Government Use of Chemical Weapons
Now, the United Nations weapons inspectors have quietly retracted one of their main claims implying that Assad we behind the attack.
Former Associated Press and Newsweek reporter - Robert Parry - notes:
Parry also notes that the United Nations report strongly implies that rebels have - and have used - chemical weapons:
This has actually been well-known for some time.
19 December 2013
from LRB Website
In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts.
Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community:
In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order - a planning document that precedes a ground invasion - citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity.
When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have
been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify
a strike against Assad.
Obama was going to war to back up a public
threat, but he was doing so without knowing for sure who did what in the
early morning of 21 August.
Obama's certainty was echoed at the time by Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, who told the New York Times:
But in recent interviews with intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present, I found intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence.
One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration's assurances of Assad's responsibility a "ruse".
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 analyzed 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:
The complaints focus on what Washington did not have: any advance warning from the assumed source of the attack.
The military intelligence community has for years produced a highly classified early morning intelligence summary, known as the Morning Report, for the secretary of defence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; a copy also goes to the national security adviser and the director of national intelligence.
The Morning Report includes no political or economic information, but provides a summary of important military events around the world, with all available intelligence about them. A senior intelligence consultant told me that some time after the attack he reviewed the reports for 20 August through 23 August.
For two days - 20 and 21 August - there was no mention of Syria. On 22 August the lead item in the Morning Report dealt with Egypt; a subsequent item discussed an internal change in the command structure of one of the rebel groups in Syria.
Nothing was noted about the use of nerve gas in Damascus that day. It was not until 23 August that the use of sarin became a dominant issue, although hundreds of photographs and videos of the massacre had gone viral within hours on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites.
At this point, the administration knew no more than the public.
The lack of any immediate inside intelligence was made clear on 22 August, when Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for the State Department, told reporters:
The administration's tone had hardened by 27 August, when Jay Carney, Obama's press secretary, told reporters - without providing any specific information - that any suggestions that the Syrian government was not responsible,
The absence of immediate alarm inside the American intelligence community demonstrates that there was no intelligence about Syrian intentions in the days before the attack.
And there are at least two ways the US could
have known about it in advance: both were touched on in one of the top
secret American intelligence documents that have been made public in recent
Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor.
In consultation with the Obama administration, the newspaper chose to publish only a slim portion of the 178-page document, which has a classification higher than top secret, but it summarized and published a section dealing with problem areas.
One problem area was the gap in coverage targeting Assad's office.
The document said that the NSA's worldwide electronic eavesdropping facilities had been,
But it was,
In other words, the NSA no longer had access to the conversations of the top military leadership in Syria, which would have included crucial communications from Assad, such as orders for a nerve gas attack.
(In its public statements since 21 August, the
Obama administration has never claimed to have specific information
connecting Assad himself to the attack.)
According to the Post summary, the NRO is also assigned,
The former senior intelligence official, who had direct knowledge of the program, told me that NRO sensors have been implanted near all known chemical warfare sites in Syria.
They are designed to provide constant monitoring of the movement of chemical warheads stored by the military. But far more important, in terms of early warning, is the sensors' ability to alert US and Israeli intelligence when warheads are being loaded with sarin.
(As a neighboring country, Israel has always been on the alert for changes in the Syrian chemical arsenal, and works closely with American intelligence on early warnings.)
A chemical warhead, once loaded with sarin, has a shelf life of a few days or less - the nerve agent begins eroding the rocket almost immediately: it's a use-it-or-lose-it mass killer.
The sensors detected no movement in the months and days before 21 August, the former official said.
It is of course possible that sarin had been
supplied to the Syrian army by other means, but the lack of warning meant
that Washington was unable to monitor the events in Eastern Ghouta as they
At the time, Obama publicly warned Syria that using sarin was "totally unacceptable"; a similar message was also passed by diplomatic means.
The event was later determined to be part of a series of exercises, according to the former senior intelligence official:
The NSA would of course monitor Assad's office around the clock if it could, the former official said.
Other communications - from various army units in combat throughout Syria - would be far less important, and not analyzed in real time.
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.
The cherry-picking was similar to the process
used to justify the Iraq war.
On 30 August it invited a select group of Washington journalists (at least one often critical reporter, Jonathan Landay, the national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, was not invited), and handed them a document carefully labeled as a "government assessment", rather than as an assessment by the intelligence community.
The document laid out what was essentially a political argument to bolster the administration's case against the Assad government. It was, however, more specific than Obama would be later, in his speech on 10 September: American intelligence, it stated, knew that Syria had begun "preparing chemical munitions" three days before the attack.
In an aggressive speech later that day, John Kerry provided more details.
He said that Syria's,
The government assessment and Kerry's comments
made it seem as if the administration had been tracking the sarin attack as
it happened. It is this version of events, untrue but unchallenged, that was
widely reported at the time.
The Daily Mail was more blunt:
(The number of deaths attributable to the attack varied widely, from at least 1429, as initially claimed by the Obama administration, to many fewer. A Syrian human rights group reported 502 deaths; Médicins sans Frontières put it at 355; and a French report listed 281 known fatalities.
The strikingly precise US total was later
reported by the Wall Street Journal to have been based not on an actual body
count, but on an extrapolation by CIA analysts, who scanned more than a
hundred YouTube videos from Eastern Ghouta into a computer system and looked
for images of the dead. In other words, it was little more than a guess.)
A statement to the Associated Press said that the intelligence behind the earlier administration assertions was not known at the time of the attack, but recovered only subsequently:
But since the American press corps had their story, the retraction received scant attention.
On 31 August the Washington Post, relying on the government assessment, had vividly reported on its front page that American intelligence was able to record "each step" of the Syrian army attack in real time,
It did not publish the AP corrective, and the
White House maintained control of the narrative.
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 mobilized 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.
It is possible, of course, that Obama was unaware that this account was obtained from an analysis of Syrian army protocol for conducting a gas attack, rather than from direct evidence.
Either way he had come to a hasty judgment. The press would follow suit.
The UN report on 16 September confirming the use of sarin was careful to note that its investigators' access to the attack sites, which came five days after the gassing, had been controlled by rebel forces.
Still, the New York Times seized on the report, as did American and British officials, and claimed that it provided crucial evidence backing up the administration's assertions.
An annex to the UN report reproduced YouTube photographs of some recovered munitions, including a rocket that "indicatively matches" the specifics of a 330mm calibre artillery rocket.
The New York Times wrote that the existence of the rockets essentially proved that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack,
Theodore Postol, a professor of technology and national security at MIT, reviewed the UN photos with a group of his colleagues and concluded that the large calibre rocket was an improvised munition that was very likely manufactured locally.
He told me that it was,
The rocket in the photos, he added, fails to match the specifications of a similar but smaller rocket known to be in the Syrian arsenal.
The New York Times, again relying on data in the UN report, also analyzed the flight path of two of the spent rockets that were believed to have carried sarin, and concluded that the angle of descent "pointed directly" to their being fired from a Syrian army base more than nine kilometers from the landing zone.
Postol, who has served as the scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations in the Pentagon, said that the assertions in the Times and elsewhere,
He concluded that the flight path analyses in particular were, as he put it in an email, "totally nuts" because a thorough study demonstrated that the range of the improvised rockets was "unlikely" to be more than two kilometers.
Postol and a colleague, Richard M. Lloyd, published an analysis two weeks after 21 August in which they correctly assessed that the rockets involved carried a far greater payload of sarin than previously estimated.
The Times reported on that analysis at length, describing Postol and Lloyd as "leading weapons experts".
The pair's later study about the rockets' flight
paths and range, which contradicted previous Times reporting, was emailed to
the newspaper last week; it has so far gone unreported.
That information concerned al-Nusra, the Islamist rebel group designated by the US and the UN as a terrorist organization.
Al-Nusra is known to have carried out scores of suicide bombings against Christians and other non-Sunni Muslim sects inside Syria, and to have attacked its nominal ally in the civil war, the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Its stated goal is to overthrow the Assad regime
and establish sharia law. (On 25 September al-Nusra joined several other
Islamist rebel groups in repudiating the FSA and another secular faction,
the Syrian National Coalition.)
The UN eventually concluded that four chemical attacks had been carried out, but did not assign responsibility.
A White House official told the press in late April that the intelligence community had assessed "with varying degrees of confidence" that the Syrian government was responsible for the attacks. Assad had crossed Obama's "red line".
The April assessment made headlines, but some significant caveats were lost in translation.
The unnamed official conducting the briefing acknowledged that intelligence community assessments "are not alone sufficient".
In other words, the White House had no direct evidence of Syrian army or government involvement, a fact that was only occasionally noted in the press coverage.
Obama's tough talk played well with the public
and Congress, who view Assad as a ruthless murderer.
More headlines were generated and the press was told that Obama, in response to the new intelligence, had ordered an increase in non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition.
But once again there were significant caveats.
The new intelligence included a report that Syrian officials had planned and executed the attacks. No specifics were provided, nor were those who provided the reports identified.
The White House statement said that laboratory analysis had confirmed the use of sarin, but also that a positive finding of the nerve agent,
The White House further declared:
The statement contradicted evidence that at the
time was streaming into US intelligence agencies.
At the time, al-Nusra was operating in areas close to Damascus, including 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,
He is regarded as a high-profile target by the
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.
A sample of the sarin that had been used was
also recovered - with the help of an Israeli agent - but, according to the
consultant, no further reporting about the sample showed up in cable
There is evidence that during the summer some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were troubled by the prospect of a ground invasion of Syria as well as by Obama's professed desire to give rebel factions non-lethal support.
In July, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, provided a gloomy assessment, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee in public testimony that,
Pentagon estimates put the number of troops at seventy thousand, in part because US forces would also have to guard the Syrian rocket fleet:
In a letter to Senator Carl Levin, Dempsey cautioned that a decision to grab the Syrian arsenal could have unintended consequences:
The CIA declined to comment for this article.
Spokesmen for the DIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence said they were not aware of the report to Shedd and, when provided with specific cable markings for the document, said they were unable to find it.
Shawn Turner, head of public affairs for the ODNI, said that no American intelligence agency, including the DIA,
The administration's public affairs officials are not as concerned about al-Nusra's military potential as Shedd has been in his public statements.
In late July, he gave an alarming account of al-Nusra's strength at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
This, he said,
The civil war, he went on,
Shedd made no mention of chemical weapons in his
talk, but he was not allowed to: the reports his office received were highly
The reports, according to the senior intelligence consultant who read them, provided evidence that the FSA is,
The FSA is largely composed of defectors from the Syrian army.
The Obama administration, committed to the end of the Assad regime and continued support for the rebels, has sought in its public statements since the attack to downplay the influence of Salafist and Wahhabist factions.
In early September, John Kerry dumbfounded a
Congressional hearing with a sudden claim that al-Nusra and other Islamist
groups were minority players in the Syrian opposition. He later withdrew the
This was the message conveyed in the various secret briefings that members of Congress received in the days after the attack, when Obama was seeking support for his planned missile offensive against Syrian military installations.
One legislator with more than two decades of experience in military affairs told me that he came away from one such briefing persuaded that,
Similarly, following the release of the UN report on 16 September confirming that sarin was used on 21 August, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, told a press conference:
It is not known whether the highly classified reporting on al-Nusra was made available to Power's office, but her comment was a reflection of the attitude that swept through the administration.
The proposed American missile attack on Syria never won public support and Obama turned quickly to the UN and the Russian proposal for dismantling the Syrian chemical warfare complex.
Any possibility of military action was definitively averted on 26 September when the administration joined Russia in approving a draft UN resolution calling on the Assad government to get rid of its chemical arsenal. Obama's retreat brought relief to many senior military officers.
(One high-level special operations adviser told
me that the ill-conceived American missile attack on Syrian military
airfields and missile emplacements, as initially envisaged by the White
House, would have been "like providing close air support for al-Nusra".)
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.
The resolution also calls for the immediate notification of the Security Council in the event that any "non-state actors" acquire chemical weapons.
No group was cited by name.
While the Syrian regime continues the process of eliminating its chemical arsenal, the irony is that, 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.
There may be more to negotiate.