(OR – ‘EXECUTION FIRST – EVIDENCE AFTERWARDS’?)
REVISITING THE STORY OF THE ‘FALSE FLAG’ AT GHOUTA ON 21 AUGUST 2013, HOW IT WAS EXPOSED, AND HOW IT WAS CREATED.
The decision by President Trump to accept without further investigation claims that the Syrian government was responsible for the recent chemical weapons incident in Idlib province, and to respond by immediate cruise missile strikes, makes an ironic contrast with the behaviour of his predecessor.
Following the sarin atrocity in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August 2013, there was a similar rush to judgement by Western leaders and the mainstream Western media – hereafter MSM. However, in the end President Obama decided to follow the example of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and seek the approval of Congress for air strikes. As a result of the deal to eliminate the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal mediated by the Russians, the possibility of such strikes then quite rapidly became moot.
This history is clearly relevant to current events, and in particular to the apparent dramatic volte-face in President Trump’s approach to Syria, in a whole range of different ways. For one thing, Ghouta has repeatedly been presented, by advocates of ‘régime change’ in Syria, as a moment when a golden opportunity to topple Assad without empowering jihadists was missed, and the way cleared for a reemergence of Russia as a Middle Eastern, and some extent global, power. (For a British statement along these lines, see a ‘Guardian’ report of an interview given to the BBC last October by Sir John Sawers, who headed MI6 at the time of Ghouta.)
Equally important, a central premise of the ‘rush to judgement’ over the recent incident is that the Syrian government was in bad faith when it professed to accept the destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal, held back significant capabilities, and has continued to use such weapons.
In what follows, I want to build on the work of two very different figures who have argued that Ghouta was a ‘false flag’ – the veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, and a blogger using the name ‘sasa wawa’ who started a ‘crowdsourced’ investigation on the Who ‘Attacked Ghouta?’ site on 19 September 2013.
A critical point about Hersh’s accounts is that they point to a British angle to the story of how the Ghouta ‘false flag’ was exposed, and the attempt to use it to inveigle the United States and Britain into another disastrous war in the Middle East frustrated. Further exploration of this angle puts a whole range of matters in a new light.
Puzzles about Porton Down.
It is important, at the outset, to note the sheer strangeness of parts of the story Hersh is telling, as well as its radical implications. According to the article entitled ‘The Red Line and the Rat Line’ he published in the ‘London Review of Books’ in April 2014, it was the opposition of the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, that was decisive in in preventing President Obama from launching air strikes in response to Ghouta.
What however made it possible for General Dempsey to stop the rush to war in its tracks, according to Hersh, was the fact that he was able to present Obama with incontrovertible forensic evidence demonstrating that the incident was a ‘false flag.’ This, supposedly, came from Britain, in the form of results of tests carried out on samples from the site at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down in Wiltshire.
And – making an already remarkable story even more remarkable – it is suggested that the samples in question were supplied by Russian military intelligence. So already we have a puzzle. For Hersh’s claims to be credible, it is necessary that one can see convincing reasons why not simply the scientists at Porton Down, but also General Dempsey, and indeed President Obama, could have been convinced, by 30 August 2013, of the reliability of tests carried out on samples provided by the GRU.
Unsurprisingly, this aspect of the ‘Red Line and Rat Line’ account has been used by MSM journalists as grounds for dismissing or simply ignoring it – one consequence of which is that interesting elaborations in subsequent interviews given by Hersh have also been generally ignored. However, as I hope to show, if one looks for possible reasons why tests on Russian samples should have been regarded as credible in the open record, they are not so difficult to find.
In so doing, the ‘Who Attacked Ghouta?’ material is an invaluable resource. As far as I can see, this also has been almost universally ignored by the MSM. This is particularly unfortunate, given that at critical points its conclusions – which rest entirely on an analysis of ‘open source’ material – corroborate those of Hersh. Again, there have been interesting recent developments – in particular evidence suggesting that ‘sasa wawa’ is likely to be a former employee of Unit 8200, the Israeli equivalent of the American NSA and the British GCHQ.
Further exploration of the British angle to the Ghouta story opened up by Hersh, I hope to show, is not only of importance for us here in the United Kingdom, but casts a great deal of light on what was happening in the United States.
At the outset, it is important to clarify some simple facts about tests on samples, which are fundamental to making sense of arguments about chemical weapons use. The extent to which they are not understood can be illustrated by two recent pieces from what was once a great liberal newspaper, the ‘Guardian’.
Of ‘signatures’ of sarin – in blood and in soil.
One critical fact is the difference between ‘physiological’ and ‘environmental’ samples – the former including such things as blood, urine, and hair, while among the latter are soil, fragments of weapons, and clothing.
If what is at issue is the question of whether chemical weapons – and specifically sarin – have been used, tests on either may do. If however the problem is to ascertain facts about how the toxin has been produced, which may make it possible to establish who has used it, what are required are ‘environmental’ samples.
Here, a report in the ‘Guardian’ by Martin Chulov on 5 April, entitled ‘Soil samples from Syria chemical attack sent to western agencies; Samples will help intelligence agencies establish whether nerve gas came from store Assad was supposed to surrender’ is worth quoting at length. Concluding his report, Chulov writes:
Samples taken from the scene in Khan Sheikhun, as well as biological specimens taken from survivors and casualties, will be compared with samples taken by intelligence officials from the Syrian military stockpile when it was withdrawn from the country in late 2013. Syria’s stores of sarin are known to have particular properties, which experts say can be forensically matched to samples taken in the field.
If the samples match, this would offer strong evidence that not all the country’s sarin was disclosed or surrendered, as was demanded under an agreement brokered by Russia, which the US president at the time, Barack Obama, said averted the need for US-led airstrikes designed to punish Assad for the 2013 attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
At its outset, Chulov writes:
Rescue workers have gathered soil samples from the scene of a chemical weapons attack in northern Syria and sent them to western intelligence officials, who are seeking to determine precisely what nerve agent was used in one of the worst atrocities of the country’s six-year war.
As Chulov really ought to have learnt by now, comparing the results of tests on ‘biological’ – more normally called ‘physiological’ – samples with analyses of samples from the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal would be redundant. What would be relevant in such a comparison would be ‘soil’ samples.
Here, a brief digression on some relevant science is necessary. The key points can be illustrated if one looks at the discussion which ‘sasa wawa’ posted on 19 September 2013 of the initial report of the joint team which the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had sent to Syria, and the fuller analysis he produced shortly afterwards. (There is also further material relevant to these issues in subsequent discussions on the site.)
The mandate of the UN/OPCW team, which had arrived in Syria three days before Ghouta, was to establish whether chemical weapons had been used in earlier, much smaller-scale incidents. It did not include assigning responsibility.
However, the tests used to determine what chemical weapons had been used would naturally also provide evidence from which key facts about how the materials had been produced could be established. The method, or combination of methods, used to do these tests is Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry – GC/MS for short. Any compound will have a unique ‘signature’, comprising its readings in both forms of analysis.
Particularly where low concentrations are at issue, because sarin is not itself stable, but compounds it forms with blood proteins are, a GC/MS analysis looking for the ‘signatures’ of such compounds in blood samples may be a particularly effective way of identifying the substance.
So if the question is establishing whether sarin was the toxin from which victims died in the Idlib incident – as distinct from the other ‘organic phosphates’ which ‘Publius Tacitus’ suggested were being stored by insurgents in his SST post on 7 April – tests on such samples would indeed be useful. But comparison with samples taken from Syrian government stockpiles is not at issue here.
In relation to tracing the ‘particular properties’ of sarin used in an incident where the substance has been used, however, what are of particular importance are the compounds listed in the tables in Appendix 7 of the UN Report as ‘Degradation Products’, ‘by-Products’ and ‘Other interesting chemicals.’ As is evident from the results, these are found in ‘environmental’ samples – not ‘physiological’.
The first category comprises products into which sarin breaks down. Sometimes, GC/MS analysis will identify actual sarin in samples. However, at other times, what are identified are only ‘Degradation Products’. In some situations available samples might only contain these. This could happen when only small quantities of sarin had been used, and/or the substance was highly impure. It could also happen where a covert action operation had only managed to snatch a limited number of samples, or perhaps even a single one, or there had been a significant time lapse before collection.
An initial problem, in such a situation, might be to ascertain whether sarin had actually been used – whether the ‘Degradation Products’ originated from it, from other ‘organic phosphates’, or a combination.
In relation to assessing who might have used sarin, once its use has been established, a critical fact is that, given that it is produced from basic chemicals as the result of a complex succession of ‘syntheses’, in which ‘by-Products’ are created, sarin can be expected to be, to a greater or lesser extent, impure. As different ‘synthetic pathways’ will generate both different impurities, and very greatly different quantities of them, analyses of these can provide critical evidence as to who manufactured the substance, and thus who is likely to have used it.
As an explanation of the technicalities on the discussion of ‘British involvement in Syria’ on the ‘A Closer Look On Syria’ (ACLOS) site makes clear, the ‘most sensitive’ GC/MS analysis can now detect relevant ‘by-Products’ – otherwise ‘impurities’ – at concentrations of less than one part per billion.
Among the ‘Other interesting chemicals’ may be so-called ‘stabilisers’, used to retard the process of breakdown and make either sarin, or its ‘precursor’ methylphosphonyl diflouride (known as DF), as long-lasting as possible. The ‘samples taken by intelligence officials’ referred to by Chulov were from the 581 metric tonnes of DF whose destruction aboard the U.S. vessel MV ‘Cape Ray’ was reported by the OPCW in August 2014. To make actual sarin, this substance would have been mixed with isopropanol.
While ‘stabilisers’ may be used to prolong the life of intact sarin, it also appears that they were used in the case of the Syrian arsenal – intended as a ‘poor man’s deterrent’ against Israel – to maximise the life of the DF.
A further absolutely basic issue with forensic analysis in chemical weapons cases, of which Chulov appears at the least inadequately aware, has to do with ‘chain of custody’ – the ability to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there is no possibility whatsoever that samples have been planted, or doctored.
With samples collected by ‘rescue workers’ and sent to ‘western intelligence officials’, there is no conceivable way such possibilities could be excluded, something Chulov should know.
Ironically, part of the reason why one can be reasonably confident about the integrity of the result of tests from samples of the materials destroyed aboard the ‘Cape Ray’ lies precisely in the fact that these were not taken by ‘intelligence officials’.
As a report from May 2014 in ‘Chemistry World’ makes clear, there were staff on board the vessel from the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland, ‘the main US Army facility for chemical and biological defence R&D’, as well as the OPCW. The Edgewood Centre is one of the two American institutions which, like Porton Down, are certified for competence in chemical weapons analysis by the OPCW, so its expertise is not in doubt. It had been instrumental in creating the systems used on the ‘Cape Ray’ to destroy the Syrian arsenal. (For fascinating descriptions of this process, see the accounts on the Department of Defense website.)
The ‘Chemistry World’ report confirms what one would expect – that there was ‘an analytical laboratory on board the Cape Ray containing GC-MS instruments’, and the OPCW inspectors were involved in ‘performing GC-MS analysis on chemical samples.’ So detailed reports on the composition of the stocks from the Syrian arsenal are clearly available both to the top leadership of the American military, and to the OPCW and UN.
What would obviously be desirable is for these test results to be compared with those on ‘environmental’ samples from the new incident collected by OPCW inspectors – and it would be enormously helpful if experts from that organisation could visit the site as soon as possible and obtain the kind of samples that were retrieved from Ghouta.
Undermining the UN?
While however the integrity of the reports which must exist both from the Edgewood scientists and the OPCW inspectors on the samples from the materials taken on board the ‘Cape Ray’ is unlikely to be at issue, serious questions have emerged as to whether reports produced by the latter and the UN in conjunction are necessarily reliable.
In arguments about the kind of investigation which is appropriate, the Russian side have suggested that the Security Council approve the make-up of the team doing it.
This may look like a stalling tactic, but there could be very good grounds for Russian caution. As I shall discuss in greater detail later, an important conclusion of the analysis of Appendix 7 by ‘sasa wawa’ is that the results were deliberately presented in the UN/OPCW report in a manner which encouraged journalists to conclude, wrongly, that they pointed to Syrian government responsibility.
What this strongly suggests is that pressure was put on the team by Western governments, undermining the claims to independence alike of the UN and the OPCW.
And there are here further puzzles – relating both to the behaviour of the Western and Russian sides. In August 2015, Resolution 2235, unanimously adopted by the Security Council, appeared to lift the restriction imposed on the original UN/OPCW mission, setting up a Joint Investigative Mechanism tasked with identifying those behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
Reports by the Joint Investigative Mechanism endorsing claims that Syrian government forces used chlorine against opposition-controlled towns in April 2014 and March 2015 were met with scepticism from the Russian side – in part on the grounds that the experts producing them had not visited the sites.
What is of particular interest, however, is that the Resolution does not appear to have time limits. So it would appear to make possible the kind of explicit comparison between the test results listed in Appendix 7 of the UN/OPCW report, and the results of the tests we know to have been carried out by OPCW inspectors on the samples from the materials destroyed on the ‘Cape Ray’.
As to the reasons why the Western powers might not want to publicise the results of the tests on samples from the stocks destroyed on the ‘Cape Ray’, Hersh provided a possible explanation in an interview on the ‘AlterNet’ site in April 2016. He suggested that the results from the Edgewood scientists and the OPCW inspectors ‘didn’t match’ those of the tests on the samples from Ghouta.
Commonly, the need to protect ‘sources and methods’ is given as a reason why sensitive material cannot be disclosed. In relation to the results of the tests carried out by the OPCW and the Edgewood Center, the sources have been abundantly discussed in the media, and there is nothing whatsoever secret about the methods. It is very hard to see any good reason why the reports from both organisations cannot be made public.
If claims are subsequently made that their results matched those on samples supplied by ‘rescue workers’ to ‘western intelligence officials’ from the recent incident, without all the relevant test results being published, there would be the strongest possible reason to suspect that a cover-up was at issue. If samples of sarin, purporting to from the recent incident, did match those test results, without a credible ‘chain of custody’ being established, there would also be reason to suspect a cover-up.
A puzzle, obviously, is why the Russians have not pressed for the UN/OPCW team to reopen the Ghouta investigation, and produce a comparative analysis of the results of their tests on the ‘environmental’ samples from Ghouta and from those taken from the stocks destroyed on the ‘Cape Ray’.
That said, Chulov’s article and the issues that arise from it lead us naturally on to a critical question. In the recent incident, it seems that provision is being made for ‘western intelligence agencies’ to secure their own samples. It would seem rather surprising if, in relation both to Ghouta and earlier incidents where chemical weapons use was at issue in Syria, such agencies had made no attempt to secure their own samples.
So it seems sensible to see look back at the ‘open source’ record, to see whether it casts any light on the question of whether efforts were made by Western intelligence agencies to obtain samples.
Smuggling samples from Syria – sometimes rather slowly.
As it happens, there is a mass of ‘open source’ material demonstrating that such efforts were made – and here, the British role was clearly central.
There are no reports I can trace of ‘environmental’ samples being tested at the Edgewood Centre, or indeed the other American laboratory with high-level chemical weapons expertise, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (Between February 2011 and February 2013, that laboratory had lost its OPCW certification – its description of the test it failed provides an interesting picture of how difficult this kind of analysis can be.)
There are ample reports of samples being tested at Porton Down, and a key figure in their retrieval has described his role in public.
On the same day as the ‘Guardian’ report by Martin Chulov I have discussed, 5 April, a BBC report headlined ‘Syria chemical “attack”: Russia faces fury at UN Security Council’ cited a chemical weapons expert who has been regularly quoted by the MSM, Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon. The Russian counter-claims, he argued, were ‘pretty fanciful’. (These, incidentally, are essentially the claims which in his 7 April post ‘Publius Tacitus’ has suggested are vindicated by intelligence available to the United States.)
Currently, the top ‘hit’ for Colonel de Bretton-Gordon on Google is his entry on the ‘Military Speakers’ website. From this we learn that he is ‘Previously Commanding Officer of the UK CBRN Regiment and NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion’.
The collection of samples from incidents where sarin use is at issue is a complicated and also often very dangerous business, given the extreme toxicity of the substance – and all the more so, if it has to be done covertly. From what the ‘Military Speakers’ entry tells us about Colonel de Bretton-Gordon’s experience with CBRN – chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials – it does indeed seem he would be a natural choice, if British or indeed American intelligence agencies wanted to see the retrieval of samples from Syria efficiently organised.
The ‘Military Speakers’ entry makes it clear that he has been actively engaged in such retrieval in Syria. However, it is in itself a deeply disturbing document, in that it suggests that one and the same individual has been employed in a critical ‘intelligence’ function – ensuring the safe recovery of adequate samples with a proper ‘chain of custody’ – and what might be called a ‘strategic communications’ (‘StratCom’) or ‘perception management’ role.
For one thing, his company, ‘Secure Bio’, which according to the ‘Military Speakers’ entry has ‘an impressive list of blue chip clients globally and look after 90% of the World’s media operating in Syria from a CBRN resilience perspective’, is shown by Companies House records as having gone into voluntary liquidation in June 2015. The documentation, moreover, raises real questions as to whether it was ever very much more than a front to create an impression of independence, obscuring the links between de Bretton-Gordon and the British government.
Moreover, the provision of ‘CBRN resilience’ to the MSM in Syria turns out to have been involved with a dual role, where media organisations collaborated with him in the retrieval of samples, while he was a kind of ‘go-to’ consultant very actively involved in shaping what in ‘StratCom’ terms is called the ‘narrative’.
Among other things, we learn that de Bretton-Gordon has ‘reported with the BBC on some of the very high profile chemical attacks.’ And we further learn that he has ‘worked with US networks and British newspapers to smuggle chemical samples out of Syria for verification in UK and France.’
So, it seems, we have a world of cosy collusion. Formerly one of the most senior CBRN experts in NATO, and probably still acting on behalf of the British government, de Bretton-Gordon is now treated as an independent expert by the MSM, while collaborating with parts of it in the exciting business of retrieving samples from Syria.
And we have Colonel de Bretton-Gordon’s own word for it that British scientists – who would necessarily have been those at Porton Down –tested samples from various incidents in Syria.
What de Bretton-Gordon has had to say about two incidents in which he acknowledges having been involved in the retrieval of samples is of a great interest, not least for the light it shows on his collaboration with the BBC – and I will return to this in a subsequent post. In evaluating and developing Hersh’s accounts, however, what are most interesting are reports of tests carried out at Porton Down on two sets of samples for which de Bretton-Gordon has not acknowledged responsibility.
Of particular significance is a report on 22 March 2013 in the ‘Times’, by Tom Coghlan and Michael Evans, headlined ‘MI6 tests smuggled Syria soil for nerve agent.’
It opened ‘Government scientists at Porton Down are examining a soil sample smuggled out of Syria after a suspected nerve gas attack on rebels in the country’s civil war.’ The ‘suspected nerve gas attack’ had occurred three days earlier at Khan Al-Asal, near Aleppo – and the victims were, indisputably, on the government side.
The sample was said to have been obtained in a ‘covert mission involving MI6.’ This would, obviously, be an appropriate description if in fact Colonel de Bretton-Gordon had organised its retrieval on behalf of that organisation. A critical point, however, is that the then head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, whose view of Ghouta as a missed opportunity I quoted at the start of this post, must have been familiar with the test results on the ‘soil’ sample from Khan Al-Asal and samples from later incidents.
Also easy to track down, and crucially important, is unambiguous evidence that the British obtained their own ‘environmental’ samples from Ghouta. On 6 September 2013, a report in the ‘Telegraph’ appeared, headlined ‘Syria crisis: UK had secret sarin samples before MPs voted’, which explained that:
British scientists were examining material tainted with sarin from the site of the Damascus attack but had not completed results when MPs voted to stay out of a strike on Syria, the Telegraph has learned.
That ‘environmental’ samples had been obtained from Ghouta and tested positive for sarin had in fact been loudly proclaimed by David Cameron when he arrived in St. Petersburg for the G20 summit the previous day. The samples had, according to the ‘Telegraph’, been obtained by the British themselves – and had been transported through Cyprus.
To ‘ “blast” Assad off the planet’ …
Among the places where de Bretton-Gordon regularly aired his views was the ‘Brown Moses Blog’, run by Eliot Higgins, before he opened ‘Bellingcat.’ Some remarks from a December 2013 post entitled ‘A Chemical Weapons Specialist on Syria’s Chemical Weapons Transport Issues’ are of very great interest:
Some see Assad’s use of Sarin in Ghouta on 21 Aug 13 as a brilliant ‘ruse of war’. Initially it was believed, [and by the Opposition, most of them] that the US was going to ‘blast’ Assad off the planet with Cruise Missiles around the 27 Aug 13; but we are now in a position where the International Community is being held to ransom by the Assad’s Chemical Weapons. And this is a position which I expect the Regime would like to proliferate, and this request for ‘undeliverable’ military hardware appears to be just that – A stalling tactic.
In the event, as I noted earlier, the completion of the destruction of the Syrian stocks of sarin ‘precursor’ was announced by the OPCW in mid-August 2014. As the original target date had been 30 June, and there were genuine problems in transporting the arsenal through a country engaged in civil war, there appears to be no reason whatsoever to suppose that a ‘stalling tactic’ was responsible for what what turned out to be a quite minor delay.
So, simply by doing some ‘open source’ searches, we can establish a number of critical points, which bear on the claims made by Hersh. One is that – irrespective of whether or not he is accurate in claiming that Porton Down tested samples from Ghouta supplied by the Russians – they certainly tested samples provided by the British. Another is that they also tested samples from earlier small-scale incidents, and, crucially, a sample from that at Khan Al-Asal.
If however you read the reports I have quoted in the light of a basic awareness of the differences between ‘physiological’ and ‘environmental’ samples, it becomes clear that very odd things were happening.
It is suggested in the 22 March ‘Times’ report that if tests on the sample from Khan Al-Asal established that sarin had been used, that would in itself incriminate the Syrian government and justify action against it. Likewise, it is suggested in the 6 September ‘Telegraph’ report, and all other MSM reports of the testing of ‘environmental’ samples from Ghouta by Porton Down I have seen, that the fact it had been established that sarin had been used in itself incriminated the Syrian government.
On 1 September 2013, the BBC had reported the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, explaining that ‘hair and blood’ samples obtained by the U.S. had ‘tested positive for signatures of sarin’. And he continued by saying: ‘So this case is building and this case will build.’
But this is a ‘StratCom’ device which is so ludicrous that it can only work because the MSM is totally uncritical. The fact that GC/MS testing shows the ‘signature’ of sarin in ‘blood’ samples is utterly irrelevant to the central point at issue, which is establishing who used the sarin. As the analysis of Appendix 7 of the UN/OPCW report by ‘sasa wawa’ brings out, ascertaining what compounds had and had not left their GC/MS ‘signatures’ in the ‘environmental’ samples could establish what Chulov describes as the ‘particular properties’ of the sarin, making it possible to assess who had used it.
In the light of what can be easily ascertained from ‘open source’ material about the testing of ‘environmental’ samples at Porton Down, however, the performance of Kerry, and others, looks even odder. It has long been clear that he and indeed everyone else interested had reason to know that, although the UN/OPCW team was not going to attribute responsibility, their test results would be available in short order and make it possible for this to be done.
What also now seems clear is that by the time Kerry made his statement, Sir John Sawers and others key figures in British intelligence must have known that ‘environmental’ samples collected by the British were already being tested at Porton Down, or if not would be tested shortly. Moreover, the testing at issue, according to the claims that were made by Cameron and others, was simply the basic GC/MS analysis required to identify the ‘signature’ of sarin in the samples, which could be done very quickly.
Precisely because substantial quantities of sarin had clearly been used in the incident, it is unlikely that there were no samples where intact sarin was present, as it was in many of those collected by the UN/OPCW team. This would not have been a case where the presence of the toxin had to be established by working back from ‘Degradation Products.’
And further, if Sir John Sawers and his colleagues knew what was going on at Porton Down, it is overwhelmingly likely that their American colleagues also did. And one would have expected that such critically importance evidence would have been provided to political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, including as well as David Cameron, John Kerry and, one would have thought, President Obama.
So hysterical accusations were being levelled at the Syrian government, in an attempt to engineer immediate air strikes, on the basis of irrelevant evidence, at a time when the people doing this really ought to have known that relevant evidence – tests on ‘environmental’ samples – would shortly become available.
When however it was acknowledged that this evidence had become available, the only use to which it was put was to vindicate the – irrelevant – conclusion that sarin had been used: nothing was said about what it had established, or might establish, about who had used it.
Moreover, while today Martin Chulov is taking an interest in the ‘peculiar properties’ of the sarin used at Ghouta as revealed in the tests on the ‘Cape Ray’, at the time it does not seem to have occurred to anybody in the MSM to ask what the tests carried out at Porton Down had or might establish about these. And then, the fact that the laboratory had tested ‘environmental’ samples then promptly vanished down an Orwellian ‘memory hole.’
The picture gets even more alarming if we look further at the chronology. The date when MPs ‘voted to stay out of a strike on Syria’ – when David Cameron, tried and failed to secure Commons support for British participation in air strikes – was 29 August. By this time, according to the ‘Telegraph’, even the analysis required to establish the presence of sarin in the samples had not been completed – and the fact that tests were being done was not announced until over a week later.
If the chronology given by de Bretton-Gordon to Eliot Higgins was right, according to the original expectations – apparently shared not simply by the ‘Opposition’ but by himself – the plans to ‘“blast” Assad off the planet with Cruise missiles’ would have been put into operation a couple of days before.
Results from Porton Down exonerating him would have been of no more relevance to practical decision-making than a forensic report exonerating a murder suspect after he or she had been hanged or the lethal injection administered.
In relation to Khan Al-Asal, however, if Coghlan and Evans are to be believed, ‘environmental’ samples were already being tested by Porton Down a mere three days after the incident took place – although, precisely because the victims were on the government side, a ‘covert operation’ was needed to obtain them. An obvious question arises as to why the retrieval of samples from Ghouta, a site controlled by the insurgents, was so much slower than that from the earlier incident.
We have here, I suggest, part of a possible explanation of why there might have been collusion by General Dempsey and Porton Down scientists with the Russians, to ensure that tests on ‘environmental’ samples had a reasonable chance of being concluded before anyone had a chance to ‘“blast” Assad off the planet.’
Before going on to look further at how Hersh developed his argument, it is worth noting that the protection of ‘sources and methods’ cannot be used to justify the failure to publish the results of the tests by Porton Down on the ‘environmental’ samples from Ghouta and earlier incidents, in particular Khan Al-Asal. As with the results of tests on the sarin ‘precursor’ destroyed on the ‘Cape Ray’, it has already been made public that the British obtained such samples, and the methods are common practice.
Moreover, the explanation which Hersh suggests for why the results of tests carried out on the Syrian arsenal have not been made public would also seem a plausible explanation for why those carried out at Porton Down have vanished down a kind of Orwellian ‘memory hole’. The most economical hypothesis is that they corroborated the conclusion that ‘kitchen sarin’ had been used. If they had not done, it seems likely that the results would have been trumpeted to the skies.
So the situation of Kerry, Cameron and others is really analogous to that of judges who wanted to have a murder suspect executed, when they not only knew, or ought to have known, that key forensic evidence was in the pipeline, but either knew, or ought to have known, that the forensic evidence already available suggested that he was innocent.
Holding the Commons in contempt.
This brings us to a central reason why, in the British context, the claims by Hersh are particularly explosive. In support of the unsuccessful attempt to secure the support of the Commons for air strikes in Syria already referred to David Cameron was able to present an ‘assessment’ from the Joint Intelligence Committee, then chaired by Jon – now Sir Jon – Day.
According to the JIC there were ‘no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility’ for Ghouta. Concluding his letter to Cameron, Day wrote:
There has been the closest possible cooperation with the Agencies in producing the JIC’s assessment. We have also worked in concert with the US intelligence community and agree with the conclusions they have reached.
On 31 August, the ‘Associated Press’ published a report entitled ‘Obama Changed Mind at 11th Hour on Syria, Overriding Top National Security Advisers (UPDATE: Obama About-Face Happened on Fri. Evening Walk).’ It made crystal clear following David Cameron’s example and seeking approval from Congress for air strikes ‘wasn’t even an option on the table’ at first.
After his dramatic volte-face, announced to the generally deeply resistant ‘top national security advisers’ on the evening of 30 August, most of these appear to have been at pains to make clear that it had been against their wishes. On 15 September, the ‘Wall Street Journal’ would publish a report entitled ‘Inside White House, a Head-Spinning Reversal on Chemical Weapons.’ In this, as a ‘Washington Post’ commentary aptly noted, ‘senior officials leak how they desperately tried to talk Obama out of his “head spinning reversal” on airstrikes and his decision to go to Congress.’
What Hersh’s account suggests is that Obama’s decision to abruptly change course, against the wishes of most of his ‘top national security advisers’, resulted from General Dempsey presenting him with the test results from Porton Down. This would need to have been done by the afternoon of 30 August at the latest. So it is difficult to construct a chronology which does not generate a strong ‘prima facie’ case that, if the results from Porton Down existed, they would, and most certainly should, have been available to Jon Day and his colleagues by the time they produced their ‘assessment’.
If this was so, then there would also be a strong ‘prima facie’ case that the document was, to use plain English, a bunch of lies intended to deceive the Commons and the British people. In the British system of government, this would constitute contempt of Parliament – something which used to be regarded as a very grave offence.
What would also be raised would be questions about the role of British politicians – then and now. Of particular interest here are comments on the recent incident by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, including the statement that ‘although we cannot yet be certain about what has happened, this bears all the hallmarks of an attack by the regime which has repeatedly used chemical weapons.’
As it happens, a key part of the grounds given in the 29 August 2013 JIC ‘assessment’ for concluding that Assad was responsible for Ghouta was that the committee had ‘assessed previously that the Syrian regime used lethal CW on 14 occasions from 2012’, so that a ‘clear pattern of regime use has therefore been established.’ And it further claimed that there was no ‘credible evidence’ to substantiate ‘possession of CW by the opposition.’
If in fact the JIC were mendacious, an obvious question would arise as to the role of David Cameron. According to one possible interpretation, he might simply have been a gullible victim of a conspiracy by corrupt intelligence leaders, a puppet dancing on strings pulled by figures like Sir Jon Day and Sir John Sawers. Alternatively, of course, he could have been a co-conspirator with them. And, last but hardly least, he could have been some bizarre combination of both. Moreover, it might well be the case that precisely the same questions would arise today about Boris Johnson.
What gives these questions more general relevance is that what Hersh’s account suggests – and what can be shown from other evidence – is that Day was simply unjustified in claiming that the JIC were agreeing with the conclusions some kind of cohesive ‘US intelligence community’ had reached. The picture that emerges of the situation on the American side is of very deep divisions within the intelligence apparatus and military. What would follow, in essence, was that the leaders of its British counterpart were taking sides in very bitter arguments going on across the Atlantic.
Compounding the questions which need to be asked about the JIC ‘assessment’ is further evidence which emerged last year about the way in which the then Director National Intelligence, James Clapper, was hedging his bets. In the long article entitled ‘The Obama Doctrine’ which Jeffrey Goldberg published in the April 2016 edition of ‘The Atlantic’, it is explained that, some days before Obama’s ‘head-spinning reversal’, Clapper specifically visited him to explain that the case against the Syrian government was not a ‘slam dunk’.
The allusion to his predecessor George Tenet’s notorious December 2002 assurance about the intelligence on Saddam’s WMD had an obvious significance. Without wanting to go out on a limb in any way, Clapper was hedging his bets, in a manner that meant that if it came to light that the case against Assad was as dubious as that against Saddam had turned out to be, he would have an alibi. Large questions are obviously raised as to how, if Clapper had reservations, Day was prepared to assure Cameron and the Commons that the case against Assad was a ‘slam dunk’.
And here, the way in which in which, following the ‘Red Line and Rat Line’ article, Hersh elaborated his picture of what he portrays as being in essence a revolt by elements in the intelligence and military apparatus of various countries against the prospect of a re-run of the Iraq fiasco is also extremely interesting. In an article entitled ‘Military to Military’ he published in January 2016, it was suggested that, starting in the autumn of 2013 – that is, shortly after Ghouta – a covert collaboration began, involving elements in the American, German, Israeli and Russian military apparatus.
Its objective, according to Hersh, was to prevent the toppling of Assad by supplying intelligence to his army, to be ‘used against the common enemy, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.’
There was no mention of any British role in this. However already in an interview with Ilhan Tanir of the Turkish online news site ‘Diken’ following the publication of the ‘Red Line and Rat Line’ article Hersh had stated, addressing the objection that the supposed Russian provenance of the samples meant that the test results could not have been trusted, that they had been looked at by a ‘senior general’ in Britain.
And then, in an interview with Tariq Ali on the ‘TeleSUR’ site in August last year, Hersh named this figure as General Sir Peter Wall, then Chief of the General Staff.
What Hersh also suggested was that there had been a really top level ‘Military to Military’ collaboration behind the supplying of the results from Porton Down to Obama, in which Generals Dempsey and Wall had been partnered, at the Russian end, by a figure whom he describes as the ‘chief general of the Russian Army.’ If one puts the interview in the context of what he says in the ‘Military to Military’ article, it is clear that this can only be General Valery Gerasimov, whose title, like that of Sir Peter Wall, is Chief of the General Staff.
There is a difference here, in that in Britain the title means head of the Army, and there is a separate Chief of the Defence Staff, a position then occupied by General Sir David Richards, now Lord Richards. In Russia, by contrast, the Chief of the General Staff is the overall head of the Armed Forces – including the GRU. But, at the least, this claim by Hersh would suggest that General Dempsey’s reservations about the wisdom of the strategy being pursued in Syria by the American and British governments were shared by people right at the top of the British military.
It is, of course, a problem with such claims that they cannot be directly verified from the ‘open source’ evidence. And in itself the question of whether British intelligence chiefs and their political masters may have been in contempt of Parliament is of parochial British interest.
Some very suspect ‘SIGINT’.
But, as often, a transnational comparison shows what happens in different countries in a new light. If one compares the JIC ‘assessment’ of 29 August 2013 with the U.S. ‘Government Assessment’ issued the following day, there are a several salient contrasts.
One – which was stressed in the memorandum to Obama entitled ‘Is Syria a Trap?’ issued on 6 September by the ‘Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity’ group, is that precisely what the American document is not is a formal presentation of a consensus reached by the U.S. ‘intelligence community.’ How far this reflected Clapper’s desire to avoid committing himself, how far the fact that he might have faced have faced a serious ‘peasants’ revolt’ had he done what Day did, is not clear.
Be that as it may, the end result is that the ‘Government Assessment’ was issued from the Office of the Press Secretary at the White House, not by Clapper.
And there is a further very sharp contrast. While the British document asserts that the intelligence establishes that Syrian government responsibility for Ghouta is a ‘slam dunk’, or something very close to it, it provides minimal details. In particular, it contains no mention whatsoever either of ‘SIGINT’ evidence or that Porton Down either had or were going to test samples from the site. By contrast, the ‘Government Assessment’ discusses both kinds of evidence.
However, a close inspection of the ways in which it does this illustrates very clearly that this is a ‘StratCom’ exercise, designed for ‘perception management’ – not a serious intelligence analysis.
Here again the ‘Who Attacked Ghouta?’ investigation provides an invaluable complement to Hersh’s work. And the possibility that ‘sasa wawa’ is actually a former employee of Unit 8200 is of great interest, in a number of ways. This possibility emerged with the appearance, late last year, of what is clearly a systematised version of material accumulated on the ‘Who Attacked Ghouta?’ investigation on a site entitled ‘Rootclaim’, launched by an Israeli technology entrepreneur called Saar Wilf.
The declared purpose of this site is to investigate ‘issues that interest society’, by combining ‘openly crowdsourced evidence and claims’ with ‘proven Bayesian inference models.’ Such a model, the site explains ‘breaks down highly complex issues into small questions that are each answerable by humans, and then uses these answers to reach mathematically indisputable conclusions.’
As it happens, one can easily establish from ‘open source’ evidence – see for example a 2009 piece by Amity Shlaes on the ‘Council on Foreign Relations’ site – that Saar Wilf is a veteran of Unit 8200, the Israeli equivalent of the American NSA and the British GCHQ.
Obviously, the coincidence of initials does not establish that ‘sasa wawa’ and ‘Saar Wilf’ are one and the same. In one sense, moreover, the identity of its architect is of secondary relevance to assessing the ‘Who Attacked Ghouta?’ material. It is of course perfectly possible that ‘sasa wawa’ was in possession of ‘secret intelligence’, but the whole exercise was constructed so as to rely purely on ‘open source’ evidence, and not only the materials used but the reasoning based on them are set out in great detail, so that anyone can attempt to refute them.
However, the fact that ‘sasa wawa’ clearly writes in the manner of someone who was trained in the methodologies of ‘SIGINT’ is relevant to another of the opening posts on his site – which was in effect a demolition of the ‘Government Assessment’ and contained devastating criticisms of its use of ‘SIGINT’.
As it happens, Bayesian inference is a technique which would have a clear place in making it possible to analyse – sometimes in real time – the mass of evidence produced by ‘SIGINT’, and integrate it with other material. And this is relevant to the ways in which the investigations of ‘sasa wawa’ and Hersh are complementary.
In his initial article on ‘Ghouta’, published in the ‘LRB’ under the title ‘Whose sarin?’ in December 2013, Hersh spent a good deal of time arguing that the claims about ‘SIGINT’ in the ‘Assessment’ were fatally flawed.
Because they have ignored the ‘Who Attacked Ghouta?’ material, critics of his arguments have missed the fact that his these had already been corroborated, weeks before he published the article, by the demonstration that the approach used was not that which would be followed by serious analysts interested in finding the truth. As this bears upon issues to do with the integrity of the NSA and GCHQ which are been brought to the fore by current claims about their role in assisting the opponents of President Trump, they are of great intrinsic interest – and I will return to them in a subsequent post.
For the moment, however, I want to return to the crucial question of the results of tests on samples.
In the discussion on the ACLOS site to which I have linked, there is a summary of the conclusions of the analysis of Appendix 7 of the UN/OPCW report which ‘sasa wawa’ produced right at the start of his investigation, and then refined. This explains precisely why it ‘meshes’ with Hersh’s claim that the test results from Porton Down showed ‘kitchen sarin’ had been used. In relation to the GC/MS analysis, the critical points have to do with the presence of ‘by-Products’, and the absence, among the ‘Other interesting chemicals’, of ‘stabilisers’:
Hersh’s story that the chemical profile of the Ghouta sarin showed it to be kitchen sarin without stabilizers is corroborated by the limited information available in the OPCW reports and assembled by sasa wawa on the WhoGhouta blog: the sarin contained no stabilizers, contained ethyl groups indicating impure low-quality reagents, and contained hexafluorophosphate indicating that the synthesis started with elemental phosphorus or phosphorus trichloride and that intermediate reaction products were not purified at each step. Syria’s sarin synthesis is known to have started from trimethyl phosphite. Syria procured hundreds of tonness of trimethyl phosphite from the UK and India in the 1980s, and still held 60 tonnes in stock in November 2013, when they declared their stockpile to OPCW.
The precise details here become very relevant, when one comes to look at the ‘StratCom’ operations designed to counter the argument that the low quality of the sarin established that it could not have come from Syrian government arsenals – which as I shall show in a later post, were an incoherent mess.
A central point however is that, for a ‘poor man’s deterrent’ it is critical to maximise both toxicity and durability. Buying trimethyl phosphite, in which the early stages of the synthesis from basic chemicals have already been done, and the ‘by-Products’ purified, is a natural means of achieving this.
So also is the use of ‘binary munitions’, in which the methylphosphonyl diflouride would actually be mixed with isopropanol, to form sarin, in flight. In some of the analysis by ‘sasa wawa’, it appears as though these were presented as an alternative to ‘stabilisers’ – which seems to be wrong.
Obviously, matters would be definitively clarified, if the test results on the samples from the materials destroyed on the ‘Cape Ray’ were released. However, a highly disturbing feature of the UN/OPCW report is that its authors appear to have wanted to create the impressions that ‘stabilisers’ had been found, when they had not been.
On 16 September, a report appeared in the ‘Washington Post’ entitled ‘The U.N. chemical weapons report is pretty damning for Assad.’ Commenting on this in his discussion of the UN report, ‘sasa wawa’ wrote:
I noticed some reporters are stating that the UN report includes evidence that the sarin was of military-grade. Since I read the report numerous times and had no recollection of that, I tried to figure out the source and tracked it to the following sentence (Page 4):
“In addition, other relevant chemicals, such as stabilizers are indicated and discussed in Appendix 7”
This was then quoted as:
The U.N. investigators analyzed 30 samples, which they found contained not just sarin but also “relevant chemicals, such as stabilizers.”
Which seems like a clear distortion of the original meaning.
Furthermore, a detailed analysis of Appendix 7 indicates there were no stabilizers found, and that the sarin was not manufactured professionally.
So, in the view of ‘sasa wawa’, although the journalists had misread the report, they had been encouraged to do so – and indeed, an MSM correspondent could not be expected to know what chemicals are used as ‘stabilisers’, and check whether they appear in the ‘Other interesting chemicals’ listed. What this suggests is that DF in the Syrian arsenals did contain ‘stabilisers’, and that the UN/OPCW team were trying to obscure the very telling evidence provided by the absence of any traces of these in the samples they tested.
Moreover, this was only one part of the indictment against both the UN, and the OPCW, which ‘sasa wawa’ ended up making. In an interview in November 2013, describing the evolution of his view of Ghouta, he remarked:
A big disappointment was when I found the huge mistake in the UN’s calculation of the Zamalka rocket trajectory (Impact site 1 here), which later turned out to be only one of many mistakes (more here). If the UN can’t be relied on to provide reliable information, we’re in bad shape.
So it would seem that, if the Russians are not prepared to accept that a UN/OPCW team will necessarily give and accurate and unbiased assessment of the evidence in relation to the recent incident, they have very good grounds.
Missing – the ‘gold standard’ of proof.
What however neither Hersh nor ‘sasa wawa’ have explored is the evidence that Porton Down had tested ‘environmental’ samples from incidents prior to Ghouta. If however one looks back at the MSM coverage from the time, in the light both of the discussions of the ‘SIGINT’ by Hersh and ‘sasa wawa’, and the materials I have produced about tests carried out at Porton Down, a very alarming picture emerges.
As ‘sasa wawa’ notes, the clams about ‘SIGINT’ had featured prominently in an article by Noah Schachtman in ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine on 27 August 2013, entitled ‘Exclusive: Intercepted Calls Prove Syrian Army Used Nerve Gas, U.S. Spies Say.’ This opened:
Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned.
Later in the article, Schachtman wrote that:
U.S. spy services still have not acquired the evidence traditionally considered to be the gold standard in chemical weapons cases: soil, blood, and other environmental samples that test positive for reactions with nerve agent. That’s the kind of proof that America and its allies processed from earlier, small-scale attacks that the White House described in equivocal tones, and declined to muster a military response to in retaliation.
There is an ongoing debate within the Obama administration about whether to strike Assad immediately – or whether to allow United Nations inspectors to try and collect that proof before the bombing begins. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the work of that team “redundant … because it is clearly established already that chemical weapons have been used on a significant scale.”
This is clearly a ‘StratCom’ operation. Claims about ‘SIGINT’ which are actually highly dubious are being used to obscure the fact that the relevant forensic evidence is not available. Moreover, just as much as Martin Chulov, Noah Schachtman appears unaware of the crucial distinction between ‘physiological’ and ‘environmental’ samples – apparently suggesting that ‘blood’ belongs in the latter category.
What however happens, if one looks back at the earlier report to which Schachtman links? It turns out to be one he himself co-authored on 14 June, the day following an announcement by Benjamin Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.
According to this, ‘our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.’ And it also explained that: ‘We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.’ Subsequently, Rhodes explains that:
The assessment is further supported by laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals, which revealed exposure to sarin. Each positive result indicates that an individual was exposed to sarin, but it does not tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible for the dissemination.
As I have noted, a bizarre feature of the claims made by John Kerry, and others, about the significance of tests on ‘physiological’ samples is that they are patently intended to suggest that establishing the present of ‘signatures’ of sarin by GC/MS analysis establishes a ‘slam dunk’ case against the Syrian government. The point of the earlier report co-authored by Schachtman is quite patently to produce reasons why, despite the acknowledgement that tests on ‘physiological’ samples cannot establish who was responsible, they can be taken as doing just that.
At the start of his account, Rhodes explained that: ‘Following the assessment made by our intelligence community in April, the President directed the intelligence community to seek credible and corroborated information to build on that assessment and establish the facts with some degree of certainty.’
That earlier ‘assessment’ came in the form of a letter dated 25 April from Miguel E. Rodriguez, Director, Office of Legislative Affairs, to Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. It had also referred to sarin use and ‘physiological’ samples.
This however followed pressure from ‘allies’ of the United States to do more to support the Syrian insurgents, which was discussed in an 18 April report in the Washington Post. According to this:
In letters to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the two European powers said soil samples, [my emphasis] witness interviews and opposition sources support charges that nerve agents were used in and around the cities of Aleppo, Homs and possibly Damascus, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The European reports are in part aimed at countering accusations by the Syrian government that opposition forces had used chemical weapons during fighting in the town of Khan al-Asal near Aleppo on March 19, killing 26 people, including regime troops. Syrian rebels have said that government forces used chemical weapons in the incident.
So here, rather than the ‘physiological’ samples referred to the all three ‘assessments’ produced in Washington, there is a clear and unambiguous claim about ‘soil’ samples. As we know, Porton Down had tested samples from the Khan Al-Asal incident – with the results having, apparently, fallen down an Orwellian ‘memory hole’. This reinforces the urgent imperative to see them produced publicly.
In reconstructing what was happening at this time, it is interesting to look at the coverage in the Israeli press. From a report in the ‘Times of Israel’, we learn that, speaking at a security conference on 23 April, Brigadier-General Itai Brun, head of the Research and Analysis Division at the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, had claimed that the Syrian government had used sarin ‘on more than one occasion, including a specific attack on March 19.’
In that report – published on the same day as the initial U.S. ‘assessment’ – ‘an expert on Syrian chemical weapons’, Dr Dany Shoham of the ‘Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies’, was quoted suggesting that chemical weapons might have been used at two incidents on 19 March, near Damascus and Aleppo. And the article continued: ‘Soil samples, Shoham said, which have reportedly been obtained by Britain and France, could provide somewhere between 60-100 percent indication of a nerve agent.’
Whether it was claimed that France had obtained ‘soil’ samples is not actually made clear by the 18 April ‘Washington Post’ report already quoted, to which the link takes one. However, by contrast to the JIC ‘assessment’ and the U.S. ‘Government Assessment’, the corresponding French document, published on 2 September 2013, does mention ‘environmental’ samples. From the translation to which ‘sasa wawa’ links – see his 9 November 2013 post ‘Response to Dan Kaszeta’s Chemical Analysis’:
French competent services have obtained samples either biomedical (blood, urine), environmental (ground) or material (munitions debris), taken on victims or on the sites during the attacks in Saraqeb (Apri 29, 2013) and Jobar (mid-April 2013). Our analyses have confirmed the use of sarin.
As it happens, there is strong reason to suppose that the ‘environmental’ samples in question were retrieved by Colonel de Bretton-Gordon, working in collaboration with the BBC. (As a start, on this ‘can of worms’, to which I will return, read the account given of his activities in retrieving samples in an article of his entitled ‘Only a no-fly zone can curb chemical attacks in Syria’, which the ‘Guardian’ published in April 2015.)
And this brings us back to the critical point. We now have clear reason to believe that Porton Down tested ‘environmental’ samples from Khan Al-Asal, Ghouta, and Saraqeb, a probability that they tested samples from Sheikh Maqsoud, and also a possibility that they did so at the incident near Damascus on 19 March to which Dr Shoham referred, which was at Uteibah.
But the history is of absolutely all of these tests vanishing down the ‘memory hole’. Moreover, given that there are so many easily accessible accounts of these in the MSM, one has to say that this whole sorry history provides a spectacular display of the capacity for ‘crimestop’ of journalists working for it. There is no reason as far as I can see to think that Martin Chulov, for instance, has the least curiosity about what samples were tested from these incidents or what the tests established.
In the early stages, moreover, it was simply taken for granted that if the ‘environmental’ samples tested positive for sarin, that in itself established that the Syrian government must be responsible. Subsequently, they were no longer mentioned, and by the time of the ‘assessments’ on Ghouta, the American approach was to focus on ‘physiological’ samples, while the British simply forgot about samples altogether, and the French did mention ‘environmental’ samples. It appears that the ‘StratCom’ operations in different countries were imperfectly coordinated.
The natural conclusion is that the evidence from the ‘environmental’ samples did not fit the ‘narrative’. In this case, the claim – whether made in the JIC ‘assessment’ or by Boris Johnson, or in the repeated claims on the other side of the Atlantic – that there was clear evidence of repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would stink of disinformation.
The men from the (Russian) Ministry.
There is then one further set of tests we know to have been done, of which the results are not in the public domain – but a summary is. And this bears upon the question I raised at the outset about ‘chain of custody.’
Considerations of ‘chain of custody’ would become irrelevant, in one specific set of circumstances. If laboratory A had tested ‘environmental’ samples from a given incident, and they were confident of the ‘chain of custody’, and they were supplied with results from laboratory B, and these tallied, without that laboratory having had any advance knowledge of those from laboratory A, ‘chain of custody’ considerations could not matter.
As it happens, a rapid scrutiny of ‘open source’ material suggests that precisely this may well have happened. The counterpart in Russia of Porton Down in Britain and the Edgewood Center and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US – the laboratory certified by the OPCW for competence in chemical weapons matters – is the Military Science Centre of the Ministry of Defence in Moscow. Part of this is the ‘Laboratory for Chemical and Analyical Control’, which at the time was headed by Professor Igor Rybalchenko.
Unsurprisingly, the Russian government sent the UN an analysis from this laboratory of what purported to be ‘environmental’ samples from Khan Al-Asal. These, it was claimed, showed that the toxin used was ‘cottage industry’ sarin. The then Russian Ambassador to the U.N., the late Vitaly Churkin, gave a press conference announcing this on 9 July. An update of the supposed results was posted by the Russian Foreign Ministry on 4 September, and appeared on the London Embassy website the following day.
The complete document would certainly have been passed to Porton Down for assessment, and indeed the results might well have been familiar to the scientists there substantially before. Unsurprisingly, dealing with a field where knowledge and techniques are constantly developing, the OPCW has an ongoing programme of meetings which senior staff from the laboratories it certifies regularly attend.
At a meeting of its Temporary Working Group on the Convergence of Chemistry and Biology of the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board on 3-4 April 2013, both Dr Robin Black, head of the ‘Detection Laboratory’ at Porton Down, and Professor Rybalchenko, are listed among the participants.
In the current neo-McCarthyite climate in the United States and Britain, any contact with Russians appears to be regarded as a matter for horror and for shock. One does no however need to suppose any compromising action whatsoever on the part of Dr Black, if one contemplates the possibility that, as it were, Professor Rybalchenko could have given him an envelope containing a report on the results of the tests from Khan Al-Asal.
At this point, however, one comes back to the nature of GC/MS analysis. If the kind of analytical task one faces depends upon identifying the ‘signatures’ of compounds of whose existence one is not aware in advance, it may both require great skill and ingenuity, and take a long time, particularly if a lot of other puzzling compounds are present. (For a graphic description of the kind of problems analysts may face, look at the apologia of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for the temporary loss of their OPCW certification.)
If however the analysts know in advance what ‘signatures’ ought to be present, and which absent, it need take very little time. This is why it is surprising that it took so long for the fact that Porton Down had identified sarin in the samples retrieved by the British from Ghouta to be made public.
It is also why, at whatever point they were provided with results from the Military Science Centre tests, it might have been easy for the Porton Down analysts to check whether the Russian claims were corroborated by their analysis of their own tests. Even if it had taken the analysis of samples is difficult and time-consuming, once it the ‘signatures’ of relevant compounds have been identified, checking whether they are present in other samples need take very little.
As it happens, an article by Michael Evans in the ‘Times’ on 13 April – cited and analysed in the ACLOS discussion already referred to – suggests that by this time Porton Down had identified that a chemical weapon had been used, but was not clear whether it was sarin.
It may be relevant here that the Russians claimed that their analysis of the samples from Khan Al-Asal identified both sarin and a related, but much weaker, toxic ‘organic phosphate’ called diisopropyl fluorophosphate, or DFP.
The 22 March ‘Times’ report appears to suggest that a single sample had been retrieved from Khan Al-Asal. Even however if they had more, given that the soil they were testing had been retrieved by a ‘covert operation’ from a site in government hands, it would be eminently possible that it would have been far less satisfactory than what the Russians had obtained, and contained no intact sarin. So Porton Down could have had difficulties working back from the ‘by-Products’ to the precise ‘organic phosphates’ used.
It would also be possible that, as the analysis had shown that the sarin identified could only be of the ‘cottage industry’ variety, scientists at Porton Down were reluctant to see their identification of it used in a patently disingenuous ‘StratCom’ operation designed to produce a ‘casus belli’ against the Syrian government.
What however seems very likely, given the extraordinarily minute quantities of compounds which GC/MS analysis can now identify, is that Porton Down would have been able to ascertain whether there was a sufficient match between their results and those from the Russian laboratory to know whether the latter were accurate. If the results did not match, there would have been reason to suspect fraud.
If they did, then they would have had every reason to say that the claims made at Churkin’s press conference were accurate.
With this in mind, we are I think in a position to hasard a reconstruction of why Porton Down, General Dempsey, and President Obama might have been prepared to accept as accurate the results of tests on sample provided by the GRU. And we may also be in a position to propose a solution to a puzzle about Hersh’s accounts.
A key section of the ‘Red Line and Rat Line’ article, in which the source is a ‘former intelligence official’ reads as follows:
The former intelligence official said the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’. After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies ‘made an effort to find the answer as to what if anything, was used – and its source’, the former intelligence official said. ‘We use data exchanged as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.’
The process hadn’t worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence ‘were inconclusive as to the type of gas it was. The word “sarin” didn’t come up ...’
In an interview given to the ‘Democracy Now!’ site shortly following the publication of the article, however, Hersh suggested that the tests suggested that what was at issue was ‘kitchen sarin’ – and also pointed specifically to the lack of ‘stabilisers’. In his discussion of the ‘Red Line and Rat Line’ article, ‘sasa wawa’ explained the change by suggesting that the information about the tests had, at he outset, ‘got distorted on its way to Hersh’s source.’
But, as we have seen, the word ‘sarin’ had come up in the spring. A more plausible explanation, I suggest, is that Hersh’s sources – very likely in part to protect those at Porton Down who had played such a crucial, and also honourable, role in the whole operation – wanted to suggest that the collaboration with the Russians had developed spontaneously, after Ghouta.
And when, in the ‘TeleSUR’ interview, Hersh brings in both General Wall and General Gerasimov, he portrays their collaboration as the result of three people who had first met as young subalterns across the Cold War divide in Germany in the dying days of that conflict renewing contact years later.
A more plausible explanation of what happened, I think, comes if one develops Hersh’s claims. In the weeks leading up to Ghouta, the Defense Intelligence Agency did not merely possess the ample evidence he suggests they had acquired about the efforts of Al-Nusra to acquire chemical weapons and their success in so doing.
In addition to this, there were test results from Porton Down, which established that both at Khan Al-Asal and other incidents the sarin used had the characteristics identified in the Military Science Centre report. But this was evidence which other elements in the ‘intelligence communities’, both in the United States and Britain, were determined to ignore.
Accordingly, General Dempsey, and others, had every reason to anticipate a fresh ‘false flag’. And they also had every reason to suspect that, unless drastic steps were taken, the forensic evidence required to expose it would not arrive until too late.
So a natural hypothesis is that the only possible way of frustrating this act of gross injustice – and also, as I shall argue in a moment, gross criminal lunacy – was to ensure that ‘environmental’ samples could be brought from a different source. And the only possible source, obviously, was the GRU.
Contingency planning, obviously, could well have been based on the possibility that in a new ‘false flag’, there would be a dramatic upward move in quality. In that event, something like the more sophisticated analytical process that Hersh originally suggested had taken place might have been required. In the event, all that was required was to confirm that the sarin used at Ghouta was simply a somewhat improved version of the ‘kitchen sarin’ used in earlier incidents, a process which could be done very rapidly indeed. Again, the ‘signatures’ of stabilisers would have been absent, and those of a range of ‘by-Products’ present.
What however Hersh’s sources may have wanted to obscure was quite precisely the fact that essentially Porton Down was doing was redoing earlier analyses, because this would have let the cat out of the bag, in relation to the fact that the collaboration with the Russians had started much earlier.
Some serious sanity, from sometime spooks.
One can now come back full circle, to the events of the days immediately following Ghouta. As some of us who were part of the SST ‘committee of correspondence’ at the time will well remember, central claims made by Hersh were actually anticipated in the memorandum addressed to President Obama entitled ‘Is Syria a Trap?’ which was produced by the ‘Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity’ group on 6 September 2013, to which I linked earlier.
Over the years, the signatories of the VIPS memoranda have varied, but on this occasion they included, as well as Philip Giraldi and Larry Johnson, Colonel Lang.
That its authors were acting as a conduit for currently serving members of the intelligence services was made explicit at the outset. It explained that ‘some of our former co-workers’ were telling its authors that ‘the most reliable intelligence’ showed that Assad was not responsible for Ghouta, and that ‘British intelligence officials also know this.’
Having noted that their sources confirmed that there had been a chemical incident causing fatalities at Ghouta, the VIPS authors continued:
They insist, however, that the incident was not the result of an attack by the Syrian Army using military-grade chemical weapons from its arsenal. That is the most salient fact, according to CIA officers working on the Syria issue. They tell us that CIA Director John Brennan is perpetrating a pre-Iraq-War-type fraud on members of Congress, the media, the public and perhaps even you.
The phrase ‘military-grade’, which we have seen surfacing already, is in itself very much a ‘salient fact’. So the memorandum provided a public indication that evidence that the material used at Ghouta was ‘kitchen sarin’ had already been supplied to American intelligence. If Hersh is right, this would have been on the basis of the tests on samples supplied by the GRU done at Porton Down.
The VIPS memorandum also claimed that there was ‘a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East, mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters, providing a strong circumstantial case that the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters. The aim is reported to have been to create the kind of incident that would bring the United States into the war.’
Among the information they claimed to have received, were clear indication of the involvement of sections of American intelligence in this ‘pre-planned provocation’:
At operations coordinating meetings at Antakya, attended by senior Turkish, Qatari and U.S. intelligence officials as well as senior commanders of the Syrian opposition, the Syrians were told that the bombing would start in a few days. Opposition leaders were ordered to prepare their forces quickly to exploit the U.S. bombing, march into Damascus, and remove the Bashar al-Assad government.
This, it may be noted, ‘meshes’ neatly with the apparent anticipation of most of the ‘Opposition,’ and apparently himself that the United States was going to ‘“blast” Assad off the planet with Cruise Missiles around the 27 Aug’ described by Colonel de Bretton-Gordon.
Of course, the question as to there was collusion in exploiting a ‘pre-planned provocation’ after the event on the part of leading figures in American – and one can assume British – intelligence is distinct from that of whether there was collusion in preparing such an event. However, large questions are clearly raised about the possibility of earlier collusion that need answering. And if indeed the ‘false flag’ was prepared with involvement of at the least the Saudis, Qataris, and Turks, one can also understand how the possibility of a dramatic increase in the quality of the sarin could have seemed a real one.
What makes the questions involved so serious is that any acquisition of chemical weapons capabilities by jihadists clearly poses longer term dangers to all kinds of people – including ourselves. In relation Syria, in addition to a real question as to whether key figures in the West had an extraordinarily complacent view of the risks involved in tolerating the production of chemical weapons by jihadists, there is an even more glaring problem relating to the risks involved in attempting to ‘ “blast” Assad off the planet with Cruise missiles’.
This may have been an outcome to which Colonel de Bretton-Gordon looked forward with eager anticipation. However, inn Hersh’s discussions, there are graphic descriptions of how preoccupied General Dempsey was with these risks.
But, in a case we seem to be overly dependent upon the views of sceptics within the American intelligence and military apparatus, it seems sensible to turn to a leading American academic expert on Syria, Joshua Landis. In an interview published on the ‘TPM’ site in January, Landis noted that, by the time of Ghouta, the ‘radical militias were the dominant militias’, and went on to paint a graphic picture of the chaos that might have been unleashed, had those who wanted air strikes against the Syrian government had their way:
You would’ve had 1000 different militias grabbing chemical weapons from the various places they were hidden and stored around Syria. The whole Middle East would be a giant silo for sarin gas and nerve agents of every kind! It would’ve been a disaster.
What might have happened, had only a small fraction of the 581 metric tonnes of sarin ‘precursor’ destroyed on board the ‘Cape Ray’ become available to jihadists who wanting to strike at, say, London, Paris, St. Petersburg, or Washington – and also Tel Aviv – is not a pleasant thought.
The notion that a collaboration with the Russians which produced a peaceful destruction of the arsenal was worse than the likely alternative does seem quite extraordinary. It may also be part of the explanation of why a former employee of Unit 8200 may have had reservations about the enthusiasm of many of his compatriots for ‘air strikes’ on Syria in response to Ghouta.
Not simply from Hersh’s ‘Military to Military’ article, but from other evidence, it is clear that there are elements within the Israeli intelligence and military apparatus who think that the kind of approach taken by Brigadier-General Brun is really not very bright.
One bright moment in the generally dispiriting coverage of Syria, and Russia, in the ‘Guardian’ is a December 2015 article by the former head of the Israeli National Security Council, Giora Eiland. Its argument is well summarised in the headline: ‘Russia is right: fighting Isis is the priority for us all; Moscow foresaw the threat posed by Isis and knows that only a united front can defeat it. Turkey’s motives are murkier, however.’
At the court of the Queen of Hearts
Unfortunately, in the wake of the recent incident in Idlib province, and the response to it of President Trump, hopes for the kind of cooperation advocated by Eiland have very sharply faded.
To understand arguments both about that incident, and the President’s response to it, I am suggesting, it is first necessary to grasp the way in which Western élites and the MSM which now forms an uncritical part of them have become co-conspirators in ‘StratCom’ operations.
It is particularly ironic that Martin Chulov, with whose reporting I began this post, won the 2015 ‘Orwell Prize’ for journalism. It is even more ironic to see a report in the ‘Guardian’ of the erection outside New Broadcasting House of a statue to Orwell, with the quotation on the wall behind: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
If Orwell was alive today, he would clearly have to recognise that some central premises of the nightmare vision of ‘Ingsoc’ he produced in ‘1984’ were simply wrong. To ensure slavish conformity, it is not necessary that people be kept in a state of grinding poverty.
And to ensure that nobody – or hardly anybody – in the ‘Ministry of Truth’ is tempted by ‘thoughtcrime’, the ‘memory hole’, down which previous versions of the ‘Times’ are regularly dropped, to be burnt, is not necessary. Equally superfluous are the terrors of ‘Room 101’.
Such crude measures are not required to prevent journalists like Chulov – or contemporary ‘Times’ reporters like Tom Coghlan – paying any attention to what people like Hersh, or ‘sasa wawa’, have to say. And it does not matter that Google searches can easily turn up reports from only weeks ago that contradict what is being claimed today – they simply pass unnoticed. In the case of Coghlan and his colleague Michael Evans, indeed, it seems that there is little prospect of their remembering what even they themselves wrote a few months ago.
As I hope I have successfully brought out, the days when either the BBC or the ‘Guardian’ told power-holders in Western society ‘what they do not want to hear’ are long gone. And indeed, if there were awards for ‘crimestop’, Chulov and many other ‘Guardian’ and BBC journalists, along with many figures in the Murdoch papers and indeed practically any MSM outlet one cares to mention, on both sides of the Atlantic, would be good candidates.
In a perfected state of ‘Ingsoc’, what is required to maintain conformity is not violence – merely the sense that to listen to dissenting views would be a kind of social solecism.
The origins of the bizarre state of mind which has taken over both very large sections of Western élites and almost all the MSM is, obviously, too large a subject to go into here.
However, some remarks at the end of a study by Joshua Levine of Operation Fortitude, the deception operation by which the British to seize the Germans into thinking that the D-Day invasion would come in the Pas de Calais, seem to the point. Having described how the ‘underground world of fakery and artifice’ created by British intelligence duped their German counterparts, Levine harks back to Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’:
It was a world in which the Germans wanted to believe. They came down the rabbit hole eagerly enough. Once inside, they rarely questioned the curious surroundings. And even when they did, they showed little desire to wake from their dream.
A bizarre feature of our current situation is that Western élites seem to have taken themselves down a ‘rabbit hole’ into a very curious kind of ‘Wonderland’.
While the fantasy world created by Lewis Carroll is in part whimsical, it is also characterised by by apparently random and brutal violence. Describing the reactions of the King and Queen of Hearts to the Cheshire Cat, in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, he writes: ‘The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. “Off with his head!” she said, without even looking round.’ In the trial of the Knave of Hearts, with which the fantasy culminates, the Queen memorably remarks ‘Sentence first – verdict afterwards!’
In the aftermath of Ghouta, the behaviour of Western leaders, and the MSM, actually seemed rather more to be based on the principle of ‘Execution first – evidence afterwards.’
Equally resonant is the way in which the King of Hearts conducts the trial – first telling the jury to produce their verdict before any evidence has been presented, and then interpreting evidence with a relentlessly tendentious circularity. And indeed, some parallels are alarmingly precise.
The absence of a signature on the nonsense verses which produced as key evidence is treated as proving that the Knave wanted to disguise his authorship, while the fact that they are not in his handwriting is interpreted as indicating that he imitated somebody else’s. In the case of Ghouta, rather similar strategies of evasion are used to evade the mass of evidence suggesting that the ‘signatures’ of the compounds found in tests carried out at Porton Down established that the sarin used there had been produced using basic chemicals.
There is, however, one very salient difference. Faith in the ‘Off with his head’ principle – the notion that getting rid of ‘authoritarian’ leaders would somehow lead to some kind of nirvana, be it in the Middle East or the post-Soviet space – has turned out, time and again, to be simply wrong. Be with Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia, Saddam or Gaddafi in Iraq and Libya, or indeed Yanukovich in Ukraine, the problems of these areas not reducible to the malign influence of rulers who, supposedly, hate ‘freedom’.
Moreover, these delusions are bad news, not simply for the peoples on whom we inflict ‘régime change’, but for ourselves. In the world of ‘Alice and Wonderland’, there are no indications that, if the Queen of Hearts goes around beheading all and sundry, this will have negative consequences for her.
In the case of Western élites, however, this is patently not the case, in more than one way. It is not simply that as a result of their follies, problems of jihadist terrorism, and mass migration, have been greatly exacerbated. The – hardly unpredictable – result of these has been populist revolts, which the élites who have done so much to create them cannot understand, so that they have little prospect of producing sensible responses.
What these élites have been remarkably successful at is ensuring they have paid no penalties for failure. As a result, they have lurched from catastrophe to catastrophe. It was the toppling of Saddam, on the basis of completely bogus claims that there was a ‘slam dunk’ case that he continued to possess WMD and was likely to use them, which empowered Islamist Shia close to Tehran in Iraq. At the same time, the intervention in Iraq, and subsequent interventions in Libya and Syria, did an enormous amount to turn jihadist terrorism form a minor and containable threat to a very significant one.
An unsurprising result of all this bungling was a covert alliance between elements in Israel and its supporters in the United States and Britain, and Sunni Arab governments in Saudia Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, to attempt to break the ‘Shia Crescent’ by striking at its supposed weak link in Syria. And, in so doing, once again it was assumed that jihadists could be used as an instrument for attacking our enemies, without risks of catastrophic ‘blowback’.
What will come out of the suggestions that ‘environmental’ samples from the new incident will be tested is, as of this writing, a moot point. A further matter which is worth taking into account is that the people who have suggested that GCHQ may have colluded with elements in the United States seeking to undermine Trump include some of the same figures who signed the 6 September 2013 memorandum: notably Philip Giraldi, Larry Johnson, and Colonel Lang.
Not long ago Robert Parry, like Hersh a veteran American investigative journalist, posted on his ‘Consortium News’ website a piece entitled ‘How Trump Could Be a Truth-Teller.’ What he suggested was that it might serve President Trump well, in countering the accusations that he was uncaring about facts, if he released intelligence evidence about key incidents which his predecessor had kept from public view.
However, if indeed Trump has thrown in his lot with the ‘neocons’ and ‘humanitarian interventionists’, hopes of anything of the kind happening may be fantasy. Others, however, may think it is high time that the ‘omerta’ which has been successfully maintained by American and British élites is broken wide open.
David Habakkuk 12.04.2017
 My thanks are due to ‘pmr9’ for invaluable help in the preparation of this piece and those that will follow. In response to a suggestion in passing of mine on SST that the account of Ghouta given by Seymour Hersh, if correct, raised fundamental questions about the behaviour of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, he pointed out to me that as the possibility of a very serious contempt of Parliament was raised these questions really needed to be pursued further. He alerted me to the ‘Who Attacked Ghouta?’ investigation, to which he contributed, and his patient explanations of some relevant science put a mass of evidence in a wholly new light. Beyond that, ‘pmr9’ has pointed me towards a great deal of important material I would otherwise have missed, and exchanges with him have clarified a whole range of matters of interpretation. Some of the evidence he and I have unearthed has been posted by him on a thread entitled ‘Talk: British involvement in Syria’ on the ‘A Closer Look On Syria’ (ACLOS) site. Remaining errors in my own posts are likely to be my own. However, particularly given the current neo-McCarthyite climate in Britain and the United States, it seems appropriate to point that he cannot be held responsible for my views, or I for his.