A Dangerous Method: Syria, Sy Hersh, and the Art of Mass-crime Revisionism

Did Sy Hersh aid Syria with unprofessional journalism?

By Muhammad Idrees AhmadJune 1, 2014

    ON THE DAY the London Review of Books published a widely circulated article by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh exonerating the Syrian regime for last year’s chemical attack, 118 Syrians, including 19 children, died in aerial bombing and artillery fire. Only the regime has planes and heavy ordnance.

    Since last November, Aleppo has been targeted by helicopters dropping explosives-filled barrels from high altitudes. Between last November and the end of March, Human Rights Watch recorded 2,321 civilian deaths by this indiscriminate weapon. Only the regime has helicopters.

    For many months after the chemical massacre, the targeted neighborhoods and the Yarmouk refugee camp were kept under a starvation siege. Aid agencies were denied entry. Only the regime controls access.

    The regime’s ruthlessness has never been in doubt. Reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry, and myriad journalists and on-the-ground witnesses have repeatedly confirmed it. The regime has demonstrated the intent and capability to inflict mass violence. The repression is ongoing.

    So when an attack occurred last August, employing a weapon that the regime was known to possess, using a delivery mechanism peculiar to its arsenal, in a place the regime was known to target, and against people the regime was known to loathe, it was not unreasonable to assume regime responsibility. This conclusion was corroborated by first responders, UN investigators, human rights organizations, and independent analysts.

    When a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and a respectable literary publication undertake to challenge this consensus, one reasonably expects due diligence. The gravity of the matter demands that a high burden of proof be met. Sources would have to be vetted, claims corroborated, contrary evidence addressed.

    But the editors didn’t do that. They gave precedence to storytelling over truth-telling. They disregarded available evidence and, based on the uncorroborated claims of a single unnamed source, absolved the perpetrator of a horrific atrocity, demonized his opponents, and slandered a foreign head of state. Worse, in using Hersh as click bait, they provided a smokescreen for new violations.

    Five days after Hersh’s article went live, a military helicopter dropped a barrel bomb on Kafr Zita. This one carried toxic chlorine instead of the usual TNT. The regime, like Hersh, blamed the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra. But only the regime has an air force.

    In a time of ongoing slaughter, to obfuscate the regime’s well-documented responsibility for a war crime does not just aid the regime today, it aids it tomorrow. As long as doubts remain about previous atrocities, there will be hesitancy to assign new blame. Accountability will be deferred.

    Propaganda usually functions on one of two tracks: sometimes it builds support for a desired policy, sometimes it saps support for an undesired one. The former relies on persuasion, the latter on obfuscation. “Doubt is our product” is the assurance PR firms in the 1950s gave to a jittery tobacco industry facing accumulating scientific evidence linking cigarettes to cancer. Energy companies wishing to impede environmental legislation have since invested in the same strategy. This is also Hersh’s method.

    Doubt is often a useful check against the error of unqualified belief. Skepticism is healthy. But when it ossifies into a will to disbelieve, it feeds paranoia.

    The Hall of Mirrors

    Journalists are not always experts in areas they report on. But diligent novices know how to assess the plausibility of a story, the credibility of a source, and the validity of evidence: you verify the claim and test it against extant knowledge. Only if it withstands such scrutiny do you publish. Hersh’s editors seem to have done very little if any of that.

    Hersh claims that the Assad regime was innocent of the August 21 massacre, that indeed the attack was carried out by the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, as part of what Hersh’s source describes as “a covert action planned by [Turkish Prime Minister Recep] Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line.”

    Before looking at Hersh’s evidence for these claims, his editors should have asked the obvious questions: If Assad’s opponents are in possession of sarin and ballistic missiles, why have they never used them for battlefield advantage? If the opposition were determined to trigger Western intervention by any means, including fratricide, wouldn’t the likely agent be the West-friendly Free Syrian Army (FSA) rather than the intransigent Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that is itself in Western crosshairs? (The United States has designated it a foreign terrorist organization.) If the United States were determined to intervene, as Hersh insists it was, would it confine itself to a doubtful chemical pretext when there were so many indubitable humanitarian ones to avail? If the regime was innocent, why did it deny UN investigators access to the site for four days and subject the area to unrelenting artillery fire?[i] Why would Turkey, a country that has no chemical weapons program, risk its membership in NATO — and, potentially, future membership of the EU — by manufacturing sarin, and do so specifically for a clumsy false flag operation?

    But let’s assume Hersh’s claims are true. Then how did Turkey smuggle a ton of sarin into a besieged zone? How was a delivery mechanism rigged to launch such a toxic payload? How were coordinated launches in geographically separated locations made to look like they all originated in regime-controlled zones?

    No one expects a literary journal to possess the capacity to judge technical claims, but every journalistic enterprise has to meet minimal standards. The use of anonymous sources is not problematic per se. But it is common practice among serious editors to find a second, named source to corroborate information obtained from an anonymous one.

    Hersh’s damning allegations are all attributed to a single source. There is no independent corroboration. Indeed, in a novel approach to cross-checking, he allows his source to endorse its own story. The source claims that a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memo supports his assertions. The DIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) deny such a document exists. Such denials may be predictable and easy to dismiss, but Hersh offers no further verification. Nor does he explain how his source, a “consultant,” was made privy to a document that is “highly classified.” Absent corroboration, there is good reason to doubt its authenticity. As we shall see, a group of individuals matching the description of Hersh’s source have already shown the motive and intent to fabricate documents to implicate Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

    Hersh next cameos a Russian intelligence officer. This would make sense were this source saying something unexpected for a Russian spy. But the Russian official affirms the official Russian position that Russia’s ally is innocent. Hersh and the LRB find this persuasive — because the “intelligence consultant,” whose story the Russian is supposed to be corroborating, finds him “reliable.”

    Hersh’s hall of mirrors suggests a world of mystery, intrigue, and deception. But the only deception that is revealed is Hersh’s own. He writes, for example, that according to his source, “within a few days of the 21 August attack […] Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent,” which they subsequently relayed to the British chemical weapons lab at Porton Down. According to Hersh’s source, the British confirmed that the sarin didn’t come from the regime’s arsenal. Hersh does not corroborate the claim. In fact, the only thing that the lab confirmed is that sarin was used — and it based its findings on soil and cloth samples smuggled out from the sites. (Hersh doesn’t say why he believes the lab would consider valid any sample supplied by Russia, a state determined to absolve its client by any means, however clumsy.)

    Samples were also recovered from the site by the UN. Hersh makes no mention of these. Whatever discoveries Porton Down might have made, they were superseded by what the UN inspectors extracted and studied firsthand. The UN’s remit did not include assigning responsibility, but its judgment leaves little room for doubt. The perpetrators, it concludes, “had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents.” The findings have also been reinforced by the Syrian regime’s own declarations to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), as part of its agreement to relinquish its chemical arsenal. The regime declared 80 tons of hexamine, an additive that is specific to the regime’s sarin formula; traces of it were found in the evidence collected by the UN inspectors.Hersh brings up the UN investigation later, but only to allow an anonymous source “with knowledge of the UN’s activities” to allege that it suppressed its findings in an earlier chemical attack on Khan al-Assal. Hersh evidently did not read the report. “Concerning the incident in Khan Al-Assal on 19 March,” it says, “the chemical agents used in that attack bore the same unique hallmarks as those used in Al-Ghouta.”

    To judge Hersh’s method, consider this representative sentence, about the UN investigators: “[Their] access to the attack sites, which came five days after the gassing, had been controlled by rebel forces.” In suggesting that the UN may have been constrained by the presence of the rebels, Hersh wants readers to overlook a key detail: the visit “came five days after the gassing” because the regime refused access to the sites and instead subjected them to unrelenting artillery fire.

    This is not the reporting of a journalist; it is the distortion of a propagandist.

    The Evidence

    For many of Hersh’s readers, his appeal lies less in the quality of his journalism than in its form. The cultivated air of mystery, with shadowy figures vouchsafing their secrets to an intrepid truth-teller, resonates with readers weaned on Cold War schlock. But sources are rarely passive agents: they have agendas. Some may be noble; many have axes to grind. The story Hersh is retailing has been on the internet for months. It earlier appeared in an open letter to Barack Obama penned by a group of former intelligence officers and diplomats calling themselves Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). They warned:

    There is a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters — providing a strong circumstantial case that the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters. The aim is reported to have been to create the kind of incident that would bring the United States into the war.

    Signatories included former DIA officer Pat Lang, former NSA official Thomas Drake, former FBI officer Coleen Rowley, former State Department officer Matthew Hoh, and former CIA officers Larry Johnson, Ray McGovern, and Philip Giraldi. The date was September 6, 2013. But five days earlier, the Canadian conspiracy site Global Research had published an article by Yossef Bodansky, an Israeli-American supporter of Assad’s uncle Rifaat, that began:

    There is a growing volume of new evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its sponsors and supporters — which makes a very strong case, based on solid circumstantial evidence, that the August 21, 2013, chemical strike in the Damascus suburbs was indeed a pre-meditated provocation by the Syrian opposition.

    The VIPS had plagiarized Bodansky. They had added the Saudis and Turks as a flourish. They had no sources. (Matthew Hoh withdrew his signature and apologized after I brought the plagiarism to his attention.) Hersh’s source may or may not be a part of this group, but his story is a perfect echo of their claims. The VIPS meanwhile have been vigorously promoting Hersh’s conspiracy theory. Two of the VIPS, Pat Lang and Larry Johnson, match the description of Hersh’s source. One of them, Johnson, has used language similar to Hersh’s (“kitchen sarin”). He is of the Tea Party persuasion and has a history of politically motivated calumnies.

    This, however, wasn’t the extent of the VIPS embarrassment. Another story they drew upon originated in an obscure website called MintPress. It alleged that the Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan had furnished the sarin and a rebel accidentally released it in a tunnel. This release somehow affected 12 geographically separated neighborhoods, leaving everyone in between miraculously unaffected. The article was given credibility by the byline of Dale Gavlak, an AP reporter. Gavlak, however, repudiated the article and said she could not verify its claims. Her coauthor, a shady figure, slinked away to Iran and refused to answer questions.

    MintPress has now resurfaced as Hersh’s prime defender. It has given a platform to two of Hersh’s sources to attack his critics. Their main target is Eliot Higgins, the blogger known as Brown Moses, who has demonstrated the implausibility of Hersh’s theory. The pugilists, Theodore Postol and Richard Lloyd, are munitions experts. They have produced valuable analyses on the payloads and ranges of the rockets used on August 21. There is little reason to doubt their expertise in this area. But there is much to question in their political analyses and speculations. To wit: Postol and Lloyd claim that given the heavy payload, the range of the rockets might have been as low as two kilometers, and therefore they could not have originated from the “heart” of regime-controlled areas, as the Obama administration alleged. But the Obama administration also overestimated the distance to regime positions. Using trajectory analysis it has been possible to calculate their likely launch coordinates, which, even with the two kilometer range, places them in zones where regime forces were active on August 21.

    Furthermore, Postol initially claimed the rocket used in the attack “fails to match the specifications of a similar but smaller rocket known to be in the Syrian arsenal.” He claimed — a claim that Hersh echoed — that the rocket could be produced in a modestly equipped machine shop.[ii] But video and photographic evidence prove that the rockets exactly match the specifications of two known types in the regime’s arsenal — the Volcano and the Soviet 140mm M14. They are not, as Postol and Lloyd insist, “improvised.”

    To accept this as plausible, one would also have to accept Hersh’s related claim that sarin can be produced in a kitchen. Bashar al-Assad shares this view, but chemical weapons experts understandably disagree. Sarin is a deadly substance; its production is a substantial technical, financial, and logistical undertaking. It is not the kind of thing one can conceal in a house; nor is it something one can load into homemade rockets using kitchen gloves. It is telling that Postol and Lloyd ignore the launch side of the operation.

    The Ideological Method

    Perhaps this is not all that surprising: Postol told the GlobalPost that his research was prompted by Hersh’s theories; and in his determination to validate them, it seems he has ignored all evidence that undermines them. Émile Durkheim called this the ideological method — the use of “notions to govern the collation of facts, rather than deriving notions from them.”

    This also describes Hersh’s method. He ignores or obfuscates established facts that contradict his theory: the fact that the delivery system used in the attacks is peculiar to the regime, or that the UN has established that the sarin could only have come from government stockpiles. Instead he relays a cock-and-bull story invented by an interested party and foregoes corroboration. For Hersh, the fact that the DIA and the ODNI have flatly rejected his story is further proof of a cover-up. He does not explain, then, why British, French, and German intelligence services also reached exactly the same conclusion. He does not mention at all the investigation carried out by Human Rights Watch or the analyses from Higgins and the British chemical weapons expert Dan Kaszeta.


    What possessed a respectable literary publication to trawl improbable conspiracy theories in an attempt to disprove a single (albeit singular) war crime whose significance has long been superseded by the frequency of others? By the time of the attacks, 60,000 Syrians had died; since then 80,000 more have been killed. The London Review will perhaps counter that this event was significant not so much for the number of civilians killed or the gruesome method of their deaths but for the intervention that it nearly triggered. The threat of intervention, however, was fleeting — and it passed. Had it happened, it is not certain that its consequences would have been any worse than the consequences of nonintervention. The Syrian state’s repression meanwhile is sustained and ongoing. What explains this warped hierarchy of concerns?

    If for the world Obama is a dithering Hamlet, for Hersh he is an intransigent Coriolanus. Hersh’s Obama was pressuring the military into launching a “monster strike,” including “two B-52 air wings.” We are not told why Obama — the drone president — would act so out of character. His preferences have ranged from Tomahawk to Hellfire missiles, not Black Hawks and B-52s.

    Hersh may be credulous, but some of his statements leave one wondering if something less benign is at play. He does not just exonerate the regime and saddle its opponents with its crimes; he actually makes a dog-whistle case for Assad keeping his arsenal. “The Syrian regime continues the process of eliminating its chemical arsenal,” but, Hersh warns, “after Assad’s stockpile of precursor agents is destroyed, al-Nusra and its Islamist allies could end up as the only faction inside Syria with access to the ingredients that can create sarin, a strategic weapon that would be unlike any other in the war zone.” The LRB editors let this pass!

    For the London Review of Books, it appears, the Syrians are proxies in an ideological battle. Far easier to entertain a conspiracy theory, however far-fetched, than to accept that Obama and the intelligence community might be right about the Syrian people’s tormentor. The magazine has now published four articles laying Assad’s crimes on his victims. Yet it hasn’t allowed a single Syrian to write about the conflict. It might, for example, have considered speaking to the first responders; it could, for instance, have allowed the survivors to tell their stories. But this might cause cognitive dissonance. Accepting that Assad might be responsible for his own crimes means questioning, or at least qualifying, the axiom that the United States is the exclusive font of all evil.

    By now even the most dogmatic among Hersh’s publishers must have realized that they were hoaxed. Their ideological proclivities and eagerness for clicks made the deception easier. They got played — they relayed what is in effect pro-fascist propaganda. If they have any concern for their credibility, they would reveal the name of their source — or be forever associated with a monstrous hoax.


    Dr. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War. You can follow him on Twitter: @im_pulse

    [i] Conspiracism, however, comes with its own questions and own deductive logic. Within a week of the attacks, one LRB writer had already deployed the cui bono test to affirm the regime’s innocence. “Clearly,” he determined, the beneficiary was “not the Syrian regime.” Clearly, by this logic, the United States never invaded Iraq.

    [ii] Though both are given to bombastic statements, Lloyd outdoes even the irascible Postol: “The Syrian rebels most definitely have the ability to make these weapons,” he told McClatchyDC. “I think they might have more ability than the Syrian government.” He thinks. What need is there for evidence?

    LARB Contributor

    Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a London-based writer with a doctorate in sociology and a focus on international conflicts. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press). His writings have appeared in The New RepublicThe AtlanticAl Jazeera(America and International), Le Monde DiplomatiqueGuernicaThe NationalAdbustersIPS NewsPolitical Insight and the London Review of Books Blog. He has also appeared as an on-air analyst on the BBC, Al Jazeera, RAI TV, Radio Open Source and various Pacifica channels. He is a Lecturer in Journalism at the University for the Creative Arts and he co-edits Pulsemedia.org. You can follow him on Twitter: @im_pulse


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