Exclusive: The United States nearly went to war with Syria last summer after a rush to judgment over a mysterious sarin attack. Now, several months later, reporter Seymour Hersh shows how the case was spun, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has confirmed that President Barack Obama misled the American people over the Aug. 21 Syrian chemical attack by cherry-picking evidence about the Syrian government’s presumed guilt and excluding suspicions about the rebels’ capability to produce their own sarin gas.
Hersh also reported that he discovered a deep schism within the U.S. intelligence community over how the case was sold to pin the blame on President Bashar al-Assad. Hersh wrote that he encountered “intense concern, and on occasion anger” when he interviewed American intelligence and military experts “over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence.”According to Hersh, “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.”
Despite Hersh’s legendary reputation dating back to the My Lai massacre story during the Vietnam War and revelations about CIA abuses in the 1970s, his 5,500-word article appeared in the London Review of Books, a placement that suggests the American media’s “group think” blaming the Assad regime remains hostile to any serious dissent.
Much of the skepticism about the Obama administration’s case on the Syrian sarin attack has been confined to the Internet, including our own Consortiumnews.com. Indeed, Hersh’s article dovetails with much of what we reported in August and September as we questioned the administration’s certainty that Assad’s regime was responsible.
Our skepticism flew in the face of a solid consensus among prominent opinion leaders who joined in the stampede toward war with Syria much as they did in Iraq a decade earlier.
Hostility Toward Dissent
Another parallel with the Iraq War was the hostility that any dissent over the rush to judgment received. In 2003, my articles challenging President George W. Bush’s claims about Iraqi WMD meant that whenever the U.S. invading force stumbled upon a barrel of chemicals – and Fox News touted the discovery as proof that Bush was right – I’d get bombarded with e-mails demanding that I admit I was wrong and apologize to Bush.
There has been a similar tone in some of the criticism of our articles on Syria, when we have noted that the Obama administration’s case against Syria over the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack was stunningly lacking in any verifiable proof, only a series of assertions framed as “we assess” this and “we assess” that.
Beyond questioning the fragility of the “evidence,” our articles cited a split within the U.S. intelligence community, a division that the administration sought to conceal by avoiding a National Intelligence Estimate, which would have had to include footnotes about why many analysts were skeptical of the Assad-did-it scenario.
Instead of an NIE, the White House issued something called a “Government Assessment,” which dumped all the doubts and pumped up the certainty. Once the “Government Assessment” was posted on Aug. 30 by the White House press office, Secretary of State John Kerry was put forward to present the case for launching a military strike against Syria.
War was only averted because President Obama abruptly decided to seek congressional approval and then reached a diplomatic accord, with the help of the Russian government, in which the Syrian government agreed to dispose of its chemical weapons arsenal (while still denying that it was responsible for the Aug. 21 attack).
Obama’s last-minute reversal spared the United States another war in the Middle East, a conflict that could have easily spread into a regional conflagration. Many thousands of people could have died and the possible disruption of oil supplies could have thrown the world into an economic depression.
The “happy” outcome of a diplomatic solution surely is welcome. But it also has obscured a troubling reality – that Official Washington and the mainstream U.S. news media have learned little from the Iraq War debacle. Timely skepticism on matters of war or peace remains marginalized in small-circulation Web sites with very few financial resources.
The unsettling message from Hersh’s detailed exposé – as it was published in December in the United Kingdom – is that the story could very well have appeared three months after the United States blundered into another war.[Here is some of our earlier reporting on the Syrian crisis: “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.