Sy Hersh Writing about Politicized Intelligence Again, Syria Edition

Sy Hersh has a long piece in the London Review of Books accusing the Obama Administration of cherry-picking intelligence to present its case that Bashar al-Assad launched the chemical weapons attack on August 21.

To be clear, 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

A lot of the story serves to establish that two days after the attack, the US had yet to respond to it, presumably because it did not have any intelligence Syria had launched the attack, in part because nothing had triggered the sensors that had worked in the past. To develop its intelligence on the attack days afterwards, the NSA performed key word searches on already-collected radio communications of lower level Syrian military figures.

‘There are literally thousands of tactical radio frequencies used by field units in Syria for mundane routine communications,’ he said, ‘and it would take a huge number of NSA cryptological technicians to listen in – and the useful return would be zilch.’ But the ‘chatter’ is routinely stored on computers. Once the scale of events on 21 August was understood, the NSA mounted a comprehensive effort to search for any links to the attack, sorting through the full archive of stored communications. A keyword or two would be selected and a filter would be employed to find relevant conversations. ‘What happened here is that the NSA intelligence weenies started with an event – the use of sarin – and reached to find chatter that might relate,’ the former official said. ‘This does not lead to a high confidence assessment, unless you start with high confidence that Bashar Assad ordered it, and began looking for anything that supports that belief.’ The cherry-picking was similar to the process used to justify the Iraq war.

Ultimately, according to one of Hersh’s sources, they used intelligence collected in response to last December’s Syrian exercise on CW as the basis for what the Syrians would have been doing in case of an attack.

The former senior intelligence official explained that the hunt for relevant chatter went back to the exercise detected the previous December, in which, as Obama later said to the public, the Syrian army mobilised chemical weapons personnel and distributed gas masks to its troops. The White House’s government assessment and Obama’s speech were not descriptions of the specific events leading up to the 21 August attack, but an account of the sequence the Syrian military would have followed for any chemical attack. ‘They put together a back story,’ the former official said, ‘and there are lots of different pieces and parts. The template they used was the template that goes back to December.’

The White House presented this cherry-picked intelligence 9 days after the attack to a group of uncritical journalists (Hersh notes Jonathan Landay was excluded).

That’s the damning part of Hersh’s story on the intelligence used to support the Syrian warmongering (it is largely consistent with observations made at the time).

Hersh also describes how the NYT ignored the conclusions of MIT professor Theodore Postol, who determined at least some of the shells used in the attack were locally manufactured and had a much shorter range than publicly described.

Ultimately, though, Hersh’s biggest piece of news describes how someone — he doesn’t say who, but this part of his story relies on a senior intelligence consultant of unidentified nationality — sent Deputy DIA Director David Shedd a report on June 20 concluding that a former Iraqi CW expert with the capability of manufacturing sarin was operating in Eastern Ghouta.

An intelligence document issued in mid-summer dealt extensively with Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, who was said to have moved into Syria and to be operating in Eastern Ghouta. The consultant told me that Tariq had been identified ‘as an al-Nusra guy with a track record of making mustard gas in Iraq and someone who is implicated in making and using sarin’. He is regarded as a high-profile target by the American military.

On 20 June a four-page top secret cable summarising what had been learned about al-Nusra’s nerve gas capabilities was forwarded to David R. Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. ‘What Shedd was briefed on was extensive and comprehensive,’ the consultant said. ‘It was not a bunch of “we believes”.’ He told me that the cable made no assessment as to whether the rebels or the Syrian army had initiated the attacks in March and April, but it did confirm previous reports that al-Nusra had the ability to acquire and use sarin.

Though Hersh provided ODNI with the specific cable markings on this report, ODNI spokesperson Shawn Turner claimed to be unable to find it. Turner also issued a denial that suggests some other country came to this conclusion.

[N]o American intelligence agency, including the DIA, ‘assesses that the al-Nusra Front has succeeded in developing a capacity to manufacture sarin’.

“No American agency” of course specifically leaves open the possibility another intelligence agency has made such a conclusion — perhaps the British, who were in no rush to go to war in Syria in response to the August 21 attack.

In spite of Turner’s denial, Hersh quotes one of his main sources, a former senior intelligence officer, noting that the military had concluded the rebels had the ability to manufacture sarin, too.

So that’s it, the central claims in Hersh’s piece. He ends it not with certainty about who launched the attack, but with questions raised about Obama’s subsequent decision to walk away from his planned attack.

The administration’s distortion of the facts surrounding the sarin attack raises an unavoidable question: do we have the whole story of Obama’s willingness to walk away from his ‘red line’ threat to bomb Syria? He had claimed to have an iron-clad case but suddenly agreed to take the issue to Congress, and later to accept Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical weapons. It appears possible that at some point he was directly confronted with contradictory information: evidence strong enough to persuade him to cancel his attack plan, and take the criticism sure to come from Republicans.

That’s what I’ve always looked to. What underlying intelligence would lead to these actions?

  • Our European allies refusing to go to war based on the intelligence they had seen
  • US refusal to provide specific intelligence on planned attacks in Syria to the Saudis
  • Assad deciding to give up his CW stocks
  • Obama giving the Russians a big win in Syria, followed by subsequent progress on an Iran deal

One potential underlying motivation for all these actions might be the discovery that al Qaeda has achieved our long-feared aim, the acquisition of CW, which it was using to stage an attack in an effort to get Americans (as one of Hersh’s sources describe) to “provid[e] close air support for al-Nusra,” and that it was doing so with some knowledge or even assistance from our Saudi allies.

Such a discovery certainly might lead allies to avoid empowering al-Nusra. It would explain both Assad’s incentive to expose himself to Israeli attacks by disarming his CW, in an effort to provide real deniability for any attacks going forward. And perhaps most crucially, it might explain why we would move away from our role in granting the Saudis decisive help in extending their hegemony over the region, and move towards shoring up Iran as a counter-balance.

That is, al-Nusra wielding CW with the tacit support of the Saudis might explain all subsequent actions. [Update: If al-Nusra has CW and the Saudis have not objected, it might lead to these actions whether or not they staged the August 21 attack.]

Which leads me to one other tiny detail in Hersh’s story, his source’s description of who pushed the quick conclusion that Assad was responsible.

‘The immediate assumption was that Assad had done it,’ the former senior intelligence official told me. ‘The new director of the CIA, [John] Brennan, jumped to that conclusion … drives to the White House and says: “Look at what I’ve got!” It was all verbal; they just waved the bloody shirt. There was a lot of political pressure to bring Obama to the table to help the rebels, and there was wishful thinking that this [tying Assad to the sarin attack] would force Obama’s hand: “This is the Zimmermann telegram of the Syrian rebellion and now Obama can react.” [my emphasis]

Now, this description of Brennan is a tell. He is and was by no means “the new director” of the CIA; by early September he had been in place for 6 months already. That he was perceived to be such by a “former senior intelligence official” might suggest the source is someone at CIA who lost out with Brennan’s ascendance, perhaps someone close to Mike Morell, who had been a candidate for the position (Morell left CIA on August 9).

That by no means means this person is wrong. But CIA officers and alumni who opposed Brennan’s nomination have long condemned his close ties to the Saudis, even claiming he thwarted investigations of al Qaeda while serving as Riyadh station chief in the 1990s, investigations which might have prevented 9/11. So while it is a subtle point, it is worth noting that Hersh’s sources point to Brennan as the source for the quick conclusion that the Saudis wanted us to reach, that Assad had launched the attack.

Hersh’s sources analogize this cherry-picked intelligence to the case for the Iraq War. Are they, with that, also pointing to someone who had been a close aide for George Tenet when he cherry-picked that intelligence?

Update: See Moon of Alabama’s take on this. He thinks the cable to David Shedd came from the Russians. One reason I think it might be the Brits is because the LRB published this piece after Washington Post apparently decided not to. But it would be rather interesting if the Russians provided it, particularly given that it came as they were playing games with intelligence in the wake of the Boston Marathon attack.

Update: Michael Calderone explores why the New Yorker and WaPo didn’t publish this. The New Yorker seemed uninterested because of the subject (I’ve wondered for some time if they were uninterested in pieces critical of Obama from Hersh). WaPo had concerns about the sourcing (which must say something because they’re happy to publish an article based on a bunch of consultants to NSA).

32 replies
  1. bevin says:

    For Americans a really shocking aspect of this story is that Hersh had to go outside the country to publish.

    A story about a war,that almost happened, a US alliance with, effectively, Al Qaeda armed with chemical weapons, which is of no interest to the media.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @bevin: Well, there are three questions. 1) Why isn’t he publishing at NYRB anymore? This is a big question, bc of their superb fact checking. 2) Why WaPo backed off publishing this story? That’s a bit easier, bc they would be far more responsive to ODNI’s claims. 3) Whether LRB’s publication of it says something (as I’ve speculated) about greater British support for this story?

  3. Jim White says:

    Oh, this is delicious. The wingers who claim that Brennan is a Muslim-convert Saudi mole now have compelling new evidence. But they must cite Sy Hersh to use it. I’m going to need to replenish my popcorn supply for this one.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @Jim White: The other thing is, how long before these same wingers are screaming about the threat of al-Nusra.

    Oh wait.

    They already are. The only thing they’re not YET doing publicly is screaming that al-Nusra has CW (though there even have been hints of that). Perhaps they need to wait so it doesn’t become clear that their efforts to overturn Iran led directly to al-Nusra getting CW?

  5. What Constitution? says:

    Wait, I’m so confused. Who are we supposed to be bombing now? Somebody just tell me who I’m most afraid of, OK? And is he in Yemen?

  6. bevin says:

    I wish I thought that the New Yorker’s fact checking had any bearing on this story. I suspect however that, as the Assad brewing poison cover suggests, it simply picked up its cue and took up its small but crucial role in the war dance the White House wanted. And it still isn’t sure how to back pedal those delicate moves.

    To put this into perspective: had the cruise missile attacks been carried out, they would have been co-ordinated with a series of pogroms in alawi and christian communities, carried out by the salafis the United States is, let us face it, sponsoring.

    These are extremely ruthless people: they must be to have carried out the sarin “attacks” in which, according to John Kerry, some hundreds were killed. In cold blood, it would now seem.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @What Constitution?: Good question on Yemen, given that the attack on the Yemeni DOD location purportedly involved in drone targeting was originally claimed, via an unverified account, as an AQAP attack, but AQ subsequently denied that. One thing they do know is the attackers were Saudi.

  8. ArizonaBumblebee says:

    I guess I will need to subscribe to The London Review of Books to learn the truth about our foreign policy. First, they published the article on the Israel Lobby by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer and now this article. Why is it that the American press is no longer willing to take any risks in its reporting, particularly when it relates to our policies in the Middle East? Why is it that the Snowden revelations also initially came from a British publication, The Guardian? I will not be the first person to ask, more specifically, why The New York Times and The Washington Post increasingly have gone out of their ways to accommodate the Bush and Obama administrations in their reporting on the so-called War on Terror. Hopefully, the new owner of the Washington Post will stop the drift in its editorial stances, which increasingly have a neocon flavor to them.

  9. What Constitution? says:

    @emptywheel: Well, the insight into Saudi involvement in Yemen leads to one obvious explanation: the Saudis want to control the Yemeni salmon fishing industry, right? That’s one thing the Saudis lack, I believe.

    Sorry, I’m just not feeling serious this morning. And Hersh’s article, as interesting as it is, seems to me to be just shy of factually obvious — the most notable thing about the walkup to the precipice in the Syrian CW episode was the clear absence of actual proof that Assad really did order use of CW (as Jim White kept patiently laying out here), which made the whole chess match play out as it did and allowed Assad to save face while ridding himself of CW that was as much a threat to himself as to others. As much as I revile much of what Obama has done over the past four years, if you look at where we have ended up very recently (meaning Syrian CW being dismantled and Iranian nuclear agreement of any kind whatsoever, without a shot being fired) it’s a pretty impressive posture. Throwing in Hersh’s effort to uncover the nitty gritty of who knew what really and how it was likely being presented to Obama, one has to think maybe Obama actually had to make some big — and morally admirable — decisions and stand alone in making them stick in order to get to where we are without having turned any particular country into a parking lot. Certainly that’s what he was getting plenty of pressure to do…. In the meantime, when oh when is the American press going to stop breathlessly repeating anything “some say” so long as it might be used to support launching missiles at somebody brown?

  10. emptywheel says:

    @What Constitution?: Oh, I agree, our current trajectory is welcome.

    I just think it only came after the Admin finally came to certain conclusions about the value of our continued partnership with the Saudis. There was already abundant reason for us to move away from them, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a response to the underlying intelligence in Syria. But one thing is clear: our Gulf allies (including the Qataris) were pushing us to support al Qaeda in Syria. That was such a crazy-ass trajectory I’m not surprised we got off it. BUt I am interested in whether one set of intelligence alerted us to how crazy it was. Or perhaps the revolt of all the intelligence people who refused to claim something else was happening?

  11. orionATL says:

    there is “an important revelation” in this story for folks looking at the events from different angles.

    the angle i viewed it from was the (in)effectiveness of nsa/cia electronic spying. such spying is always vulnerable to blocking or to deliberate misdirection (as in snowden flight ( (: )/equadorian embassy embarrassment.

    to me this syrian civil-war intelligence fuccup just shows how vulnerable the u.s. becomes the more heavily it relies on nsa/cia electronic spying.

    where were the cia and state and nsc and dod analysts whose job it is to study a country and know it – its political institutions, its leadership, its habits of diplomacy and warring?

    it should be worrisome to the point of freightening that we came so close to being suckered into an unnecessary war because we were heavily weighted toward electronic intelligence rather than well-trained human intelligence if that were the case and cause.

  12. joanneleon says:

    I seem to remember the Russians, at the brink of the attack on Syria, saying they had some evidence and would provide it to the US.

    I think the former intelligence sources are from VIPS. They tried to expose the cooked intelligence on the Iraq war and they wrote another very similar letter to Pres. Obama about attacking Syria. I think it’s very likely that he paused when that letter was made public, especially given the similarity to the letter to Bush before the Iraq war.

    I hope Obama realizes that he’s got key people and key advisors around him trying to entangle him in another ME war, to satisfy the Israelis and Saudis. What is absolutely absurd is that he’s prosecuting people for espionage and either outright or implied treason, while he leaves other people in place, in high or trusted positions in his administration, who, it appears, are clearly guilty of it while the people he is prosecuting are not.

  13. joanneleon says:

    @What Constitution?: I’m immensely happy that Obama stared into the abyss and walked back. But you’re ignoring a hugely important piece of the story. The VIPs group went PUBLIC with their letter, a letter that was very similar to the letter sent to Bush before the Iraq war, which gave them a lot of clout and credibility.

    Another question that I can’t understand why nobody is asking is: Why is John Brennan still in a position of power? Seriously, why? And if he manipulated this whole thing, at the behest of the Saudis and Israelis, and Obama realized that and bravely stood alone and defied them, then again WHY IS JOHN BRENNAN STILL IN POWER? Why is he not in the brig?

    An explanation that involves Obama and his humanitarian intervention crew, Powers and Rice, placed in those positions not long before the Syria debacle, not being able to pull it off because people within the system stopped him, makes a whole lot more sense.

    And Putin’s and Lavrov’s influence was a lot more strong than anyone in this country acknowledged. Hell, even people in this country were happy about what Putin was doing. It was one of the most bizarre situations I’ve ever witnessed in this country.

  14. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon: I think SOME of Hersh’s sources can be VIP, but he’s also far better sourced than relying just on VIP sources. But the consultant seems actively involved. And the former intel official may be a more recent departee.

  15. What Constitution? says:

    @joanneleon: You may be right. And I, for one, ask myself every morning why John Brennan is still behind that curtain. It was pretty hard to dispatch Rasputin, too, as I recall reading somewhere.

  16. Jeff Kaye says:

    @emptywheel: The New Yorker has veered farther and farther to the right of late. Consider, Hersh is gone, but Alex Koppelman was given a job there, leaving Adweek soon after his hit piece on Scott Horton Guantanamo Suicides story.

    Shedd, by the way, we can remember from a farcical encounter with Obama, Michael Hayden and other intel bigwigs when then president-elect Obama was being briefed on the EITs. That was another cherry-picking of info to sell an intel (and military) program.

  17. joanneleon says:

    WRT the London Review of Books vs. the New Yorker, I recall reading that Hersh spent the summer giving lectures in London too about the bin Laden raid and journalism in the US, and he said he has a book coming out about intelligence services. I guess it’s possible that he made some new friends, but I agree with Marcy’s curiosity about the change of venue and am glad she noted it.

    I don’t remember if this is the article that I read initially but it has most of the details that I remember, though I thought I remembered a passage about how Hersh spent a significant amount of time talking to students in London last summer. All in all the article seems to give the sense that Hersh is on the outs with the intelligence community, or some of it.

    Okay, I just realized that the article above references this Guardian article, which is the one I recall reading:

  18. TarheelDem says:

    Isn’t Bob Graham reopening questions about Saudis and 9/11 and trying to get some traction on an investigation?

    I find the reversal of chumminess with the Saudis an interesting part of this saga too.

    Petraeus is out. McChrystal is out. Alexander is on his way to cashing in. Sensenbrenner is after Clapper’s scalp. And now Brennan has an unfortunate event. These architects of certain intelligence policies are getting very unlucky. To the point that some GOP House members are using words like “purge”.

  19. joanneleon says:

    @TarheelDem: Graham just published a book. I saw a series of interviews on The Real News where he talks about the whole thing, as much as he can. He mentioned that he, and another official, published two novels too, because they couldn’t get a non-fiction book past the censors, so they used fiction to get their message out. I had not heard of these books before. But the new book is apparently non-fiction.

  20. JTMinIA says:

    Succeeding in lying us into a war vs failing to lie us into a war.

    Change you can believe in.

    (With that said, not getting us involved in another war *is* a good thing.)

  21. klynn says:

    When I have a chance I’ll explain further. However, I have been following the media pieces involving a few Generals O no longer employs… For example Petraeus and Allen have had interesting commentary to follow on intel, NSA and Syria ( as well as the Saudis.) Allen has had some interesting language as he discusses the, “US abilty for us to exert coercive power…coercive arm…” Here’s an interview example:

    That lens, coercive power/coercive arm, is of import when looking at the big picture…

  22. joanneleon says:

    I could swear I remember Russia saying they were going to reveal some evidence if the plans for attack continued. And the media exposure today is totally different than it was before the Iraq war — international media has so much more penetration into the US market.

    September 18

    Russia will give UN ‘proof’ of Syria rebel chemical use

    September 26

    Russia has enough evidence to assert that homemade sarin was used on August 21 in a chemical attack near Damascus, the same type but in higher concentration than in an Aleppo incident earlier this year, Russian FM Sergey Lavrov said.

  23. Charles Homsy says:


    I learned to go to the LRB for authentic information while living in Europe and comparing its reporting with US media. It is a first class publication. It became clear to me that the US media censor news.

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