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Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Silencing of Seymour Hersh – Even the LRB refuses to print an article criticising the Trump version of Assad’s ‘Sarin Gas Attack’

Below there are two pieces, one by the former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook and the other by bellingcat ‘the home of online investigations’.  According to the mainstream media, Syria launched a gas attack, using Sarin, on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4th 2017.

US Navy fires 59 Cruise Missiles at Syrian Airfield
Trump used this as a pretext to bomb a Syrian airfield bring with it the possibility of a conflict between the USA and Russia.  What lies behind this?  It would appear that as ISIS comes close to defeat in Syria and Iraq the US is determined to try and prop up Jihadi opposition to the Assad regime as a means of perpetuating the conflict.  Trump and his  military backers also wish to be seen to be opposing what most people see as a successful Russian intervention in the Syria conflict.

Of one thing we can be sure – nothing the United States does can be treated at face value.  The idea that the US is opposed, on principle, to the use of chemical weapons in conflict is for the children.  The US has consistently used depleted Uranium ordinance in Iraq and Kuwait before it.  In Vietnam it used Agent Orange to destroy the foliage of the jungle.

The reason why people are sceptical of the official US explanation is that it wasn’t in the interests of Assad to use chemical weaponry.  Although the regime is a ghastly one what happened makes no sense.

Tony Greenstein

Hersh’s new Syria revelations buried from view

26 June 2017
(Updated below)

Veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, the man who exposed the Mai Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and the US military’s abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2004, is probably the most influential journalist of the modern era, with the possible exception of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the pair who exposed Watergate.

For decades, Hersh has drawn on his extensive contacts within the US security establishment to bring us the story behind the official story, and to disclose facts that have often proved deeply discomfiting to those in power and exploded the self-serving, fairy-tale narratives the public were expected to passively accept as news. His stature among journalists was such that, in a sea of corporate media misinformation, he enjoyed a small island of freedom at the elite, and influential, outlet of the New Yorker.

Paradoxically, over the past decade, as social media has created a more democratic platform for information dissemination, the corporate media has grown ever more fearful of a truly independent figure like Hersh. The potential reach of his stories could now be enormously magnified by social media. As a result, he has been increasingly marginalised and his work denigrated. By denying him the credibility of a “respectable” mainstream platform, he can be dismissed for the first time in his career as a crank and charlatan. A purveyor of fake news.

Nonetheless, despite struggling to find an outlet for his recent work, he has continued to scrutinise western foreign policy, this time in relation to Syria. The official western narrative has painted a picture of a psychotic Syrian president, Bashar Assad, who is assumed to be so irrational and self-destructive he intermittently uses chemical weapons against his own people. He does so, not only for no obvious purpose but at moments when such attacks are likely to do his regime untold damage. Notably, two sarin gas attacks have supposedly occurred when Assad was making strong diplomatic or military headway, and when the Islamic extremists of Al-Qaeda and ISIS – his chief opponents – were on the back foot and in desperate need of outside intervention.

Dangerous monsters

Hersh’s investigations have not only undermined evidence-free claims being promoted in the west to destabilise Assad’s goverment but threatened a wider US policy seeking to “remake the Middle East”. His work has challenged a political and corporate media consensus that portrays Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main ally against the extremist Islamic forces fighting in Syria, as another dangerous monster the West needs to bring into line.

For all these reasons, Hersh has found himself increasingly friendless. The New Yorker refused to publish his Syria investigations. Instead, he had to cross the Atlantic to find a home at the prestigious but far less prominent London Review of Books.

Back in 2013 his contacts within the security and intelligence establishments revealed that the assumption Assad had ordered the use of sarin gas in Ghouta, outside Damascus, failed to stand up to scrutiny. Even Barack Obama’s national intelligence director, James Clapper, was forced to admit privately that Assad’s guilt was “not a slam dunk”, even as the media widely portrayed it as precisely that. Hersh’s work helped stymie efforts at the time to promote a western military attack to bring down the Syrian government.

His latest investigation questions whether Assad was responsible for another alleged gas attack – this one at Khan Sheikhoun in April. Again a consensual western narrative was quickly constructed after social media showed dozens of Syrians dead, apparently following the dropping of a bomb by Syrian aircraft. For the first time in his presidency, Donald Trump received wall-to-wall praise for launching a military strike on Syria in response, even though, as Hersh documents, he had no evidence on which to base such an attack, one that gravely violated international law.

Hersh’s new investigation was paid for by the London Review of Books, which declined to publish it. This is almost as disturbing as the events in question.

What is emerging is a media blackout so strong that even the London Review of Books is running scared. Instead, Hersh’s story appeared yesterday in a German publication, Welt am Sonntag. Welt is an award-winning newspaper, no less serious than the New Yorker or the LRB. But significantly Hersh is being forced to publish ever further from the centres of power whose misinformation his investigations are challenging.

Imagine how effective Woodward and Bernstein would have been in bringing down Richard Nixon had they been able to publish their Watergate investigations only in the French media. That is the situation we have reached now with Hersh’s efforts to scrutinise the west’s self-serving claims about Syria.

US-Russian cooperation

As for the substance of Hersh’s investigation, he finds that Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base in April “despite having been warned by the US intelligence community that it had found no evidence that the Syrians had used a chemical weapon.”

In fact, Hersh reveals that, contrary to the popular narrative, the Syrian strike on a jihadist meeting place in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 was closely coordinated beforehand between Russian and US intelligence agencies. The US were well apprised of what would happen and tracked the events.
Hersh’s sources in the intelligence establishment point out that these close contacts occurred for two reasons. First, there is a process known as “deconfliction”, designed to avoid collisions or accidental encounters between the US, Syrian and Russian militaries, especially in the case of their supersonic jets. The Russians therefore supplied US intelligence with precise details of that day’s attack beforehand. But in this case, the coordination also occurred because the Russians wanted to warn the US to keep away a CIA asset, who had penetrated the jihadist group, from that day’s meeting.

“This was not a chemical weapons strike,” a senior adviser to the US intelligence community told Hersh. “That’s a fairy tale. If so, everyone involved in transferring, loading and arming the weapon … would be wearing Hazmat protective clothing in case of a leak. There would be very little chance of survival without such gear.”

According to US intelligence, Hersh reports, the Syrian air force was able to target the site using a large, conventional bomb supplied by the Russians. But if Assad did not use a chemical warhead, why did many people apparently die at Khan Sheikhoun from inhalation of toxic gas?

The US intelligence community, says Hersh, believes the bomb triggered secondary explosions in a storage depot in the building’s basement that included propane gas, fertilisers, insecticides as well as “rockets, weapons and ammunition, … [and] chlorine-based decontaminants for cleansing the bodies of the dead before burial”. These explosions created a toxic cloud that was trapped close to the ground by the dense early morning air.

Medecins Sans Frontieres found patients it treated “smelled of bleach, suggesting that they had been exposed to chlorine.” Sarin is odourless.

Hersh concludes that theevidence suggested that there was more than one chemical responsible for the symptoms observed, which would not have been the case if the Syrian Air Force – as opposition activists insisted – had dropped a sarin bomb, which has no percussive or ignition power to trigger secondary explosions. The range of symptoms is, however, consistent with the release of a mixture of chemicals, including chlorine and the organophosphates used in many fertilizers, which can cause neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin.

Political suicide

Hersh’s main intelligence source makes an important contextual point you won’t hear anywhere in the corporate media:

What doesn’t occur to most Americans is if there had been a Syrian nerve gas attack authorized by Bashar [Assad], the Russians would be 10 times as upset as anyone in the West. Russia’s strategy against ISIS, which involves getting American cooperation, would have been destroyed and Bashar would be responsible for pissing off Russia, with unknown consequences for him. Bashar would do that? When he’s on the verge of winning the war? Are you kidding me?

When US national security officials planning Trump’s “retaliation” asked the CIA what they knew of events in Khan Sheikhoun, according to Hersh’s source, the CIA told them “there was no residual delivery for sarin at Sheyrat [the airfield from which the Syrian bombers had taken off] and Assad had no motive to commit political suicide.”

The source continues:

No one knew the provenance of the photographs [of the attack’s victims]. We didn’t know who the children were or how they got hurt. Sarin actually is very easy to detect because it penetrates paint, and all one would have to do is get a paint sample. We knew there was a [toxic] cloud and we knew it hurt people. But you cannot jump from there to certainty that Assad had hidden sarin from the UN because he wanted to use it in Khan Sheikhoun.

Trump, under political pressure and highly emotional by nature, ignored the evidence. Hersh’s source says:

The president saw the photographs of poisoned little girls and said it was an Assad atrocity. It’s typical of human nature. You jump to the conclusion you want. Intelligence analysts do not argue with a president. They’re not going to tell the president, ‘if you interpret the data this way, I quit’.
Although Republicans, Democrats and the entire media rallied to Trump’s side for the first time, those speaking to Hersh have apparently done so out of fear of what may happen next time.

The danger with Trump’s “retaliatory” strike, based on zero evidence of a chemical weapons attack, is that it could have killed Russian soldiers and dragged Putin into a highly dangerous confrontation with the US. Also, the intelligence community fears that the media have promoted a false narrative that suggests not only that a sarin attack took place, but paints Russia as a co-conspirator and implies that a UN team did not in fact oversee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile back in 2013-14. That would allow Assad’s opponents to claim in the future, at a convenient time, yet another unsubstantiated sarin gas attack by the Syrian government.

Hersh concludes with words from his source that should strike fear into us all:

The issue is, what if there’s another false-flag sarin attack credited to hated Syria? Trump has upped the ante and painted himself into a corner with his decision to bomb. And do not think these guys [Islamist groups] are not planning the next faked attack. Trump will have no choice but to bomb again, and harder. He’s incapable of saying he made a mistake.

UPDATE:

As was to be expected, there has been a backlash against Hersh’s investigation. If one thing is clear about the Khan Sheikhoun incident, it is that, in the absence of an independent investigation, there is still no decisive physical evidence to settle yet what happened one way or another. Therefore, our job as observers should be to keep a critical distance and weigh other relevant issues, such as context and probability.

So let us set aside for a moment the specifics of what happened on April 4 and concentrate instead on what Hersh’s critics must concede if they are to argue that Assad used sarin gas against the people of Khan Sheikhoun.

1. That Assad is so crazed and self-destructive – or at the very least so totally incapable of controlling his senior commanders, who must themselves be crazed and self-destructive – that he has on several occasions ordered the use of chemical weapons against civilians. And he has chosen to do it at the worst possible moments for his own and his regime’s survival, and when such attacks were entirely unnecessary.

2. That Putin is equally deranged and so willing to risk an end-of-times conflagration with the US that he has on more than one occasion either sanctioned or turned a blind eye to the use of sarin by Assad’s regime. And he has done nothing to penalise Assad afterwards, when things went wrong.

3. That Hersh has decided to jettison all the investigatory skills he has amassed over many decades as a journalist to accept at face value any unsubstantiated rumours his long-established contacts in the security services have thrown his way. And he has done so without regard to the damage that will do to his reputation and his journalistic legacy.

4. That a significant number of US intelligence officials, those Hersh has known and worked with over a long period of time, have decided recently to spin an elaborate web of lies no one wants to print, either in the hope of damaging Hersh in some collective act of revenge against him, or in the hope of permanently discrediting their own intelligence services.

Critics do not simply have to believe one of these four points. They must maintain the absolute veracity of all four of them.

Summary of Claims Surrounding the Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack

In the wake of the April 4th 2017 chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, various parties have made claims about the circumstances surrounding the attack. With today’s publication of the OPCW’s report on the attack this article aims to summarise key allegations made by each party in a systematic fashion. This article looks at claims made by the Russian, Syrian, American, and French governments, Seymour Hersh’s articles in Welt, and the OPCW report.

Time

Russia

On April 5th 2017 Sputnik quoted Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov as stating that Syrian aircraft conducted an airstrike around “11.30 to 12.30, local time, [8.30 to 9.30 GMT]”.

Syria

Walid Muallem, Syria’s Foreign Minister, stated in an April 6th press conference the first Syrian air force attack in the town occurred at 11:30am local time.

America

On April 6th 2017 the Department of Defence released a map showing what the Pentagon claimed was the flight path taken by the aircraft that launched the chemical attack. The map key states the aircraft was over Khan Sheikhoun around 337 Zulu Time to 346 Zulu Time, 6:37am and 6:46am local time.

France

The French National Evaluation on the Khan Sheikhoun attack, published on April 26th 2017, stated the following: “The French services are aware in particular of a Sukhoi Su-22 bomber which took off from the Shayrat Airbase on the morning of 4 April and launched up to six strikes around Khan Sheikhoun.”

Hersh

Seymour Hersh’s June 25th 2017 article in Welt, Trump‘s Red Line states attack took place at 6:55 a.m.

OPCW

The OPCW states their narrative is based on interviews with witnesses, and not open source information or information provided by States Party.

The OPCW report states that at “approximately 06:30, alerts were issued via hand-held radios reporting that military jets had departed an airfield and were heading in the general direction of Khan Shaykhun, amongst other areas” and “shortly afterwards, there was a swooping sound, as made by a jet when it attacks, but without a subsequent loud explosive sound.”

Two witnesses provided by the Syrian government and interviewed by the OPCW gave different accounts from accounts given by multiple witnesses, and the OPCW were unable to corroborate those narratives.

Target

Russia

The Russian Ministry of Defence stated that “According to the objective data of the Russian airspace control, Syrian aviation struck a large terrorist warehouse near Khan Shaykhun that housed a warehouse making bombs, with toxic substances.” According to Sputnik, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov stated the target was “in the eastern outskirts of Khan Shaykhun on a large warehouse of ammunition of terrorists and the mass of military equipment.”
In addition, Sputnik reported that:

“Konashenkov said that from this warehouse, chemical weapons’ ammunition was delivered to Iraq by militants.

Konashenkov added that there were workshops for manufacturing bombs, stuffed with poisonous substances, on the territory of this warehouse. He noted that these munitions with toxic substances were also used by militants in Syria’s Aleppo.”

Russia has not provided a specific location for the warehouse.

Syria

Walid Muallem, Syria’s Foreign Minister, stated in an April 6th press conference the attack was on “an army depot belongs [sic] to the Al-Nusra Front which contains chemical weapons.”
Syria has not provided a specific location for the army depot.

America

The impact site was marked on the Department of Defence map of the attack, at around 35.449610, 36.648163, on the north side of Khan Sheikhoun:

France

The French National Evaluation only states the aircraft launched up to six strikes around Khan Sheikhoun.

Hersh

In Trump‘s Red Line, Hersh states “The available intelligence made clear that the Syrians had targeted a jihadist meeting site”, and the target “was depicted as a two-story cinder-block building in the northern part of town.”

Hersh states Russian intelligence established “that a high-level meeting of jihadist leaders was to take place in the building, including representatives of Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-affiliated group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.”

According to the article, Russian intelligence described the building as “a command and control center that housed a grocery and other commercial premises on its ground floor with other essential shops nearby, including a fabric shop and an electronics store.” In addition:

The basement was used as storage for rockets, weapons and ammunition, as well as products that could be distributed for free to the community, among them medicines and chlorine-based decontaminants for cleansing the bodies of the dead before burial. The meeting place – a regional headquarters – was on the floor above. “It was an established meeting place,” the senior adviser said. “A long-time facility that would have had security, weapons, communications, files and a map center.” The Russians were intent on confirming their intelligence and deployed a drone for days above the site to monitor communications and develop what is known in the intelligence community as a POL – a pattern of life. The goal was to take note of those going in and out of the building, and to track weapons being moved back and forth, including rockets and ammunition.

Hersh has not provided the specific location of this two-story cinder-block building.

OPCW

The OPCW spoke to a number of witnesses to the attack, as well as considering various additional sources. Based on this, the impact of the munition linked to the release of Sarin into the environment is in the middle of a road on the north side of Khan Sheikhoun, close to the position indicated in the US Department of Defence map of the attack, 35.449610, 36.648163. The OPCW published a map of the crater:

Type of Attack

Russia

Russia stated Syrian aircraft performed the strike, providing no further information.

Syria

Syria stated Syrian aircraft performed the strike. Al Masdar News claimed Syrian military sources told them an attack on a missile factory in Khan Sheikhoun was carried out by a Syrian SU-22.

America

The Department of Defence map states the attack originated from the Shayrat Syrian Arab Air Force airfield. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson statedWe have a very high level of confidence that the attacks were carried out by aircraft under the direction of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and we also have very high confidence that the attacks involved the use of sarin nerve gas.”

France

France only describes aircraft launching “six strikes around Khan Sheikhoun“, but provides specifics about the Sarin used in the attack.

France claims to have carried out environmental samples collected at one of the impact points in Khan Sheikhoun, revealing the presence of Sarin, “”a specific secondary product (diisopropyl methylphosphonate – DIMP) formed during synthesis of sarin from isopropanol and DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride),” and hexamine. France adds a biomedical sample taken from a victim of the attack on the day of the attack shows the victim was exposed to sarin.

France states that intelligence gathered by French services indicates that “the process of synthesizing sarin, developed by the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) […] involves the use of hexamine as a stabilizer. DIMP is also known as a by-product generated by this process.” The French evaluation then details the 2013 Saraqib Sarin attack, from which they recovered an undetonated munition dropped from a helicopter containing “100ml of sarin at an estimated purity of 60%. Hexamine, DF and a secondary product, DIMP”.

Hersh

Hersh describes the attack on the “jihadist meeting site” as being performed by a Syrian SU-24, armed with a “Russian-supplied guided bomb equipped with conventional explosives”. Hersh states as a result of that attack chemical agents were released that resulted in the casualties seen on April 4th.

OPCW

Multiple samples from the site acquired from various locals sources were tested, with Sarin, DIMP, DIPF, TPP, hexamine, and other substances related to sarin detected. The detection of additional chemical agents, such as chlorine, phosgene, or other organophosphates were not mentioned. The OPCW describes the chain of custody around these samples:
Most of the samples delivered to the FFM were supported by witness testimony and accompanied by documents, including photographs and video. Although the documentation and testimony, in most cases, provided a good degree of confidence in the chain of custody prior to receipt by the FFM, the entire chain of custody could not be categorically verified. Such samples included biomedical samples that were not collected in the presence of team members, environmental samples, and dead creatures (referred to biological-environmental samples).
One set of samples were provided by the Syrian government, after collection by an unnamed volunteer in Khan Sheikhoun, with a video recording of the collection provided. The Syrian government agency, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), tested these samples and provided parts of the samples that were tested in OPCW laboratories. Both the SSRC and OPCW detected Sarin and hexamine from samples taken from the crater which was claimed to be the point of origin of the chemical agent by witnesses, and two metal objects removed from the crater. A number of other byproducts and degradation products from Sarin were also detected.

In addition, the OPCW analysed samples taken from victims of the attack and collected under the observation of the OPCW, which further confirmed the use of Sarin.

Aftermath

Russia

Russia provided no details of the aftermath of the attack. Russia Today reported Vladimir Putin stating that
“We have reports from multiple sources that false flags* like this one – and I cannot call it otherwise – are being prepared in other parts of Syria, including the southern suburbs of Damascus. They plan to plant some chemical there and accuse the Syrian government of an attack

Syria

Syria provided no details of the aftermath of the attack.

America

The US provided no specific details of the aftermath of the attack, with U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley providing the following narrative in a speech tu the UN:
“The gas that fell out of the sky yesterday was more deadly, leaving men, women, the elderly, and children, gasping for their very last breath. 
And as first responders, doctors, and nurses rushed to help the victims, a second round of bombs rained down. They died in the same slow, horrendous manner as the civilians they were trying to save.”

France

The French National Evaluation states:
“On 4 April 2017, air strikes against civilians in the city of Khan Sheikhoun killed more than 80 people. According to our experts, the symptoms observed immediately afterwards (pupil contraction, suffocation, bluing of lips, white foam on faces, convulsions), the high number of deaths, and the fact that certain responders and medical staff suffered secondary contamination are consistent with the use of a highly lethal neurotoxic agent. This has now been confirmed scientifically.”

Hersh

Hersh refers to a “Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) by the U.S. military”, that determined that:
“the heat and force of the 500-pound Syrian bomb triggered  a series of secondary explosions that could have generated a huge toxic cloud that began to spread over the town, formed by the release of the fertilizers, disinfectants and other goods stored in the basement, its effect magnified by the dense morning air, which trapped the fumes close to the ground.”
Hersh refers to casualty figures based on opposition activists reports, 80 dead, and outlets such as CNN, with numbers as high at 92 dead.

Hersh also references a report by MSF which states victims showed signs of Sarin exposure, and “that victims smelled of bleach, suggesting they had been exposed to chlorine.”

Hersh concludes:
“evidence suggested that there was more than one chemical responsible for the symptoms observed, which would not have been the case if the Syrian Air Force – as opposition activists insisted – had dropped a sarin bomb, which has no percussive or ignition power to trigger secondary explosions. The range of symptoms is, however, consistent with the release of a mixture of chemicals, including chlorine and the organophosphates used in many fertilizers, which can cause neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin.”

OPCW

The OPCW spoke to various witnesses to establish where the victims of the attack were found. Based on these interviews, and additional evidence, a map was created showing this area, southwest of the crater which produced samples that were positive for Sarin:
The OPCW details the initial scene as encountered by first responders:
Upon arrival at the site, first responders belonging to the SCD found, in addition to a small number of casualties exhibiting trauma type injuries, many civilians who appeared to have no external injuries. The symptoms of those exhibiting no external injuries, as described at that stage by non-medical personnel, included “people who were walking and then fell down”, suffocation, and muscle spasms. 
Interviewees reported cases of exposure due to cross contamination, such that 10 members of the SCD presented mild to moderate symptoms and about five medical staff from medical facilities presented similar symptoms.
The OPCW collected data from medical facilities in northern Syria, including the the Idlib Health Directorate (IHD), and the Khan Shaykhun Medical Centre. The full details can be found in the report, with IHD data shown below:


Conclusion

It is apparent that there is a correlation between the narratives of the French and US governments, and the OPCW report. The Russian and Syrian government narratives are consistent with each other, but entirely inconsistent with the OPCW. The narrative presented by Seymour Hersh in his Welt piece, Trump‘s Red Line, is inconsistent with all other narratives.

Open source material, as previously collected and analysed by Bellingcat and others, is consistent with the French and US governments, and the OPCW report. It is worth noting that the OPCW report explicitly states their conclusions are not based on open source evidence.

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