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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Sy Hersh's incredible secret source

The legendary journalist Seymour M. Hersh has recently published an appreciation of the deadly attack on Khan Sheikhoun, Syria that took place on the morning of 4 April 2017 and of United States President Donald Trump's response several days latter. While the Syrian opposition, the United States, France, Germany, Human Rights Watch and the OPCW all have come to the conclusion that 92+ Syrian civilians were murdered that morning by a sarin bomb delivered by a Syrian warplane, the claim that Hersh makes is "that there was no chemical attack." This is a bold claim in the face of so many deaths and a mountain of evidence that they were caused by sarin.

The OPCW report on the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, dated 29 June 2017 and released today, begs to differ:
The [OPCW Fact-Finding Mission] team concluded that a large number of people, some of whom died, were exposed to sarin. The release that caused exposure was likely to have been initiated in the crater in the road, located close to the silos in the northern part of the town. The team concluded that, based on such a release, the only determination that could be made was that sarin had been used as a weapon.
This would be the same crater that another Assad defender, Dr. Theodore Postol claimed was the site in which terrorists set off a sarin pipe-bomb so they could blame the Assad regime. Ted Postol's Assad defense relies on alternative facts from Hersh. Hersh has little use for the crater in the street since it contradicts his story about the bombing of a building. I have also extensively criticized the various Postol defenses of Assad:

05/12/2017 Dr. Ted Postol misreads the HRW Report on Khan Sheikhoun
05/10/2017 Are Scott Horton & Ted Postol holocaust enablers?
05/03/2017 Reading Comprehension 101 for MIT Professor Dr. Ted Postol
05/01/2017 Postol's Apostles & the normalization of chemical weapons use
04/30/2017 Dr. Postol's "correction" shows he still needs Reading Comprehension 101
04/28/2017 Please Re-Tweet as Ted Postol beats a hasty retreat
04/26/2017 Sincerely yours, Theodore A. Postol

Ray McGovern, another long time Putin pundit and Assad supporter, seemed not to notice this contradiction between his earlier support of Postol's theory of how Assad didn't do it, and Hersh's in his Counterpunch defense of Hersh. He begins by repeating verbatim Hersh's story about what happened:
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 – “high-value targets” – of the two jihadist groups controlling the town were about to hold a meeting. 
Then a few paragraphs later he remembers a memo put out by his group in support of Ted Postol's thesis:
For instance, the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity produced a memo on April 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.
But Hersh contradicts Ted Postol's thesis as much as he contradicts the OPCW findings. Both agree that there was a sarin attack. Both agreed that the crater in the street was the release site. The divergence that McGovern supports is Postol's conclusion that the source of the CW attack was a terrorist sarin pipe bomb. Hersh says there was no sarin, only a conventional bomb in a cinderblock building. How can McGovern promote both theories at once? Perhaps the answer is that a con artist is someone who can promote two opposing theories and still remain convincing.

The question of whether there really was a chemical attack is especially important now because Russian President Vladimir Putin has predicted there would be more CW attacks in Syria, and US has claimed that the Assad regime is preparing them. It is also important because after having been effectively banned in 1925, CW weapons are starting to make a comeback as an accepted weapons for the suppression of mass rebellion, and not just in Syria anymore. A critical component of this new normalization of chemical weapons use has been efforts by the perpetrators and their supporters to create doubt and confusion over who is responsible for these chemical deaths. That way nobody is prosecuted. In this case Hersh supports the Russian-Syrian flat out denial that a chemical attack has even occurred, in spite of the fact that labs in Turkey, France, and for the OPCW have all tested samples from Khan Sheikhoun and found that sarin was used.

Seymour M. Hersh has not been reporting on the day to day, week to week, or month to month slaughter that has been called the Syrian conflict, and has so far taken more than a half-million lives over the past six years, but he has felt the need to weigh in strongly when Bashar Assad has been accused of killing with chemicals. In the case of the sarin murder of more than 1400 civilians in suburban Damascus on 21 August 2013, Sy Hersh mobilized an army of anonymous experts and intel officers to exonerate Assad. I roundly critiqued his positions in these six posts:

04/23/2014 How Seymour Hersh confuses Syria with Libya
04/13/2014 After Hersh lays smoke screen, Assad lobes gas bombs
04/12/2014 Mỹ Lai and Sy Hersh, a Reappraisal
04/10/2014 Seymour Hersh's chemical weapons fetish
04/08/2014 Seymour Hersh's Believe It or Don't
12/09/2013 Whose Seymour Hersh?

Sy Hersh's latest defense of Assad, Trump's Red Line, published by Welt, 25 June 2017, makes the bold claim that we are the victims of fake news and there really were no victims of a sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April. His claim has been lauded and repeated by a number of commenters, including Scott Ritter and Ray McGovern, who like Hersh himself, are people I use to admire.

Just What a Khan Sheikhoun False Flag Conspiracy Would Actually Mean, has been well covered today by Eliot Higgins on Bellingcat, so I don't have go into how ridiculous it is to think there is a big secret studio somewhere cranking out opposition YouTube videos.

Since there can be no question that we are seeing murder on a mass scale in Syria, getting to the truth of these claims and counterclaims is not a parlor game. It is most serious. If Hersh and his supporters are right, then both the public and the Assad regime have been the victim of a tight, well organized conspiracy involving hundreds of people in Syria, Turkey, France, and the United States. If they are wrong, them the lot of them should be looked upon as holocaust enablers.

Who is Hersh's secret source?

Scott Ritter, Ray McGovern,  Jonathan Cook, Alex Jones and many others are basing their claims on Sy Hersh, and Sy Hersh bases his claims on information from "a senior adviser to the American intelligence community, who has served in senior positions in the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency." Hersh doesn't say who this anonymous individual is, but since he or she is the source of the narrative being fed to us by Hersh, knowing his or her identity is important. What can we discern about Hersh's source from what he tells us?

Since Hersh only says that he has served in the intelligence community, it is probably safe to assume he is a former intelligence officer, rather than one actively employed, and yet he seems to know all about everything on all sides! He knows about communications between the US and Syrian forces at levels few would expect. For example, as part of "deconfliction":
the Russians speak on behalf of the Syrian military
except apparently when Syrian Air Force officers communicate directly with USAF officers aboard AWACS planes:
Russian and Syrian Air Force officers gave details of the carefully planned flight path to and from Khan Shiekhoun on April 4 directly, in English, to the deconfliction monitors aboard the AWACS plane, which was on patrol near the Turkish border, 60 miles or more to the north.
He claims that they also give exact targeting information, including descriptions of buildings being struck to the US command in Doha:
The Syrian target at Khan Sheikhoun, as shared with the Americans at Doha, was depicted as a two-story cinder-block building in the northern part of town...Russian intelligence depicted the cinder-block 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.
He then goes on to say how the basement is being used. This sounds like they share with the US the type of intelligence that can only be gathered by spies on the ground. How nice of them! According to Hersh's secret source, the Russians give the US this type of detailed advance notice is so that CIA assets can have time to escape.
One reason for the Russian message to Washington about the intended target was to ensure that any CIA asset or informant who had managed to work his way into the jihadist leadership was forewarned not to attend the meeting. 
This seems at odds with stories heard in other quarters of Syrian warplanes threatening CIA assets around Raqqi, but it is particularly considerate of the Russians. Since, if the target is suppose to be a meeting of jihadists, both the attempt by the CIA to communicate the attack plans to their supposed assets on the ground, and the attempt by those assets to flee, would involve a considerable chance they would blow the whole operation, after so much careful planning, with drone observations and special bomb and all, according to Hersh. Gee, they must really love us. Can't we treat them better?

According to Hersh's secret source, the Russians talk directly to the CIA about their bombing missions and detailed intelligence about the insurgents.
I was told that the Russians passed the warning directly to the CIA. “They were playing the game right,” the senior adviser said. The Russian guidance noted that the jihadist meeting was coming at a time of acute pressure for the insurgents: Presumably Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham were desperately seeking a path forward in the new political climate. 
These two groups could have easily met more safely in the physical climate of Turkey, but the senior adviser didn't explain why they were risking this meeting in Khan Sheikhoun. He does portray a level of cooperation by US forces with the Russians and Syrians that they have been lobbying for. He says that Russian and Syrian spies work closely with multiple American command posts. Who knew?
Russian and Syrian intelligence officials, who coordinate operations closely with the American command posts, made it clear that the planned strike on Khan Sheikhoun was special because of the high-value target. “It was a red-hot change. The mission was out of the ordinary – scrub the sked,” the senior adviser told me. “Every operations officer in the region" – in the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, CIA and NSA – “had to know there was something going on. 
If knowledge of the "real" nature of the attack was so widely known, it is all the more surprising that Hersh had to go with his one unnamed source. In this era of leaks it's not uncommon for a major story in the New York Times or Washington Post to claim a dozen sources for a story. This is probably why the London Review of Books rejected it, even after having paid for it. Instead, Hersh had to shop Europe to find a publication with, shall we say?, less rigorous standards on sourcing.

Apparently, some US allies have been kept out of this loop, and didn't receive all this juicy information. They had to stoop to intercepting Syrian communications that they said proved Assad's forces delivered the sarin bomb. Hersh is at pains to explain to us that they are confused but US intelligence sources different from Hersh's secret source also claim to have overheard these communications, as did Syrian opposition plane spotters for which the disposition of Syrian military aircraft is a life or death question. Hersh doesn't give Syrian sources the time of day because it's easier to treat the Trump administration as the source of the facts he wishes to deny, but  an opposition news site had already identified the pilot of the bomber Hersh mis-identified as a Su-24 the day after the attack:
Orient Net contacted a number of field, independent and even Syrian Civil Defense observatories in the countryside of Idlib and Hama, and all testimonies indicated that the Assad terrorist who dropped toxic gas-filled barrels on Khan Sheikhoun was colonel pilot, Muhammad Yousef Hasouri.

Colonel Hasouri is the commander of the Sukhoi 22 Squadron at al-Sha’yrat airport. His warplane carries Quds 1 banner. He hails from the villages of Talkalakh town from Homs countryside and currently resides with his family in the Assad-controlled al-Sakan al-Shababy neighborhood in Homs city.

At approximately 06:30 am on Tuesday (April 4), Colonel Hasouri took off with his Sukhoi 22 and dropped barrels filled with toxic chemicals on the town of Khan Sheikoun in Idlib countryside, killing more than 100 civilians as they slept and injuring more than 400.

The majority of those who fell victim to the toxic gas were children.
...
It is worthy to mention that the walky-talkies and wireless connections have become an essential part of the lives of Syrians living in the liberated areas because of their effective role in reporting any sudden assault by Assad or Russian warplanes.

While the Hersh narrative ignores the crater in the street that Ted Postol made such a fuss over and everyone else claims was the place the sarin bomb exploded, it has a lot to say about an explosion no one on the ground reported. This former intelligence officer of Hersh's apparently still has access to pentagon Bomb Damage Assessments (BDA) which he said confirmed that what happened was pretty much what the Russians and Syrians said had happened:

U.S. military later 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. According to intelligence estimates, the senior adviser said, the strike itself killed up to four jihadist 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. 
I guess Hersh somehow thinks a decision to drop a bomb in a busy shopping district ("with other essential shops nearby, including a fabric shop and an electronics store") that kills a hundred civilians in order to take out four "high value targets" can be morally justified so long as chemical weapons aren't involved. This is his CW fetish I wrote about earlier. What is missing from anybody's account of the aftermath of the attack are reports of fighters or civilians being killed or injured by the blast of a 500 pound bomb. The reported deaths were from chemical exposure.

Hersh's senior advisor seems to think he knows all about Putin's relationship with Assad as well:
"What doesn't occur to most Americans" the adviser said, "is if there had been a Syrian nerve gas attack authorized by Bashar, 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?"
There is ample evidence, including some published on this blog, that Russia's strategy in Syria isn't against ISIS so much as it is about propping up the Assad regime, so while this retired intel officer may think he knows what Putin is trying to do in Syria, he is probably wrong. Like everything else that he tells Hersh, it is what Putin wants us to hear.

He is probably right that Assad wouldn't do anything to piss off Putin. The one true tone that underlines the whole Hersh narrative is that it is Putin that is running the show in Syria. That merely means that Putin was behind the sarin attack and those who ask why would Assad do it are asking the wrong question. They should be asking why would Putin do it? Most likely the answer has little to do with Syria, and much more to do with the overall international situation, and particularly the acute need at that juncture, two days after Republican Congressional Intel Committee chief Nunes was forced to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, to create a distraction and an open break between Trump and Putin.

But wait there's more! Hersh's secret source doesn't just know all about events in Syria, and in the US military, he knows details about goings on in the White House, including what the CIA told the White House.

When a single intelligence asset claims information from multiple agencies and varied sources, it is a red-flag that that asset is getting information from multiple agencies, and that you are being played:
Within hours of viewing the photos, the adviser said, Trump instructed the national defense apparatus to plan for retaliation against Syria. “He did this before he talked to anybody about it. The planners then asked the CIA and DIA if there was any evidence that Syria had sarin stored at a nearby airport or somewhere in the area. Their military had to have it somewhere in the area in order to bomb with it.” “The answer was, ‘We have no evidence that Syria had sarin or used it,’” the adviser said.
According to Hersh's adviser, the CIA thinks they know exactly what has been going on at Shayrat airfield, even if he, Hersh and the CIA, can't keep the type of plane straight:
“The CIA also told them that there was no residual delivery for sarin at Sheyrat [the airfield from which the Syrian SU-24 bombers had taken off on April 4] and Assad had no motive to commit political suicide.”
The "political suicide" bit sounds more like an argument for acquittal than an intelligence assessment, particular since the much larger East Ghouta sarin attack in 2013 didn't kill him. anyway, every other description of the attack says that a SU-22 did the bombing.

But aside from a few issues like that, Hersh's whole story relies on this one senior advisor as its source, but he is such an unbelievable source! Not only does he know what al Qaeda is up to in the basement of a two-story brick building in Khan Sheikhoun, he also has intimate knowledge from inside the Trump White House. He can quote the president's private comments:
The intelligence made clear that a Syrian Air Force SU-24 fighter bomber had used a conventional weapon to hit its target: There had been no chemical warhead. And yet it was impossible for the experts to persuade the president of this once he had made up his mind. “The president saw the photographs of poisoned little girls and said it was an Assad atrocity,” the senior adviser said. “It’s typical of human nature.
This senior adviser was like a fly on the wall of Trump's Syria attack discussions:
“Trump ruled out option one off the bat,” the senior adviser said, and the assassination of Assad was never considered. “But he said, in essence: ‘You’re the military and I want military action.’” The president was also initially opposed to the idea of giving the Russians advance warning before the strike, but reluctantly accepted it. “We gave him the Goldilocks option – not too hot, not too cold, but just right.” The discussion had its bizarre moments.
This same senior adviser knew what the primary target at Shayrat Airbase was.
The airfield’s gasoline storage tanks, a primary target, were pulverized, the senior adviser said, triggering a huge fire and clouds of smoke that interfered with the guidance system of following missiles. As many as 24 missiles missed their targets...
The Tomahawk missiles use GPS as well as terrain tracking technologies. Fire and smoke at the target site would not interfere with their guidance systems. They would be pretty useless in combat if they did. Who does this senior advisor think he is trying to fool?

One curious coincidence is that while Hersh's secret source may disagree with everything Assad's opposition has to say about what happened that morning in Khan Sheikhoun, and what the Trump administration and the US Intelligence agencies have had to say about about that and the retaliatory raid on Shakyat airfield, he lays out a narrative that is consistent at most points with the one put forward  by the Russians and the Syrians. For example, while Hersh's senior adviser claims 24 missiles missed their target, the Russians said the Syrian Ministry of defense claims 23 Tomahawks hit the airbase. Both claims are wrong. A comparison of commercial satellite photos of the airbase both before and after the attack show at least 44 distinct hits, and while it doesn't prove the Pentagon's claim that 58 of the 59 TLAMS hit their targets, it doesn't disprove it either, considering the possibility of double taps on some targets.

After the strike: These satellite images show the damage to al-Shayrat military airfield which was hit by US cruise missiles on Thursday night
For some, faith in the Pulitzer prize winning reporter and his legendary secret sources has reached almost mythic proportions, as exampled by Jonathan Cook in his latest Counterpunch defense of Hersh:
So what did Hersh’s investigation reveal? His sources in the US intelligence establishment – people who have helped him break some of the most important stories of the past few decades, from the Mai[sic] Lai massacre by American soldiers during the Vietnam war to US abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2004 – told him the official narrative that Syria’s Bashar Assad had dropped deadly sarin gas on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 was incorrect.
In the first place, Sy Hersh didn't exactly "break" the story of My Lai, okay? A friend at the Village Voice alerted him to a press release the Army had issued on the upcoming Calley trial. The real heroes were those that wouldn't let the story die. People like SP5 Ron Ridenhour, a former door runner who wrote 30 letters to members of congress demanding an investigation, or Sgt Michael Bernhardt who Hersh would cite 28 times on his way to the Pulitzer. They and others hounded the army until they put someone on trial for the atrocities. Only then did Hersh pick up the story.

Beyond that Cook talks as if Hersh has had the same solid sources in the Pentagon and CIA for almost fifty years so anything he tells us is gold. We can take it to the bank!

But this latest story comes from a single source and in spite of being a single source, has been able to give Hersh the inside scoop in every arena relevant to his story. Generally, a reporter would have to piece together a story like this from multiple sources. I mean how lucky is it to find one source that can tell you what the jihadist had in an Idlib basement, and what the president was told in his most private discussions? It sounds too good to be true, and that is my reading of Hersh, his secret source, and his story.

What makes it very, very bad is that he ended it with a note designed to prepare us to view stepped up chemical slaughter by the Assad regime and its Russian partners as fake attacks we would do well to ignore:
 And do not think these guys are not planning the next faked attack. 
 Seymour M. Hersh may have made his reputation as a journalist, but he is spending that capital as a holocaust enabler.

By Clay Claiborne    republish freely

Syria is the Paris Commune of the 21st Century!

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