American Dirty Hands and Chain of Command

[Tenet] called for initiating intelligence contact with some rogue states such as Libya and Syria that he said might be helpful in trying to destroy al Qaeda. For the CIA to obtain helpful information against the terrorists, they might have to get their hands dirty. — Bob Woodward, Bush at War

On September 15, 2001, George Tenet presented Cofer Black’s plan to respond to 9/11 to George Bush. It included rendering suspects to allied torturers including Egypt, partnering with rogue regimes including Bashar al-Assad’s, and ultimately capturing and torturing suspects ourselves.

On September 17, 2001, George Bush implemented that plan by signing a Memorandum of Notification reflecting vague outlines of it.

George Bush’s signature on that document led directly the torture of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi in Omar Suleiman’s hands and Binyam Mohammed’s torture in Pakistani custody, both before DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel gave its sanction to torture. In addition, it led to Maher Arar’s torture in Assad’s hands outside the terms permissible in our rendition program.

Yet as these details of George Bush’s personal implication in torture became clear, President Obama hid it, both with repeated state secrets invocations and by hiding official confirmation of the existence of that document with Bush’s signature on it. The Administration succeeded in hiding that official confirmation by arguing — just last year! — that it was still relying on that document that also endorsed partnering with Assad. (There’s reason to believe that that document which authorized partnering with Assad also served to authorize some of our drone assassinations, including at least the first attempt against Anwar al-Awlaki.)

Meanwhile, the most independent assessment of the August 21 chemical weapons strike — from Human Rights Watch — still has the same gap as every other case does: while it concludes the CW were launched by Assad’s regime, it provides no evidence that it was launched on his orders.

The evidence examined by Human Rights Watch strongly suggests that the August 21 chemical weapon attacks on Eastern and Western Ghouta were carried out by government forces. Our basis for this finding is:

  • The large-scale nature of the attacks, involving at least a dozen surface-to-surface rockets affecting two different neighborhoods in Damascus countryside situated 16 kilometers apart, and surrounded by major Syrian government military positions.
  • One of the types of rockets used in the attack, the 330mm rocket system – likely Syrian produced, which appear to be have been used in a number of alleged chemical weapon attacks, has been filmed in at least two instances in the hands of government forces. The second type of rocket, the Soviet-produced 140mm rocket, which can carry Sarin, is listed as a weapon known to be in Syrian government weapon stocks. Both rockets have never been reported to be in the possession of the opposition. Nor is there any footage or other evidence that the armed opposition has the vehicle-mounted launchers needed to fire these rockets.
  • The August 21 attacks were a sophisticated military attack, requiring large amounts of nerve agent (each 330mm warhead is estimated to contain between 50 and 60 liters of agent), specialized procedures to load the warheads with the nerve agent, and specialized launchers to launch the rockets

Obviously Assad has not yet publicly named — much less condemned — anyone within his regime for doing this (but then, only about 14 Americans have ever paid a price the systematic torture authorized by that Bush signature). If this deal with the Russians actually happens, naming and prosecuting the persons responsible for the August 21 attack should be part of the agreement. 

But there is a fundamental problem with America launching a war against Assad for the August CW attack based on chain of command arguments (or “common sense,” as its most recent incarnation has it). That’s because, with all the legal problems surrounding any intervention on our part (especially without UN sanction, which may change under the Russian deal), there are such clear and ongoing instances where, even with clear evidence of human rights violations done under nothing but Presidential authorization, the US doesn’t hold its own responsible.

There was a time when US violations of human rights norms weren’t so clearly documented (though the definitely existed). But now that they are, to claim we have the moral authority to hold Bashar al-Assad responsible based on a chain of command argument when we won’t even hold our own responsible for partnering with him in human rights crimes is particularly problematic.

As human rights hypocrites ourselves, that makes us not even global policemen, but rather simple enforcers when it serves our geopolitical interests.

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Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

15 replies
  1. JTMinIA says:

    I completely agree with your argument (against the US having any moral or legal authority to attack Syria over the use of CWs) and would add at least one other. We knew Saddam Hussein had gassed the Kurds and yet continued to be his best friend (see the picture of Rumsfeld shaking his hand a little while after Hussein had done some gassing). You cannot have it both ways. You can’t be buddies with some CW users and attack others.

  2. Jeff Kaye says:

    As I assume you know, US hypocrisy goes even deeper and to darker places than you have noted thus far. Darker than Bush’s torture program? You bet. How about covering up the largest CW and BW program in modern history, then giving amnesty to those involved, including those who practiced wide-scale vivisection of prisoners? Over 8000 slides of human tissues from these hideous experiments ended up in US hands, part of a long-denied deal. The cover-up included the murder by CW and BW of an estimated quarter to half a million people or more.


  3. greengiant says:

    A couple of videos circulating now showing AQ type fanatics loading and firing chemical weapons. The real deal or Iranian/Syrian propaganda? There are reports of AQ fanatics running amuck in Syrian Christian villages.

  4. Court says:

    Greetings. Cross-posting my own post from 20 minutes ago.

    Page 10 Image G-K Looks awful familiar.

    [quote]The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers
    used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are
    weapon systems known and documented to be only in the
    possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed
    forces. Human Rights Watch and arms experts monitoring
    the use of weaponry in Syria have not documented Syrian
    opposition forces to be in the possession of the 140mm
    and 330mm rockets used in the attack, or their associated

    Without physical access to Eastern and Western Ghouta,
    Human Rights Watch interviewed by Skype from August
    22 to September 6 more than 10 witnesses and survivors
    of the August 21 attacks, and 3 doctors who responded to
    the attacks. Human Rights Watch also reviewed available
    video and photo footage from the scene of the attacks,
    including high-resolution images obtained directly from
    a source who photographed and measured the rocket
    components found in the Eastern Ghouta attack, and conducted
    a detailed analysis of the weapon remnants captured
    in such footage.

    In its investigation, Human Rights Watch was assisted by
    arms experts including Nic Jenzen-Jones, author of “The
    Rogue Adventurer”,2 as well as the independent investigation
    conducted by Eliot Higgins of the “Brown Moses”
    blog, who collected and analyzed photos and videos from
    the attacks.

  5. b says:

    Someone should ask HRW how they can conclude that any gas came from those rocket debris laying around somewhere in the area.

    Those could have been just normal ammunition or Fuel Air Explosives.

    There is nothing I find in any account of the incident that somehow connects those rockets to the gas.

    The gas might well have been released by men carried canisters.

  6. bell says:

    thanks for the article emptywheel. i like your last 2 paragraphs in particular.. thanks also for the article from jeff kaye – wow, that is really unsettling.

    “There was a time when US violations of human rights norms weren’t so clearly documented (though the definitely existed). But now that they are, to claim we have the moral authority to hold Bashar al-Assad responsible based on a chain of command argument when we won’t even hold our own responsible for partnering with him in human rights crimes is particularly problematic.

    As human rights hypocrites ourselves, that makes us not even global policemen, but rather simple enforcers when it serves our geopolitical interests.”
    – See more at:

  7. lysias says:

    @JTMinIA: We not only turned a blind eye to Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds. We positively abetted Saddam’s gassing of Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq War by providing him intel on the movements of those troops when we knew Iraq was using poison gas against them. See George Will’s column today.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Thanks for highlighting this. It’s been going on at least since the US gave immunity to Japanese (eg, Unit 731) and German scientists who engaged in some of the most notorious human rights violations of WWII. We wanted their data and their research skills to help us in the purported existential battle against the Commies.

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