A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, MIT professors and rocket scientists and blogger Elliot Higgins on the sarin gas attack that almost dragged the US into war in Syria.
It’s a story that has been framed many ways: the battle of an old-school journalist against a new media blogger; a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist now on the fringes of the journalistic community; and an American media that has again refused to buck the official White House line.
Last week, the London Review of Books published Seymour Hersh’s second installment on the long-debated August 2013 sarin gas attack in Ghouta, Syria, a nearly 6,000-word piece titled “The Red Line and the Rat Line.” Hersh uses primarily anonymous sources, most prominently a “former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence.” The expose points to the possibility that the Turkish government had a hand in the attack — or maybe even directly orchestrated it by supplying al-Nusra Front rebels with sarin to frame the Assad regime as the culprit in order to push the United States into a war with Syria for crossing Obama’s “red line.”
This report follows “Whose Sarin?,” published in December 2013, which asserts that when the Obama administration had evidence that al-Nusra Front rebels had sarin gas capabilities, it cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The earlier article declares, “Months before the [August sarin] attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports … 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.”
The American mainstream press is overwhelmingly refusing to even acknowledge these reports. The New Yorker passed on the first installment, as did The Washington Post. The London Review of Books picked it up and had it fact checked by a former New Yorker fact checker, LRB Senior Editor Christian Lorentzen told the Huffington Post. The second time around, Hersh went directly to the LRB.
An oft-cited British blogger, however, has attacked both of Hersh’s articles in multiple posts, declaring his assertion that the U.S. government has been right all along.
We know, Eliot Higgins says, it was forces loyal to President Assad who fired the series of sarin gas attacks into the
Damascus suburbs. In an April 7 post titled “Seymour Hersh’s Volcano Problem,” Higgins shares photos of several rockets ostensibly fired by the Syrian army. These “volcano rockets” appear very similar to the ones shown in photos of the rockets he says were used in the chemical gas attack.
“In all incidents, the rockets have exactly the same design, down to the small nut and bolt, and in three of the four incidents they are described as being chemical weapons,” he wrote.
It might have been a battle between a Pulitzer Prize winner and a data-collecting blogger if a team of rocket scientists and weapons experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hadn’t taken issue with Higgins’ analysis.
“It’s clear and unambiguous this munition could not have come from Syrian government-controlled areas as the White House claimed,” Theodore Postol told MintPress News.
Postol is a professor in the Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group at MIT. He published “Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21st, 2013” in January along with Richard Lloyd, an analyst at the military contractor Tesla Laboratories who previously served as a United Nations weapons inspector and also boasts two books, 40 patents and more than 75 academic papers on weapons technology.
Higgins, Postol said, “has done a very nice job collecting information on a website. As far as his analysis, it’s so lacking any analytical foundation it’s clear he has no idea what he’s talking about.”
The Turkish connection
Hersh’s initial assertion that neighboring Turkey has played a role in the Syrian civil war by supporting the al-Nusra rebels is known to those who are watching the events there. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan started providing significant material support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria — which later merged with al-Nusra — in the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East. Political analysts view this as Erdogan’s attempt to re-assert Turkey’s influence in the region as it did during the Ottoman Empire.
“Prime Minister Recep Erdogan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups,” Hersh writes in “The Red Line and the Rat Line.” Such support has been well documented, as was Assad’s declaration last year that Erdogan would “pay” a price for helping “terrorists.”
Furthermore, according to U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency documents cited by Hersh, “Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production efforts in Syria.”
A more bizarre incident took place in Turkey last year that raised more questions about Erdogan’s relationship with the al-Nusra Front rebels. In May, Hersh notes, more than 10 members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were “two kilograms of sarin.”
According to media reports, including Hersh’s “The Red Line and the Rat Line, in a “130-page indictment” the group was accused of attempting to purchase “fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin.”
Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention. As hersh writes, the other rebels, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. (MintPress tried to contact Turkish press who covered this story and attempted to locate Qassab’s whereabouts by also reaching out to embassies, but to no avail. We found no official record of Qassab’s travels.)
Among the Turkish press, however, there has been widespread speculation that the Erdogan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the al-Nusra rebels, especially after Aydin Sezgin, Turkey’s ambassador to Moscow, dismissed the arrests and told reporters that the recovered “sarin” was just “anti-freeze,” according to the National Journal.
Just last month, Erdogan suggested the possibility of war with Syrian President Assad. More recently, he also announced the downing of a fighter jet that he said strayed into Turkish airspace, a potential precursor to war.
Perhaps most startling, Reuters, the BBC, Al-Jazeera, the Los Angeles Times and others reported last month of a leaked audio recording of high-level Turkish officials — including the country’s foreign minister, its intelligence chief and an undersecretary of foreign affairs — discussing staging attacks on Turkey from Syrian soil to justify waging a counter attack.
However, the idea presented in the Hersh report that Erdogan would or even could orchestrate a sarin gas attack in Ghouta in order to implicate Assad was quickly attacked by critics who called it implausible. Worse yet, according to Hersh’s sources, the Obama administration knew of a potential Turkish connection and squelched that information.
No mainstream American press picked up the story and multiple outlets have refused to publish it. According to BuzzFeed, and Huffington Post, The Washington Post had originally planned on running Hersh’s first story, “Whose Sarin?,” but didn’t.
From My Lai to Abu Ghraib to Syria
Hersh’s reports are the kind of exposes that could make a career, maybe even earn a Pulitzer Prize, but the career journalist has already enjoyed both of those. He doesn’t seem to mind being seen as a truth-teller who is ostracized by “the big boys,” as he calls the mainstream media. That he has been so roundly ignored seems odd because he has legitimately broken more stories for many of “the big boy” publications than just about any other journalist could hope to do, starting with the revelation of the My Lai Massacre, which earned him that Pulitzer, and continuing with the U.S.-perpetrated torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
He has no interest in defending his work, apparently content to let it stand or fall on its own weight. “I wrote the article, it’s out there,” Hersh told MintPress.
When pressed, however, Hersh responds to some of the criticisms leveled against him and his work — including his use of anonymous sources. He argues that anonymous sources provide journalists — including “the big boys” — with information.
In the “The Red Line and the Rat Line,” Hersh also mentions classified documents — which he claims he has — only revealing select content through the article.
“The only reason I mentioned the documents is because the White House said they couldn’t find them,” he explained. “We gave them the document numbers and they still said they couldn’t find them.”
Typical, he muses.
As for some bloggers’ insinuations that Hersh’s anonymous source is Michael Maloof, a former Pentagon official under the George W. Bush administration who now writes for the conspiratorial World News Daily website, Hersh says Maloof is a “crazy neocon whacko” that “no one would take seriously.”
Then there’s the Russian agent who provided samples of sarin to the British analysts at Porton Down. “Why would anyone trust a Russian agent?” some critics asked.
“Just because they are Russian, they are untrustworthy?” Hersh asked. “I could have left it out of that story but it would have been dishonest.”
Laughing off the attacks on his credibility, Hersh appears far more interested in discussing the actual debate.
Hersh’s point is that the U.S. didn’t have the conclusive evidence it claimed it had that Syrian President Assad had crossed President Obama’s previously stated “red line” by using chemical weapons — a move that would have forced the U.S. to intervene in the Syrian civil war. According to Hersh’s sources, the U.S. did have evidence that it could have been other culprits — including Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.
“No one is saying they know what happened,” he said. “We don’t know.”
Enter: Brown Moses
However, one of Hersh’s fiercest critics claims he does know and he publishes his assertions on his blog, Brown Moses.
“As more evidence has been gathered the case for the [Syrian] government being responsible has only strengthened, in my opinion,” Eliott Higgins, author of the Brown Moses blog, wrote in an email exchange with MintPress.
Higgins, a stay-at-home blogger, has been aggregating YouTube videos, maps and images coming out of the Syrian conflict since March 2012. Given the dangers of reporting on the ground in the war-torn country as well as Assad’s ban on foreign journalists due to fears of foreign meddling in Syria’s civil war, Higgins’ blog has become a go-to source of information provided by Syrians posting on social media.
Though some experts have called Higgins “unqualified,” journalists have started to incorporate his personal analysis into their reports.
“Although Higgins has never been to Syria, and until recently had no connection to the country, he has become perhaps the foremost expert on the munitions used in the war,” according to a profile of Higgins in the British newspaper The Telegraph.
He has also been described as ‘‘an authoritative source” and has been lauded by C.J. Chivers, war correspondent for The New York Times and author of “The Gun,” a history of the AK-47.
Higgins has amassed hundreds of images of the rockets from both video and still photographs. After studying these images, he is adamant that they must have come from Syrian government forces because, as he wrote in an email to MintPress, “they have the rockets, they have a chemical weapons programme [sic], they controlled the territory near by [sic], they were conducting military operations in the area.”
On his blog, Higgins provides photos of the depleted rockets, video of the Syrian army allegedly firing similar rockets and maps of possible launch areas.
“It’s possible to find the exact impact location of rockets using a combination of satellite map imagery,
photographs, and videos, and in some cases they show details that allow us to have an idea of the approximate location they come from,” he said in the email. “In those examples, it appears to be from the northwest/north, where around 2km away we have areas controlled by the government.”
On April 7, one day after Hersh published his “The Red Line and the Rat Line” expose once again asserting that al-Nusra Front rebels have realized nerve gas capabilities through the support of Turkey’s Erdogan, Higgins countered the report by posting “Seymour Hersh’s Volcano Problem.” In his post, Higgins offers photos of several rockets allegedly fired by the Syrian army to support his previous claims that the Syrian government was behind the sarin gas attack in Ghouta on Aug. 21, 2013. These “volcano rockets” do appear similar to the ones shown in the photos of the rockets he says were used in the chemical gas attack. Higgins is adamant they are identical.
“In all incidents, the rockets have exactly the same design, down to the small nut and bolt, and in three of the four incidents they are described as being chemical weapons,” Higgins wrote in the April 7 post.
In a later post, Higgins argues that the rockets likely came from between the Qaboun and Jobar areas. That industrial section of Damascus, he says, was controlled by Assad forces, pointing to a report by the Russian TV news outlet ANNA as evidence of this.
“I’ve spent the past 8 months collecting and analysing [sic] videos related to that area, and I now have what I strongly believe to be an accurate representation of the area controlled by the Syrian government on August 21st,” he told MintPress in an email.
“Despite Hersh’s dismissal of the Volcano rockets importance, these images do show the impact locations were in range of government controlled areas on August 21st.”
To the layman, some of the rockets do look alike, but then, to the layman, many rockets look alike. One would also have to accept the validity of the sources providing the information to Higgins and Higgins’ own analysis. In the end, one simply has to accept that Higgins knows what he’s looking at, despite what some experts — including the professors behind the MIT report — have called his “lack of credentials.”
Pushing the establishment line
Higgins’ determination would seem to support the Obama administration’s prior claim that Assad had crossed Obama’s “red line.”
In a speech on Aug. 30, nine days after the attack on Ghouta, Secretary of State John Kerry announced, “We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas…”
However, the maps provided by the State Department at the time put such “regime-controlled areas” out the rockets’ range. Even Higgins now agrees the rockets probably had a range of about 2 kilometers.
Less than three weeks later, The New York Times ran “UN Data on Gas Attack Point to Assad’s Top Forces,” reporting on a U.N. report on the Syrian chemical weapons attack that supported Kerry’s claims.
“Details buried in the United Nations report on the Syrian chemical weapons attack point directly at elite military formations loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, some of the strongest findings to date that suggest the government gassed its own people,” wrote C.J. Chivers, the same war correspondent who, like many, has extolled the virtues of the work of the Brown Moses blog.
However, on Dec. 28, The New York Times published another article, “New Study Refines View of Sarin Attack in Syria,” in which Chivers reported on the investigation by the weapons experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The investigation “raised questions about the American government’s claims about the locations of launching points, and the technical intelligence behind them.”
The report — which includes maps, photos, diagrams and analysis from a team of MIT scientists — would appear to be quite authoritative in its dismissal of the claims of both the U.S. government and the Brown Moses blogger.
“Whenever new information comes out it seems like people use it to support the idea that the Syrian government did it,” said Postol, the MIT professor. “According to our analysis, I would not have a claim that I know who executed the attack, but it’s very clear that John Kerry had very bad intelligence at best or, at worst, lied about the intelligence he had.”
The Rocket Scientists
In addition to earning a doctorate at MIT and previously advising the Pentagon on missile technology, Postol’s staff webpage notes that he “helped build a program at Stanford University to train mid-career scientists to study developments in weapons technology of relevance to defense and arms control policy.”
“The thing I find extremely disturbing is that the Secretary of State and the White House were very specific,” Postol told MintPress. “They claimed that they had satellite positions of the launches of these rockets. That’s a pretty specific claim. I know the satellites they’re talking about and I also know they can’t tell what rockets are carrying a chemical warhead and what rockets are carrying explosive warheads.”
According to Postol, the chemical warhead — what he calls “the soup can” — would be larger, causing greater drag
and reducing the range. While some analysts have argued that the rocket motors might have been longer, with some of the engine embedded in the warhead, allowing for more fuel to propel it, Postol says such additional thrust would have a small, marginal effect. (Attempts to measure the motor sizes can be found on the Brown Moses blog.)
Postol likens it to smacking an inflated helium balloon: the balloon will stop suddenly, mid-air. If given a stronger whack, the balloon might move a little farther, but only slightly.
“We know the U.S. government intelligence claim is not compatible with the science and that should be of great concern to everyone,” he said.
Shortly after the release of the MIT report this January, Higgins posted about it on his blog. The new findings, however, did not dissuade him from believing the attack still had to have been committed by Assad. Higgins is now pushing the theory that the Syrian army took over al-Qaboun, northwest of the target areas. Higgins also insists that the images showing the Syrian army with similar rockets mean it had to be them.
That still doesn’t cut it, says Richard Lloyd, the other author of the MIT report, whose own calculations have led him to believe they came more directly from the north.
“To the north, what you have is an air force base and a variety of army bases about 3 kilometers away,” Lloyd told MintPress. “In front of those [bases] are fields. I believe they were launched from these fields.”
Lloyd says he came to this conclusion after he searched among the evidence from the “12 or 13 sites they hit,” looking for rockets that hadn’t been removed since landing. He then used Google Earth for reference and performed a “bearing analysis” to determine their trajectory.
Additionally, Lloyd points out that from looking at the target areas, the rockets would have had to originate from different launch sites, suggesting that they like came from more than just one location such as Qaboun.
“If you look at all the impact points, for one launcher to do all that, it would have had to launch a couple rockets, drive to another location, launch a few more rockets and then drive to another,” he explained.
Both Postol and Lloyd are confounded by Higgins’ contention that these “volcano rockets” could have only come from the Syrian army.
“They are well within the manufacturable range by a modest machine shop,” Postol said. “The design is clever for what it’s designed to do, but once you have the design, you can make it pretty easily. Are they identical? Did Eliot count every bolt? Is that possible?”
Lloyd points out that he has designed a course on the arms used in the Syrian conflict.
“I have a section all on the rebels,” he explained. “They have factories. A production line. They have just as much capability as anyone else in building these weapons.”
The MIT team actually gives Higgins a lot of credit for his work, noting that much of their study was made infinitely easier — and maybe even possible — by all of the information he has aggregated and posted on Brown Moses.
“I think he wants to do good and he’s done a great amount of service in getting the world up to speed on what’s going on in Syria,” Lloyd said. “He’s done a great job for what his ability is and I commend him. I know people like to see him as a weapons expert, but unless you crunch the numbers, you don’t know what you’re doing. Until you do the math, you’re not an expert.”
As for the work of Lloyd and Postol, Higgins says he accepts their findings, though he adds on his blog “with the greatest respect to the work of Lloyd and Postol I do not believe their calculations have been peer reviewed.”
“And he’s qualified to say that?” Postol asked incredulously.
“In the end, the government lied.”
Despite their disagreements, one belief unites them: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented faulty intelligence, at best.
“I agree with Lloyd, Postol, Hersh, and anyone else who thinks that the maps provided by the White House don’t match the evidence gathered about the munitions,” Higgins wrote in an email to MintPress.
However, Higgins still insists on the establishment perspective that, despite contradictory analysis, Assad was absolutely behind the attacks.
That the Obama administration presented information it knew or should have known was inaccurate as a reason to go to war reminds Postol of recent history in which American mainstream media proved complicit in perpetuating the official line that Saddam Hussein absolutely had “weapons of mass destruction.”
“It’s WMD all over again,” Postol said. “It’s the Gulf of Tonkin.”
When asked why the magazine that he has published with since 1971 wouldn’t pick up his latest reporting or why much of the mainstream press appears more interested in the “stay-at-home” blogger, Hersh demures, refusing to speak ill of his colleagues at The New Yorker or other reporters and editors at The Washington Post and The New York Times.
“They’re doing their jobs,” Hersh said.
Talking to Hersh, it’s easy to remember he remains a respected member of the journalistic community. The last piece penned by Hersh, 77, was published by the New Yorker in March 2013, after all. Coincidentally, it was an editorial about the false flag that led us into the Iraq War, “Iraq Ten Years Later: What About the Constitution.”
“How could a small group of hard-line conservatives around President Bush, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and a few neoconservatives so quickly throw us over the cliff?” he asks in the editorial. “This included not only a war fought on false pretenses but also a system of torture and indefinite detention that, in far too many cases, ran against our laws and values…”
While Hersh won’t criticize his American editors now, he had no compunction about it then.
“It’s not enough to blame it on the fear, anger, and confusion brought on by the 9/11 attacks,” the editorial continues. “What happened to our press corps with its alleged independence and its commitment to the First Amendment and the values of the rest of the Bill of Rights?”
Postol, on the other hand, does not hesitate to critique the state of mainstream media today.
“To me, the fact that people are not focused on how the administration lied is very disturbing and shows how far the community of journalists and the community of so-called security experts has strayed from their responsibility,” Postol said.
“The government so specifically distorted the evidence that it presented a very real danger to the country and the world. I am concerned about the collapse of traditional journalism and the future of the country.”
Feature photo | A marine officer of the Cape Ray, a ship equipped to neutralize Syrian chemicals, shows a chemical protection suits to reporters, during a tour around the ship docked at the naval base of Rota used by the U.S, in Spain’s southwestern coast , April 10, 2014. Alfonso Perez | AP
Carmen Russell-Sluchansky is a multimedia and investigative journalist based in Washington, DC for MintPress, and several other news agencies including National Geographic.