Barack Obama did not tell the whole story when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August, 2013. He failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded had been used in the rocket attack. The UN study did not assess responsibility for the attack.
In his nationally televised speech about Syria on 10 September, Obama laid blame for the nerve gas attack firmly on Assad’s government, and made it clear he was prepared to back up his earlier public warnings that any use of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line’: “Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people.”
Seymour Hersh reports that insider intelligence, including military officers and consultants, repeatedly reported deliberate manipulation of intelligence. One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration’s assurances of Assad’s responsibility a “ruse.” The attack “was not the result of the current regime.” A former senior intelligence official said that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analyzed in real time, as the attack was happening.
The absence of immediate alarm inside the American intelligence community demonstrates that there was no intelligence about Syrian intentions in the days before the attack. And there are at least two ways the US could have known about it in advance: both were touched on in one of the top secret American intelligence documents that have been made public in recent months. In both its public and private briefings after 21 August, the administration disregarded the available intelligence about the rebel group al-Nusra’s potential access to sarin and continued to claim that the Assad government was in sole possession of chemical weapons.
Source: Seymour Hersh, “Syria: Whose Sarin?” London Review of Books, December 19, 2013, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n24/seymour-m-hersh/whose-sarin.
Student Researcher: Brenda Montanez (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)