NYT Backs Off Its Syria-Sarin Analysis

Exclusive: For months, the “slam-dunk” evidence “proving” Syrian government guilt in the Aug. 21 Sarin attack near Damascus was a “vector analysis” pushed by the New York Times showing where the rockets supposedly were launched. But the Times now grudgingly admits its analysis was flawed, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The New York Times has, kind of, admitted that it messed up its big front-page story that used a “vector analysis” to pin the blame for the Aug. 21 Sarin attack on the Syrian government, an assertion that was treated by Official Washington as the slam-dunk proof that President Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people.

But you’d be forgiven if you missed the Times’ embarrassing confession, since it was buried on page 8, below the fold, 18 paragraphs into a story under the not-so-eye-catching title, “New Study Refines View Of Sarin Attack in Syria.”

Secretary of State John Kerry (center) testifies on the Syrian crisis before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 3, 2013. At the left of the photo is Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. and on the right is Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. No senior U.S. intelligence official joined in the testimony. U.S. State Department photo)

Secretary of State John Kerry (center) testifies on the Syrian crisis before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 3, 2013. At the left of the photo is Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. and on the right is Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. No senior U.S. intelligence official joined in the testimony. (U.S. State Department photo)

But this Times article at least acknowledges what has been widely reported on the Internet, including at Consortiumnews.com, that the Times’ “vector analysis” showing the reverse flight paths of two missiles intersecting at a Syrian military base has collapsed, in part, because the range of the rockets was much too limited.

There were other problems with the “vector analysis” that was pushed by the Times and Human Rights Watch, which has long wanted the U.S. military to intervene in the Syrian civil war against the Syrian government.

The analytical flaws included the fact that one of the two missiles the one landing in Moadamiya, south of Damascus had clipped a building during its descent making a precise calculation of its flight path impossible, plus the discovery that the Moadamiya missile contained no Sarin, making its use in the vectoring of two Sarin-laden rockets nonsensical.

But the Times’ analysis ultimately fell apart amid a consensus among missile experts that the rockets would have had a maximum range of only around three kilometers when the supposed launch site is about 9.5 kilometers from the impact zones in Moadamiya and Zamalka/Ein Tarma, east of Damascus.

The Times’ front-page “vectoring” article of Sept. 17 had declared: “One annex to the report [by UN inspectors] identified azimuths, or angular measurements, from where rockets had struck, back to their points of origin. When plotted and marked independently on maps by analysts from Human Rights Watch and by The New York Times, the United Nations data from two widely scattered impact sites pointed directly to a Syrian military complex.”

An accompanying map on the Times’ front page revealed the flight-path lines intersecting at an elite Syrian military unit, the 104th Brigade of the Republican Guard, based northwest of Damascus, near the Presidential Palace. This “evidence” was then cited by U.S. politicians and pundits as the in-your-face proof of the Syrian government’s guilt.

The Times/HRW analysis was especially important because the Obama administration, in making its case against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, had refused to release any evidence that could be independently evaluated. So, the “vector analysis” was almost the only visible nail in Assad’s coffin of guilt.

Short-Range Rockets

In Sunday’s article the one below the fold on page 8 the Times reported that a new analysis by two military experts concluded that the Aug. 21 rockets had a range of about three kilometers, or less than one-third the distance needed to intersect at the Syrian military base northwest of Damascus.

The report’s authors were Theodore A. Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Richard M. Lloyd, an analyst at the military contractor Tesla Laboratories.

The Times noted that “the authors said that their findings could help pinpoint accountability for the most lethal chemical warfare attack in decades, but that they also raised questions about the American government’s claims about the locations of launching points, and the technical intelligence behind them. The analysis could also lead to calls for more transparency from the White House, as Dr. Postol said it undermined the Obama administration’s assertions about the rockets’ launch points.”

Finally, in the article’s 18th paragraph, the Times acknowledged its own role in misleading the public, noting that the rockets’ estimated maximum range of three kilometers “would be less than the ranges of more than nine kilometers calculated separately by The New York Times and Human Rights Watch in mid-September. Those estimates had been based in part on connecting reported compass headings for two rockets cited in the United Nations’ initial report on the attacks.”

In other words, the much-ballyhooed “vector analysis” had collapsed under scrutiny, knocking the legs out from under Official Washington’s certainty that the Syrian government carried out the Aug. 21 attack which may have killed several hundred civilians including many children.

The Times article on Sunday was authored by C.J. Chivers, who along with Rick Gladstone, was a principal writer on the now-discredited Sept. 17 article.

The erosion of that “vector analysis” article has been underway for several months through reporting at Web sites such as WhoGhouta and Consortiumnews.com but few Americans knew about these challenges to the Official Story because the mainstream U.S. news media had essentially blacked them out.

When renowned investigative reporter Seymour Hersh composed a major article  citing skepticism within the U.S. intelligence community regarding the Syrian government’s guilt, he had to go to the London Review of Books to get the story published. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Deceiving the US Public on Syria.”]

Even Ake Sellstrom, the head of the United Nations mission investigating chemical weapons use in Syria, challenged the vector analysis during a Dec. 13 UN press conference, citing expert estimates of the missiles’ range at about two kilometers, but his remarks were almost entirely ignored. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “UN Inspector Undercuts NYT on Syria.”]

A Replay of Iraqi WMD

Besides the deaths from the Sarin itself, perhaps the most troubling aspect of this episode has been how close the U.S. government came to going to war with Syria based on such flimsy and dubious evidence. It seems as if Official Washington and the U.S. mainstream news media have learned nothing from the disastrous rush to war in Iraq a decade ago.

Just as false assumptions about Iraq’s WMD set off a stampede over that cliff in 2003, a similar rush to judgment regarding Syria brought the U.S. government to the edge of another precipice of war in 2013.

The New York Times and other major U.S. news outlets propelled the rush to judgment in both cases, rather than questioning the official stories and demanding better evidence from U.S. government officials. In September 2002, the Times famously fronted an article linking Iraq’s purchase of some aluminum tubes to a secret nuclear weapons program, which — as Americans and Iraqis painfully learned later — didn’t exist.

In the case of Syria, another potential catastrophe was averted only by a strong opposition to war among the American public, as registered in opinion polls, and President Barack Obama’s last-minute decision to seek congressional approval for military action and then his openness to a diplomatic settlement brokered by Russia.

To defuse the crisis, the Syrian government agreed to destroy all its chemical weapons, while still denying any role in the Aug. 21 attack, which it blamed on Syrian rebels apparently trying to create a casus belli that would precipitate a U.S. intervention.

With very few exceptions, U.S. news outlets and think tanks mocked the notion of rebel responsibility and joined the Obama administration in expressing virtual certainty that the Assad regime was guilty.

There was almost no U.S. media skepticism on Aug. 30 when the White House stoked the war fever by posting on its Web site what was called a “Government Assessment,” a four-page white paper that blamed the Syrian government for the Sarin attack but presented zero evidence to support the conclusion.

Americans had to go to Internet sites to see questions raised about the peculiar presentation, since normally a decision on war would be supported by a National Intelligence Estimate containing the judgments of the 16 intelligence agencies. But an NIE would also include footnotes citing dissents from analysts who disputed the conclusion, of which I was told there were a number.

The Dogs Not Barking

As the war frenzy built in late August and early September, there was a striking absence of U.S. intelligence officials at administration briefings and congressional hearings. The dog-not-barking reason was that someone might have asked a question about whether the U.S. intelligence community was in agreement with the “Government Assessment.”

But these strange aspects of the Obama administration’s case were not noted by the major U.S. news media. Then, on Sept. 17 came the New York Times front-page article citing the “vector analysis.” It was the Perry Mason moment. The evidence literally pointed right at the “guilty” party, an elite unit of the Syrian military.

Whatever few doubts there were about the Syrian government’s guilt disappeared. From the triumphant view of Official Washington, those of us who had expressed skepticism about the U.S. government’s case could only hang our heads in shame and engage in some Maoist-style self-criticism.

For me, it was like a replay of Iraq-2003. Whenever the U.S. invading force discovered a barrel of chemicals, trumpeted on Fox News as proof of WMD, I’d get e-mails calling me a Saddam Hussein apologist and demanding that I admit that I had been wrong to question President George W. Bush’s WMD claims. Now, there were ugly accusations that I had been carrying water for Bashar al-Assad.

But as John Adams once said “facts are stubborn things.” And the smug certainty of Official Washington regarding the Syrian Sarin case gradually eroded much as a similar arrogance crumbled a decade ago when Iraq’s alleged WMD stockpiles never materialized.

While it’s still not clear who was responsible for the Aug. 21 deaths outside Damascus whether a unit of the Syrian military, some radical rebel group or someone mishandling a dangerous payload the facts should be followed objectively, not simply arranged to achieve a desired political outcome.

Now, with the New York Times’ grudging admission that its “vector analysis” has collapsed, the pressure should build on the Obama administration to finally put whatever evidence it has before the world’s public.

[For more details on this issue, see Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Replays Its Iraq Fiasco in Syria.” For more of our early reporting on the Syrian chemical weapons attack, see: “A Dodgy Dossier on Syrian War”; “Murky Clues From UN’s Syria Report”; “Obama Still Withholds Syria Evidence”; “How US Pressure Bends UN Agencies”; “Fixing Intel Around the Syria Policy.”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

10 comments for “NYT Backs Off Its Syria-Sarin Analysis

  1. Colinjames
    December 31, 2013 at 11:59

    I saw this comin the day Obama announced the “red line”. And I’m not the only one. Not by a longshot. I know you need to be cautious as there’s no proof who did it either way, but there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing at the rebels. Probably more evidence “trampled on” at the scene. Carla del Ponte. High-level meetings in Turkey just before the attack. The other four chemical attacks in Syria, at least two of which involved civilians and Assad forces as victims. The chem weapon Turkey arrests of rebels. Something in Iraq I can’t remember right now. Mother Miriam… and does this mean Scahill won’t throw a hissy fit and threaten to boycott a peace conference if she’s attending? Friggin guy. Anyways, you won’t go there, but I will, this was a deliberate, known-in-advance false flag provocation by Warmonger Inc in order to liberate Syria via cruise missile barage, and the people didn’t stop shit, it was massive dissent within the military, wish it weren’t so. Thank goodness though cuz at least we know there’s some pushback against the neocon psychos and their pet potus. Sorry, but the truth hurts.

  2. Hillary
    December 31, 2013 at 07:53

    “Interestingly, the Zionist-controlled mainstream media in Israel, US, Canada and Europe copied Rick Gladstone’s lie without bothering to check the facts. ”
    Well ! Well ! isn’t that what they did before the invasion of Iraq for all those WMD’s and start what many refer to as Murdoch’s War”


  3. Frank Newman
    December 30, 2013 at 00:32

    I read the original report from the chemical weapons inspectors. They stated that the mortar rounds came from the direction of the government forces, but can’t remember if they had spotted the distance discrepancy. General Martin Dempsey will be remembered for speaking up very quickly and advising against any attack against Syria. That the reports also pointed out that we received radio intercepts from the Israelis that suggested that the Syrians did the deed still points toward a false flag event by the Israelis. The biggest question was, “Why would Syria conduct a serious gas attack just before chemical weapons inspectors were arriving to investigate earlier attacks”. At least two of the earlier attacks had used home made Sarin that was not military grade and was almost certainly done by the rebels. That the NYT was quick to forget how Judith Miller had breathlessly put out all the lies that Scooter Libby at passed to her to help start the attack against Iraq in March of 2003 is the big scandal.

  4. David G
    December 29, 2013 at 23:03

    In my Sunday Times this is actually on page 10 (below the fold), but more notable than p. 8 vs. p. 10 is seeing what the top story on p. 1 is: a full-scale examination of the 2012 attack on the State Dept./CIA presence in Benghazi.

    The Benghazi article, as far as I’m concerned, basically closes the book on what happened that night. It’s good reporting, and I’m definitely not knocking the Times for running it.

    But it’s revealing how the mainstream news agenda is set by the establishment, and thus never becomes a threat to it:

    Benghazi has become a Dem vs. Repub football and thus gets sustained attention, despite its being a grubby sideshow bumped up in importance by having claimed the life of the U.S. ambassador.

    In contrast, once the heretofore reliable diplomatic and PR template the U.S. uses to start its wars unexpectedly failed in Syria, the whole country rapidly dropped out of the mainstream media. What had been a crisis of such importance that it supposedly necessitated a major air war now barely registers at all. The government-journalistic complex has no use for Syria for the time being, so it disappears.

    It is to the Times’s credit that they published this story debunking the chemical-weapons propaganda of a few months ago, even if they did bury it inside, and for continuing to cover Syria in general. However, in terms of what counts as major news among the U.S. policy and journalistic elite, it is worth keeping in mind, as Robert Parry writes above, the dog that doesn’t bark. 

    • Consortiumnews.com
      December 30, 2013 at 12:21

      Regarding the different page numbers, as I’m sure you know, the New York Times now publishes a number of different editions and — depending on ads — the pagination can vary among the different editions. Also, the headlines are not always the same in the printed version and the Internet version. To state the obvious, these are not serious points of discrepancy.
      Robert Parry

  5. December 29, 2013 at 17:19

    We’re not afraid of the facts. Brown Moses tweeted the NYT piece. I picked it up from there.

  6. December 29, 2013 at 17:17

    Thanks for the update, and I will be sharing this article. Hersch certainly pointed out the similarities between cherry picking evidence in both Iraq and Syria, though in a Democracy Now interview he concluded that it was constitutionally minded military brass with strong doubts about the official narrative, not public outcry, which stayed Obama’s hand. Hersch believes Obama would have flouted public opinion over the issue. I tend to think that the reality is somewhere in the middle: that over a decade of dissent in the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan and the growth of indie media may have paved theway for ups to push back when Russia and the alternative press were simultaneously raising the doubts they were also having.

    The only suggestion I would make here is to re-examine your statement:
    “It seems as if Official Washington and the U.S. mainstream news media have learned nothing from the disastrous rush to war in Iraq a decade ago.” You seem to assume that their goals match up with some idealistic notion of progress and democracy, and they just can’t get it right. In fact, what they have learned from Iraq is that if played right, they can get away with war based on fabrications, with no short term consequences for themselves, and with the ability to enrich themselves and their friends. They’ve learned they can use these types of excursions to further build the case for stripping away the rights of US citizens and people around the world. In Libya, if nothing else, they learned what a short attention span the general populace has for their illegal activities and Al Queda alliances, if the operation can be performed rapidly with little apparent short term cost to us. In the case of Syria, they applied their understanding that there is none the less growing awareness in some sectors of the globe with regard to the games they are playing, and will continue to play, and so they stepped back for a moment on what could have been a more protracted conflict. Rest assured, they will continue covert destabilization operations, cronyism, and propaganda broadcasting to create the kind of wars and financial arrangements that they want. The question is, as we approach the new year, will we learn to see the pathology of these leaders? I urge you to look into the psychology of clinical narcissists and psychopaths: the tendency towards shallow understanding, risky behavior, surface level charisma, and a total lack of a sense of personal responsibility or remorse for their actions, masked by an ability to mimic authentic emotional states.

    Such a personality is always looking to better their own lot or satisfy their wants and urges without genuine empathy or regard to others, and the system we inhabit is built to shore them up. Their underlying motives will not change, and so their game is a constant refinement of manipulation, until breakdown results. They ARE learning. Are we?

  7. Eddie
    December 29, 2013 at 16:40

    Good article/post on what has sadly become a cliched melodrama where:
    1.) A US leader announces there are VERY troubling developments in a foreign
    country who just by ‘happy coincidence’ happens to on the outs with us at the
    current moment. Nowadays the humanistic appeal is used, since the Soviet-
    domination scare tactic is no longer available.
    2.) Seemingly incontrovertible ‘evidence’ is produced to support US military
    intervention (“much as we don’t WANT to, humanity requires we stop this
    horror”). Skeptical POV’s are pooh-poohed by political conservatives in
    government and the media, and the general populace supports the
    military intervention.
    3.) The US either directly attacks or supplies a rebel faction.
    4.) Facts are discovered that severely question or even refute the original rationale
    for military action.
    5.) Conservative government figures ignore/equivocate the new-found facts.
    Conservative media does the same and/or offers a mea-culpa that is as
    meaningless as a prisoner’s crocodile tears in front of a parole board.
    6.) A NEW ‘modern day Hitler’ arises and steps 1-5 are repeated, as if there were
    NO historical context for this ever having happened before.

    Once in awhile, something goes ‘wrong’ (i.e.; too many white, middle-class boys/men get killed, there’s too big of a protesting faction, or local political considerations — conservatives are reluctant to be perceived as cooperating with a Democratic president, etc) like it did in Syria and step #3 doesn’t quite happen, but all too often this plays-out much like the above. (Note: Norman Soloman’s “War Made Easy” does an excellent job of describing this and similar processes).

    PS – it would be nice to see some of the above ‘commercial’ posts deleted by this site’s gatekeeper.

    • figaro333
      December 29, 2013 at 18:41

      Godwin’s Law! You lose.
      Hitler card guarantee’s your loss.

  8. F. G. Sanford
    December 29, 2013 at 13:53

    In Maritime Law cases, GPS and radio navigation aids are still not the “gold standard”. Compass bearings are. Two bearings accurately shot from a stationary point at two different landmarks will place a point on a chart that is precise to within fifteen feet. That’s why the drunken Captain of the Exxon Valdez never went to jail.

    As was his prerogative, he left a qualified mate in command who accurately plotted the ship’s course and position on a U.S. Government chart. Try as they might, nobody could prove that the ship wasn’t exactly where the chart said it was. Of course, every attempt to undermine his character and competence was employed to discredit him. The chart, and not the Captain, was at fault.

    An error as significant as six kilometers cannot be attributed to faulty analysis. The technique is accurate to within fifteen feet. The general public wouldn’t know any better, but an error of this magnitude can only be attributed to deliberate falsification. In other words, the deception was conceived before the analysis was performed.

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