The Silencing of Seymour Hersh – Even the LRB refuses to print an article criticising the Trump version of Assad’s ‘Sarin Gas Attack’
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
Seymour Hersh’s June 25th 2017 article
in Welt, Trump‘s Red Line states attack took place
at 6:55 a.m.
The OPCW states their narrative is based on interviews with
witnesses, and not open source information or information provided by States
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.
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
Russia has not provided a specific location for the
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
Syria has not provided a specific location for the army
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
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.”
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:
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
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 stated Syrian aircraft performed the strike, providing no further information.
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.
The Department of Defence map states the attack originated from
the Shayrat Syrian Arab Air Force airfield. U.S. Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson stated “We 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 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 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.
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
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.
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
Syria provided no details of the aftermath of the attack.
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.”
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 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
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.”
“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.”
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
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:
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.