What to Make of Seymour Hersh's Allegations

by Stanley Heller

Dec. 9. Seymour Hersh, famed journalist who broke the news about the My Lai and Abu Gharib atrocities, published a sensational piece today in the London Review of Books and spoke about it on Democracy Now. In both venues he faulted the Obama Administration claims about who was responsible for the chemical attacks on the Ghouta area of Syria in August.

He says there clearly was a massacre by chemicals in Syria, but the administration "cherry picked intelligence" and ignored its own government analysts who believe the al-Nusra forces in Syria had the ability to make sarin gas.

1. Hersh backs up a lot of suspicions the anti-war movement had about what Obama and Kerry were saying. For instance, the 1,400 dead figure was just an estimate that was made from looking at online videos. There was no inside knowledge.

2. He says the U.S. did not know of any plans for Syrian attack while it was being prepared even though the president had announced that was the case. Instead after the attack the U.S. took all of its Syria intelligence stored on computers and worked backwards. It decided Assad's forces were guilty and looked for anything that would confirm that suspicion.

3. He says that the U.S. has "passive receptors" in Syria around all its military chemical sites and they would go off if the military had started loading and mixing the chemicals. These receptors, he said, did not go off.

4. He says Obama officials made no attempt to investigate possible al-Nusra responsibility for the attack. Hersh claims unnamed senior intelligence consultants told him that the CIA had briefed the Obama administration on al-Nusra and its work with sarin, and had sent alarming reports that another Sunni fundamentalist group active in Syria, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), also understood the science of producing sarin.

5. Hersh says the U.S. lost its ability to intercept communications at the highest level in Syria shortly after the rebel war began.

6. An MIT professor Theodore Postol who had worked as an advisor for chief of naval operations in the Pentagon said that one of the missiles in the attack appeared to be something that could have been made in a "modestly capable machine shop" and that the missile had a 2 kilometer range, not the 9 kilometer range that would trace it back to an area controlled by Assad forces.

7. As we know the Obama Administration did not go ahead and bomb, but first asked for a vote in Congress and then made a deal with the Russians. According to Hersh (on Democracy Now) this did not come about because of the unprecedented amount of opposition to war by the American people, but because "strong, constitutionally minded" people in the Pentagon didn't think the evidence was in.

8. None of this may effect his journalism, but in the interest of full disclosure Hersh said on DN that he voted for Obama twice, that Obama might be the "brightest president we ever had". On the other had he says in an interview in a Yale undergraduate journal this year he said that Obama is a "shocking disappointment" and that "there is something wrong with the guy" and he'd have to read more Anna Freud to figure him out. Hersh wants an immediate pullout from Afghanistan. On the other hand in that same Yale interview he said that as far as Syria goes "Bashar is the only game in town" meaning that Assad has won. He says " I do not think there are any options but Bashar." totally discounting the rebels, revolution, etc.


1. Why was this so long in coming? During September when the anti-war movement was fighting Obama's plan to attack we looked for analysis from Hersh in vain.

2. Our group the Middle East Crisis Committee repeatedly called for the evidence that the Administration claimed it had about Syrian government involvement, the alleged recordings of Syrian officers, source of the numbers of casualties, etc. We noted in September that the U.S. was making claims about all kinds of evidence, but didn't release any actual evidence to the public or even to members of Congress. Hersh backs up our suspicion that the Administration had nothing solid.

3. Hersh agrees there was a massacre. Remember the Russian and Assad statements that base part of their claim of innocence on the report of "Mother Agnes" who thought the children in the videos were not dead at all, but were acting or under anesthesia.

4. On the other hand, Hersh's criticism of the U.N. report seems far from conclusive. One expert says one of the missiles looked like it was made in a machine shop and that those missiles couldn't have flown the nine kilometers from Assad military areas. Interesting, and worth investigating if this man is as good as Hersh says he is, but far from a slam bang. Also how can we be totally satisfied that the U.S. has "passive sensors" all over Assad's most sensitive military areas and that these sensors are everywhere and none have been neutralized?

5. Is it believable that al-Nusra had put together missiles, figured out how to make sarin, launched at least five missiles into Ghouta to kill many hundreds of rebels all in an attempt to get Obama to intervene because Assad has supposedly crossed Obama's red line? One should never underestimate human ruthlessness and depravity, but how many times in history has it actually occurred that a group killed hundreds of its own to win sympathy?

6. It's not an essential point, but I don't buy the argument about the "constitutionally minded" Pentagon people forcing Obama's hand. It was popular pressures (admittedly a lot coming from the Right) that forced Obama's hand.

7. Of course none of the arguments one way or another give any excuse for U.S. forces, which have ravaged country after country, to further stick its nose into Syria. All foreign military should be removed immediately.

Update: Here's criticism of the article on Foreign Policy magazine. It makes a good point about the amount of sarin that was used in the attack and doubts al-Nusra could have produced anything like the needed amount. On the other hand it seems that it is reworking the missile trajectories and that doesn't put the missile firing points from the Republican Guard base in Mount Qassioun. This was supposedly figured out by Human Rights Watch.