Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh joins us to discuss his new article casting doubt on the veracity of the Obama administration’s claims that only the Assad regime could have carried out the chemical attacks in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta earlier this year. Writing in the London Review of Books, Hersh argues that the Obama administration "cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad." The administration failed to disclose it knew Syrian rebels in the al-Nusra Front had the ability to produce chemical weapons. Evidence obtained in the days after the attack was also allegedly distorted to make it appear it was gathered in real time.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo as its staff prepare to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. According to a U.S.-Russia deal that stopped possible U.S. military strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Syria is to disperse—Syria will be dispersing its arsenal of almost 1,300 tons of chemical weapons by mid-2014. The head of the mission overseeing the destruction of the country’s chemical arms said last week fighting on the ground poses a major obstacle to implementing the agreement. This is Sigrid Kaag.
SIGRID KAAG: Despite the significant progress achieved to date in a very short span of time, the most complex and challenging work lies ahead. The removal of the Syrian Arab Republic’s chemical agents for destruction outside of its territory will require tremendous coordination and collective effort. Security remains a key challenge for all of us. As you know, the destruction of a chemical weapons program has never taken place under such challenging and dangerous conditions.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the head of the OPCW mission to Syria, Sigrid Kaag.
This comes as a major new article casts doubts on the veracity of the Obama administration’s claims that only the Assad regime could have carried out the attacks in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta earlier this year. Writing in the London Review of Books, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh argues the Obama administration, quote, "cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad." He reports U.S. was also aware that al-Nusra, a militant group fighting in Syria’s civil war, had, quote, "mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity."
To find out more about the piece, we go to Washington, D.C., to speak with Seymour Hersh himself, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist. His latest piece in the London Review of Books is headlined "Whose Sarin?" Over the decades, Hersh has broken numerous landmark pieces, including the Abu Ghraib prison abuses and the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Sy. Lay out your case for what it is that the Obama administration did or didn’t tell us.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Actually, Amy, it’s really not my case; it’s the case of people in the administration who believe when they—when they take the oath, they take the oath of office to the Constitution and not to their immediate general or admiral or not to the—or not to the president even. It’s about truth. And there are an awful lot of people in the government who just were really very, very upset with the way the information about the gas attack took place. And that’s not to say that I have—I certainly don’t know who did what, but there’s no question my government does not. And there’s also no question that the American president that we now have—a guy I voted for, who has a lot of good things about him—was willing to go to war, wanted to throw missiles at Syria, without really having a case and knowing he didn’t have much of a case. And that, to me, is very troubling. We’re talking about a major war crime here, because certainly hundreds, if not more, of innocent civilians—and some bad guys, too, rebels and others—were killed by sarin, which is a gross violation.
The case is simple. We had—in the spring, there were a number of chemical warfare attacks in various parts of Syria that were investigated by everybody. The U.N. looked at it. They determined there were four instances of small cases of maybe 10—I shouldn’t say small; one dead is more than enough—but maybe 15 to 20 people killed by sarin and others incapacitated. And eventually they concluded, like they always do, the U.N., no decision on who did what. So we began looking at it. The Israelis, of course, they’re a neighboring country; they’re very concerned about Syrian chemical—the arsenal. It’s a strategic threat for Israel. And we got some sarin, and we got some evidence. And the thing that surprised us the most is there was a lot of reporting in—known to the American community and to our allies, that al-Nusra, one of the more jihadi groups in—more radical, if you will, Islamist groups fighting against Bashar, and other groups, too, to a lesser degree, AQI, al-Qaeda of Iraq—sometimes we call it al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia—had not only the capacity and potential and the know-how, how to produce sarin, but also had done some production of sarin. And these are reports that were very highly classified that went up the chain of command. In some cases, they were so secret that not many people in the government knew about it. They went to senior officials in the Defense Intelligence Agency. The CIA certainly was forwarding many of these reports.
It got to the point where the American government, the military, the Pentagon, looked into the whole prospect of let’s go in and clean out all the—all the nerve gas on both sides. And they did what they call an ops study, operations study. It’s an ops order, really, it’s called. It’s a major, major study, 60 or 70 various sub-parts to it. You’re going to send—they concluded 70,000 American soldiers would have to go into Syria to clean out the chemical weapons on both sides. And that’s a big deal. You know, you’ve got to feed them. You’ve got to protect them. You’ve got to find out how much toilet paper you’re going to need. A major, major study was done over this summer. I think—I’ve been told it was supposed to—there was supposed to be what they call an NIE, a National Intelligence Estimate, on the capability of the opposition, the rebels, to manufacture sarin, but that never happened. And there we are. These reports were there. They were certainly known to the community. I can’t tell you that the president himself read those documents; I don’t know. But clearly, whether or not—if he didn’t, he should have.
And when he went public after the incident, right away—you know, it was just this. The narrative was—the real issue was the narrative was Bashar, who we don’t like, who’s done terrible things—you know, certainly he’s—in order to defend his regime and his government, he has killed a lot of people, and also, we have to acknowledge, had an awful lot of his soldiers killed. There’s—it’s a real rebel war there, civil war. And the point was that at no time did the United States ever consider al-Nusra to be a potential target of investigation. They were simply excluded from the conversation. And the narrative was Bashar did it. And it was bought by the mainstream press, as we all know, and by most people in the world. And this is why, you know, creepy troublemakers like me stay in business.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. He was being questioned in late August about the Syrian chemical weapons attack.
REPORTER: Jay, you were very firm in saying just now that there’s little doubt that the Syrian regime was in fact responsible for this chemical attack. So, in that context, what is the purpose of this intelligence report? Is it to legitimize—to get rid of any remaining doubt and therefore legitimize a response in the eyes of the international community?
PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: I’m not aware of any doubt that exists. Again, it’s undeniable that chemical weapons were used on a large scale. We know that the regime maintains custody of the chemical weapons in Syria and uses the types of rockets that were used to deliver chemical weapons on August 21st. The opposition does not. We also know that the opposition does not have the capabilities that the Syrian regime has. And as I mentioned earlier, we have already had an assessment by the intelligence community, with a high degree of confidence that the Syrian regime has used, on a smaller scale, chemical weapons in this conflict already. So, suggestions that there’s any doubt about who is responsible for this are as preposterous as suggestions that the attack itself didn’t occur.
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, your response to what Jay Carney said at the end of August?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, my mother would have said that he should wash his mouth out with soap.
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, because—look, he’s not lying; he’s being told what to say, and he does it. He’s being told. But four days earlier, the State Department spokesman said—a woman spokesperson said for the State Department, "We’re looking at"—on the 23rd, "We have no information about what’s going on. We’re looking at it."
The fact is that the United States has a very, very sophisticated sensor system that we’ve put up, just as we also had in Iran, which helped us to conclude — I wrote about this for years at The New Yorker — that we pretty much were pretty sure there was no secret underground facility in Iran, even though the press still talks about that possibility. We looked at it hard. We have sensors that were very, very good. America has great technical capability. And the same thing happened inside Syria. We have sensors. And the problem with talking about it is, once—I had no choice, because you have to mention it, but people start asking questions about what do they look like, where are they, and that’s too bad, because they’re very useful. We have passive sensors that not only tell us when the Syrian—at every Syrian depot, chemical warfare depot—and sarin isn’t stored. Nobody keeps sarin. It’s a very volatile, acidic poison that degrades quickly. You keep the chemicals that make sarin. They’re what are called precursors. There’s two chemicals, when mixed, poof, alacadabra, you have sarin. So, the Syrian arsenal, the reason you can get rid of it pretty easily, as the report heard they’re doing it, is because there’s two inert substances that could be disposed independently. One is even an alcohol. You could just flush it. But the point being that the sensors monitor not only when the—when sarin or the chemicals are moved; more importantly, they’re capable of monitoring when the Syrian army begins to mix the stuff. And once they mix the stuff, it’s—as I wrote, it’s a use-it-or-lose-it process. You have to use it quickly, because it degrades quickly. It doesn’t stay long in the shells; it erodes the shells. And not only that, the Israelis are right there with us on this sensor system. And so, it’s like a fire alarm, early warning system. You know, it’s—an alarm goes off, and the Israelis know about it, as we know about it, right away. And we are not going to let the Syrian military or army get—take—create weapons, pour this stuff into warheads, move it and be ready to fire. That’s not going to happen. The Israelis will attack before that happens.
So, this system said nada, nothing, on the 21st, the 22nd. I write about the fact there’s internal reports. It wasn’t until the 23rd, when the American internal—the secret government and, you know, the secret intelligence community began writing internal reports for the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, saying that we’ve got a problem here in Syria. For days, we didn’t know, because—and what does that mean? What that means is that if—if chemical warfare was used on the 21st, it didn’t come from that arsenal, because there was no warning of any mixing. That doesn’t mean something else could have happened, that some renegade group got some and did something. But the main warning system we had was quiet. That’s a clue. That’s a big clue that at least you should consider something other than the Syrian army when you begin an investigation. And so, what the press secretary said is silly. It’s just wrong. I don’t blame him. He happens to be a very nice guy, Jay Carney. He’s just doing what he’s told.
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion and talk about, well, what your reputation is based on, the people, whether you name them or not, in your article, the high-level intelligence officials and analysts who were raising very serious questions behind the scenes, why weren’t their warnings being heeded. We’re talking to Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His latest piece headlined "Whose Sarin?" is appearing in the London Review of Books. Stay with us.