Lorentzen, a senior editor at the LRB, did, however, tell Calderone that Hersh’s article had been “thoroughly fact checked by a former New Yorker fact checker who had worked with Hersh in the past.” The Washington Post depends on the cooperation of the national security apparatus, which might account for its reluctance to publish the piece. The New Yorker, in contrast, has been celebrated for its willingness to break stories — often by Hersh — of a broadly similar nature, most notably during the Bush administration.

To his credit, Hersh seems nonplussed. Calderone ends his piece on the following note:

Indeed, Hersh didn’t seem particularly bothered by having to shop the story to different outlets, telling HuffPost over email that “these things happen on tough stories presented by a non-staff writer … the way it goes … freelancing is not for the faint of heart.”

This is a healthy perspective for Hersh as a writer. The trouble is that if Hersh’s reporting does indeed have merit, it is a shame that it was a London-based publication with a relatively limited U.S. readership (and I say this as a subscriber and a friend of a couple of members of its staff) that took on the not inconsiderable task of vetting and publishing it rather a publication with a large and influential U.S. audience.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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