who’s afraid of seymour hersh & his pentagon sources?

Seymour Hersh and What Really Happened in Khan Sheikhoun
Dirk Laabs, Die Welt, Jun 25 2017 (Translation: Charles Hawley)

[…] Now 80 years old, Seymour Hersh has proved to be an almost obsessive reporter during his career, willing to go to great lengths to overcome obstacles. And he has seldom demonstrated a willingness to compromise, a characteristic that hasn’t always made him friends at the publications for which he has worked, including the New Yorker and the NYT. He has pushed more than one editor to their limits. His reporting on Pres Obama was just as critical as it was on Nixon, the Bushes or Clinton. In an article two years ago, he wrote that some within the Obama administration knew that Osama bin Laden was living under the protection of Pakistani intelligence in Abbottabad long before the raid to kill him was ultimately launched (Bin Laden died in Nov 2001 in Abbottabad Hospital, with a CIA man taking notes at his bedside – RB). The story led to a falling out between Hersh and the editor-in-chief of the New Yorker and it was ultimately published in the LRB. In another story for the same publication, he quoted from a secret Congressional report which claimed that the CIA, during the Obama administration, had developed a rat-line to smuggle weapons from Libya to Syria in order to support militias fighting against Assad. The fake companies established as part of the rat-line, Hersh wrote, were later thought to have been used by the Turkish secret service to arm Islamist militias inside of Syria.

As has been the case so often in his professional life, Hersh was harshly criticized for his most recent stories about Syria, about Obama, and about bin Laden. Many say he goes too far and relies too heavily on anonymous sources. Crucially, though, no source who is actively working for a government can reveal classified information “on the record” without incurring considerable personal risk. That holds true in Germany as well. As has always been his practice, Hersh has told Welt am Sonntag the identities of all the sources he quotes anonymously in his story about Trump’s retaliatory strike against Syria. The paper was thus able to speak independently to the central source in Pindostan. Hersh had also offered the article to the LRB. The editors accepted it, paid for it, and prepared a fact-checked article for publication, but decided against doing so, as they told Hersh, because of concerns that the magazine would vulnerable to criticism for seeming to take the view of the Syrian and Russian governments when it came to the Apr 4 bombing in Khan Sheikhoun. Hersh had met a few times with Stefan Aust when he was editor of Der Spiegel and followed his career. According to Hersh, he knew Aust to be someone who was unafraid of the consequences of publishing stories that, when verified and checked, he knew to be true. It was a natural move to send the story, as edited, to him. It was a situation that Seymour Hersh had experienced before. At the very beginning of his career, no publication wanted to print his My Lai story either.

What exactly happened in western Syria on Apr 4 2017, when Khan Sheikhoun was bombed, is still not entirely clear. The events continue to be obscured by the thick fog of war. A Russian-Syrian-Iranian alliance is fighting against militia groups in the Idlib region, both Jihadi and otherwise. All parties to the war have two things in common: they reject democracy, and they view journalists as enemies, making it extremely difficult to report freely from this battlefield. As such it is quite surprising that, just hours after the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, politicians and the majority of media outlets had established such a clear picture of what had happened: that Assad’s troops had attacked the town with the dreaded poison gas sarin. But the town is under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), aka Jabhat al-Nusra. It is impossible to know precisely how freely people can move about in this region and how openly they can report on the war, including doctors and members of Syrian relief organizations. Even in the very first interviews that were said to have come directly from Khan Skeikhoun, all of those interviewed agreed that sarin had been used. One doctor in town, who was quoted frequently throughout the day, took the time to film extensive video footage, conduct Skype interviews and, shortly after the attack, tweet:

OUR HOSPITAL GETTING FULL FROM THE SARIN ATTACK TODAY. ANYONE THAT WANTS EVIDENCE, I WILL VIDEO CALL YOU.

It is in fact quite difficult to ascertain at first glance whether sarin, another toxic gas or a chemical agent was used. The first reporter from a Western newspaper to reach the town worked for the Graun. His article included several quotes from people who claimed to be eyewitnesses: “We could smell it from 500 m away,” one said, referring to the gas. Yet sarin is odorless. To clear up the contradictions and questions, an independent investigation on site is needed. Were that to happen, it would be quite possible to determine if sarin was used, but such a process takes time in an active war zone like Idlib. Yet on Apr 6, when the Pindo Navy launched cruise missiles at the Syrian airport, the process of initiating an independent investigation hadn’t even been started. By bombing the Syrian airport, Trump set the tone for how the attack on Khan Sheikhoun would ultimately be interpreted and Pindostan’s Western vassals quickly concurred with his viewpoint. France published a classified intelligence report that claimed there were no doubts that Assad’s military had deployed sarin. Two hours earlier, then-French Pres Hollande had already committed to this position. He and Angela Merkel issued a joint statement about “the massacre with chemical weapons” following the Pindosi strikes. The statement read:

Pres Assad bears sole responsibility for this development. His repeated use of chemical weapons … demanded sanctions.

Their position was clear. Ultimately, though, it is up to a UN commission to decide whether an attack in Syria should be considered a war crime. The commission was formed in 2011 to investigate the war in Syria. The statement it issued after the Apr 4 attack was carefully worded, and the commission has been silent since. Members of the Geneva-based Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic are also aware of the complexities of the situation in the war zone. Analyzing, comparing, verifying and rebutting statements, data and reports takes time. It was a different organization, though, that pushed to the forefront to provide the quick answers everyone was asking for, the OPCW, an inter-governmental organization financed by the signatories to the CWC that works together with the UN. The organization has become more careful since Syrian rebels took an OPCW team hostage in 2014 and after the April attack, an OPCW team traveled not to the location of the presumed gas attack, but to the neighboring country of Turkey. Team members were able to observe the autopsies of three alleged victims of the poison gas attack. An NGO had delivered the bodies to the hospitals, though OPCW will not publicly comment on the identity of the NGO. Samples from the bodies were provided to two separate laboratories, which independently confirmed indications of sarin or sarin-like substances. In criminal proceedings, which are similar to the process followed by the UN in determining a war crime, it is a fundamental principle that all evidence be under the control of investigators at all times. That didn’t happen in this case. Indeed, the Syria Commission doesn’t intend to report its version of events to the UNGA until September, after it investigates all sources, particularly those on site in Khan Sheikhoun. Fighting through the fog of war to discover the truth takes time. But on Apr 4, when Pres Trump awoke and saw photos of dead babies and decided to respond immediately, the final results of a thorough investigation were as far away as peace in Syria. Asked if government lies still make him as angry as in his first days of his career, Hersh replied:

It is more than being upset about lying. It’s about the reluctance of us in the press to hold the men and women who run the world’s governments to the highest possible standards. We have a President in Pindostan today who lies repeatedly about the most meaningless of information, but he must learn that he cannot lie about the intelligence relied upon before authorizing an act of war. There are those in the Trump administration that understand this, which is why I learned the information I did. If this story creates even a few moments of regret in the white house it will have served a very high purpose.

Intel Behind Trump’s Syria Attack Questioned
Ray McGovern, Antiwar.com, Jun 25 2017

Seymour Hersh is challenging the Trump administration’s version of events surrounding the Apr 4 “chemical weapons attack” on the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, though Hersh had to find a publisher in Germany to get his information out. In the Sunday edition of Die Welt, Hersh reports that his national security sources offered a distinctly different account, revealing Pres Trump rashly deciding to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airbase on Apr 6 despite the absence of intelligence supporting his conclusion that the Syrian military was guilty. Hersh draws on his usual Pentagon inside sources to dispute that there ever was a “chemical weapons attack” and to assert that Trump was told that no evidence existed against the Syrian government but ordered “his generals” to “retaliate” anyway. JCoS Dunford and Mad Dog Mattis ordered the attacks apparently knowing that the reason given was what one of Hersh’s sources called a “fairy tale.” They then left it to H R McMaster to further the deceit with the help of a compliant mainstream media, which broke from its current tradition of distrusting whatever Trump says in favor of its older tradition of favoring “regime change” in Syria and trusting pretty much whatever the “rebels” claim. According to Hersh’s sources, the normal “deconfliction” process was followed before the Apr 4 strike. Russia and Syrian Air Force officers gave details of the flight path to and from Khan Sheikhoun in English, Hersh reported. The target was a two-story cinderblock building in which senior leaders of the two Jihadi groups controlling the town were about to hold a meeting. Because of the perceived importance of the mission, the Russians took the unusual step of giving the Syrian air force a GPS-guided bomb to do the job, but the explosives were conventional, not chemical, Hersh reported. The meeting place was on the floor above the basement of the building, where a source whom Hersh described as “a senior adviser to the intelligence community” told Hersh:

The basement was used as storage for rockets, weapons, and ammunition … and also chlorine-based decontaminants for cleansing the bodies of the dead before burial.

Hersh describes what happened when the building was struck on the morning of Apr 4:

An assessment by the Pindosi military later determined that the heat and force of the 500 lb 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 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. According to intelligence estimates, the strike itself killed up to four Jihadi leaders and an unknown number of drivers and security aides. There is no confirmed count of the number of civilians killed by the poisonous gases that were released by the secondary explosions, although opposition activists reported that there were more than 80 dead, and outlets such as CNN have put the figure as high as 92.

Due to the fog of war, which is made denser by the fact that Jihadis associated with AQ control the area, many of the details of the incident were unclear on that day and remain so still. No independent on-the-ground investigation has taken place. But there were other reasons to doubt Syrian guilt, including the implausibility of Assad choosing that time, when his forces were finally making dramatic strides in defeating the Jihadis, and immediately after the Trump administration had indicated it had reversed Obama’s “regime change” policy in Syria, to launch a sarin attack, which was sure to outrage the world and likely draw Pindosi retaliation. However, logic was brushed aside after local “activists,” including some closely tied to the Jihadis, quickly uploaded all manner of images onto social media showing dead and dying children and other victims said to be suffering from sarin nerve gas. Inconsistencies such as the “eyewitness” who insisted, “We could smell it from 500 m away,” although in fact sarin is odorless, were brushed aside. Whether credible or not, these social-media images had a potent propaganda effect. Hersh writes that within hours of watching the gruesome photos on TV, and before he had received any intelligence corroboration, Trump told his national security aides to plan retaliation against Syria. According to Hersh, it was an evidence-free decision except for what Trump had seen on the TV shows. Hersh quotes one officer who upon learning of the White House decision to “retaliate” against Syria, remarked:

We KNOW that there was no chemical attack! … The Russians are furious, claiming we have the real intel and know the truth!

A similar event had occurred on Aug 21 2013, outside Damascus, and although the available evidence now points to a “false-flag” provocation pulled off by the Jihadis to trick the West into mounting a full-fledged assault on Assad’s military, Western media still blames that incident on Assad, too. In the Aug 21 2013 case, social media also proved crucial in creating and pushing the Assad-did-it narrative. On Aug 30 2013, Jackass Kerry pinned the responsibility on Assad no fewer than 35 times, even though earlier that week, then-DNI Clapper had warned Pres Obama privately that Assad’s culpability was “not a slam dunk.” Jackass was fond of describing social media as an “extraordinarily useful tool,” and it sure did come in handy in supporting his repeated but unproven charges against Assad, especially since the Pindosi government had invested heavily in training and equipping Syrian “activists” to dramatize their cause. The mainstream media also has ignored evidence that the Jihadis staged at least one chlorine gas attack. And, as you may recall, Bush 43 also spoke gleefully about the value of “catapulting the propaganda.”

To the extent Hersh’s account finds its way into Western corporate media, most likely it will be dismissed out of hand simply because it dovetails with Moscow’s version of what happened and thus is, ipso facto, “wrong.” But the Russians (and the Syrians) know what did happen, and if there really was no sarin bombing, they recognize Trump’s reckless resort to Tomahawks and the subsequent attempts to cover up for him. All this will have repercussions. This is as tense a time in Pindo-Russian relations as I can remember from my five decades of experience watching Russian defense and foreign policy. It is left to the Russians to figure out which is worse: a President controlled by “his generals” or one who is so out of control that “his generals” are the ones who must restrain him. With Russia reiterating its threat to target any unannounced aircraft flying in Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates, Pres Putin could authorize his own generals to shoot first and ask questions later. Then, hold onto your hat. As of this writing, there is no sign in “mainstream media” of any reporting on Hersh’s groundbreaking piece. It is a commentary on the conformist nature of today’s Western media that an alternative analysis challenging the conventional wisdom,even when produced by a prominent journalist like Hersh, faces such trouble finding a place to publish.The mainstream hatred of Assad and Putin has reached such extraordinary levels that pretty much anything can be said or written about them with few if any politicians or journalists daring to express doubts regardless of how shaky the evidence is. Even the London Review of Books, which published Hersh’s earlier debunking of the Aug 21 2013 sarin-gas incident, wouldn’t go off onto the limb this time despite having paid for his investigation. According to Hersh:

(They feared becoming) vulnerable to criticism for seeming to take the view of the Syrian and Russia governments when it came to the April 4 bombing in Khan Sheikhoun.

So much for diversity of thought in today’s West. Yet, what was interesting about the Khan Sheikhoun case is that was a test of whom the mainstream media detested more. The MSM has taken the position that pretty much whatever Trump says is untrue or at least deserving of intense fact-checking. But the MSM also believes whatever attacks on Assad that the Syrian “activists” post on social media are true and disbelieves whatever Putin says. So, this was a tug-of-war on which prejudices were stronger – and it turned out that the antipathy toward Syria and Russia is more powerful than the distrust of Trump. The MSM bought into Trump’s narrative to such a degree that any criticism, no matter how credentialed the critic, gets either ignored or ridiculed. For instance, the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity produced a memo on Apr 11 questioning Trump’s rush to judgment. Former MIT professor Ted Postol, a specialist in applying science to national security incidents, also poked major holes in the narrative of a government sarin attack. But the MSM silence was deafening. In remarks to Die Welt, Seymour Hersh explained that he still gets upset at government lying and at the reluctance of the media to hold governments accountable:

We have a President in Pindostan today who lies repeatedly … but he must learn that he cannot lie about intelligence relied upon before authorizing an act of war. There are those in the Trump administration who understand this, which is why I learned the information I did. If this story creates even a few moments of regret in the White House, it will have served a very high purpose.

But it may be that the Germans reading Welt am Sonntag may be among the few who will get to read Hersh’s account of the Apr 4 incident in Khan Sheikhoun. Perhaps they will begin to wonder why Chancellor Angela Merkel continues with her “me-too” approach to whatever Faschingstein wants to do regarding tensions with Russia and warfare in Syria. Will Merkel admit that she was likely deceived in parroting Faschingstein’s line making the Syrian government responsible for a “massacre with chemical weapons” on Apr 4? Mercifully, most Pindosis will be spared having to choose between believing President Trump and Seymour Hersh.

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