American journalist Seymour Hersh, in an exclusive interview with DİKEN, answered some of the questions that have been raised by his latest piece published on London Review of Books on April 4. One of the most controversial claims Hersh made is that the Turkish government was behind the August 21st sarin gas attack in Damascus. Hersh also responded to criticism leveled against him by those like Eliot Higgins and Dan Kaszeta.
Having talked to Higgins regarding Hersh’s claims, DİKEN has also interviewed Dan Kaszeta, who among other places, worked for the White House Military Office as disaster preparedness adviser (1996-2002).
Hersh claims that this chemical facility center is somewhere around Aleppo. And he bases this claim on a (US) intelligence document he saw/has. What do you think? Is it possible?
I personally do not believe this claim. The amount of Sarin liquid (and it is a liquid, not a ‘gas’) required for the 8/21 attack requires a serious and sophisticated industrial effort. It seems to me that we are talking about over 400 liters of Sarin, and possibly much more. (I’ve never stated 1000 gallons as Mr. Hersh seems to think.) Such a quantity of Sarin requires a serious industrial activity and a lot of specialized equipment and knowledge.
I think Mr. Hersh underestimates the difficulty of manufacturing Sarin, let alone in quantity. This is an area which I have devoted much study and none of the numerous (about 20) Sarin production pathways are at all easy. But we can see that the Assad regime has such an industrial capability and has indeed declared it to the OPCW, who in turn have inspected it. But to assume that a rebel faction can construct and operate a factory-scale Sarin production facility in a war zone, without attracting the notice of Syrian regime forces, or anybody else for that matter, beggars belief.
There’s far more to Sarin production than mixing chemicals. It requires serious process controls, handling of highly corrosive gases (like hydrogen fluoride) at high temperatures and is notoriously difficult to develop from scratch. Bear in mind that the Japanese Aum cult spent a lot of money and had a large facility and was only capable of making single batches of perhaps 7 or 8 liters of Sarin. Indeed, there are other chemical warfare agents that would have been far easier to make than Sarin, even other nerve agents. (Tabun, the first nerve agent developed in the 1930s, is easier to produce but generally less effective.) But the evidence is specific. The evidence shows Sarin, not Tabun or phosgene or something simple.
It is also important to note that the supply chain for precursors and the waste stream from their production (both in evidence within the Assad regime) would be difficult to hide. I’d also say that such an operation would run into many tens of millions of dollars and one could easily make an economic argument that it would be a far more rational course of action to spend that money on conventional weapons. And none of these arguments even come close to addressing the physical evidence, which is the chemical relationship between the Sarin samples found in the field and the declared stockpiles and formulae of the Assad regime (i.e. the hexamine), which match closely. Nor does it address the issue of the delivery systems.
I think the idea of a non-state Sarin factory operating in wartime Aleppo, with a supply chain and waste stream running into many tons of exotic and dangerous chemicals, is one of the more absurd explanations I’ve heard so far.
His argument regarding ‘Volcano rockets’ is this: If they are is so important, why are the US and other allies not using it? Why do you think the US government hasn’t used your findings on this matter?
First of all, let us get one thing straight. The issue isn’t whether or not the US and other allied governments have used our findings or not. Who is to say? I certainly don’t know. All this means is that Mr. Hersh’s source doesn’t know or doesn’t say. If they did agree with my hexamine theory, Eliot Higgins’ work on Volcano rockets or the work of others, they wouldn’t tell me. It would be floating around Washington with a classification stamp on it. Neither I nor Mr. Hersh is in any kind of position to prove or disprove whether the US government, or any other, is pursuing the same lines of inquiry that Mr. Higgins, myself or other observers are.
I also know, from my own years at the White House, many agencies in the US government do not like to publicly acknowledge outside contributions that could be interpreted as admissions to their own shortcomings. But I know for a fact that the US government officials read the Brown Moses blog. My own first indication to follow Mr. Higgins’ blog came from my friends back in Washington who said: “You’ve got to look at this blog.”
My own sources, who I have to keep anonymous (as does Mr. Hersh), are that at least two countries concur with my conclusions about hexamine being a particular link tying the 8/21 Sarin to the Assad regime, a conclusion made much easier by the Assad regime’s own disclosures. But I have explained this hexamine theory in great deal elsewhere.
When I asked about this chemical weapons production center and put forward some of your arguments that building such center would take so much time and effort and complexity, he said the following: ‘For the last 10 years, there has been much change in chemical warfare and you are most likely not aware of these’.
In other words, he argues, it doesn’t have to be that complicated to build these Sarin and nerve gas production centers these days. Would you agree?
The implication that my knowledge is out of date is terribly mistaken. I’ve worked in this field for decades without any serious pause or interlude. My own curriculum vitae is being questioned by Mr. Hersh and I think that he questions it without having seen it. Regardless of his insinuations or misunderstandings, I can state that I work hard to stay up to date in this field. I attend major academic conferences and symposia in this field. I often speak at them. I’ve written a book, and numerous respected articles for the main publication. I’ve worked at the highest levels of the US government and still have contacts there. I personally know a lot of experts in this field and value their knowledge and insight.
In short, I’m out and about, very active in chemical defense circles. I’ve never seen Mr. Hersh at these conferences. If there is some sort of ground-breaking new way of creating Sarin, my estimate of the situation is that I am probably far better positioned in this field to hear of some mysterious new Sarin production process than he is.
At the end of the day, there are only so many ways that molecules can be synthesized. These are documented for Sarin. If there is a new method, using non-exotic precursor chemicals, perhaps Mr. Hersh can tell us about it, as it would be of keen interest to me and my fellow professionals.
Seymour Hersh says that just last month, there was an ‘intellectual exercise’ in Florida, at the headquarters of the ‘ Central Command’. His claim is that a counter-terror operation was discussed, on what to do if Al Nusrat, AQI or ISIS, as they get driven out, in the desperation and the final act, gave their Sarin stock, expertise and methods to other Sunnis, Jihadists, Wahhabis or Salafi group or operations in Middle East or N.Africa. Hersh says that in saying ‘We don’t know if anyone has any Sarin’, Washington is ‘burying its head in the sand’
What does this intellectual exercise mean in terms of his revelations or claims?
An intellectual exercise is strictly that. It is people sitting around a table talking. I’m not sure what, if anything, can be drawn from this discussion. I’ve sat through one such exercises where serious people talked about the Canadians invading the US, just for the purposes of reviewing overall defense policy. Of course they were not serious. We shouldn’t put too much stock, one way or the other, in this particular claim. And of course, the military is worried about Sarin showing up. Is it possible that they are mostly worried about Sarin from Assad’s own stockpiles?
His arguments about, Syrian Army is not that stupid to send rockets that cant go more than 1 mile range, such thing would be suicide. Do you see any merit? (Hersh also refers to the press conference held by Ake Sellström, the head of the United Nations mission in Syria.)
I believe others can address the issue of range better than I can. 1 mile seems not be the case. But in any case, we are talking largely about Volcano rockets that dispense a liquid product, with a relatively small bursting charge. This kind of weapon will produce quite a potent hazard immediately around it but it is certainly not optimized to turn all of its liquid contents into an aerosol.
Also, I’ve been doing downwind chemical weapons hazard predictions since 1993. For such an attack such as the 8/21 one to be effective, there has to be very low winds, well under 10 km per hour. There also needs to be favorable atmospheric conditions. The kind of atmospheric conditions that would have brought the hazard in vapor form back to the front lines in a vapor concentration to kill or injure would not be the conditions that would have favored the attack to begin with. The Assad regime has trained chemical warfare officers. They would have advised on an appropriate set of conditions for the attack. This is well understood in chemical warfare. These are lessons that were firmly learned by 1917.