Was Turkey behind last year’s Syrian chemical weapons attack? That is the question raised in a new exposé by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh on the intelligence debate over the deaths of hundreds of Syrians in Ghouta last year. The United States, and much of the international community, blamed forces loyal to the Assad government, almost leading to a U.S. attack on Syria. But Hersh reveals the U.S. intelligence community feared Turkey was supplying sarin gas to Syrian rebels in the months before the attack took place – information never made public as President Obama made the case for launching a strike. Hersh joins us to discuss his findings.
AMY GOODMAN: As Syria continues to remove its chemical weapons arsenal under the monitoring of the United Nations, a new article by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh questions what happened last year in the Syrian city of Ghouta, when hundreds of Syrians died in a chemical weapons attack. The United States and much of the international community blamed forces loyal to the Assad government, and the incident almost led the U.S. to attack Syria. But according to Hersh, while President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were making the case for U.S. strikes, analysts inside the U.S. military and intelligence community were privately questioning the administration’s central claim about who was behind the chemical weapons attack.
According to Hersh, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page “talking points” briefing on June 19th which stated the Syrian rebel group al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell. According to the DIA, it was, quote, “the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort.” The DIA document went on to state, quote, “Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.” A month before the DIA briefing was written, more than ten members of al-Nusra were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin.
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh now joins us from Washington, D.C. His latest piece is headlined “The Red Line and the Rat Line.” It was just published in the London Review of Books.
Sy Hersh, welcome back to Democracy Now! Lay out what you have found.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you just laid out part of it. I think the most important thing about the document is that—as you know, I was on this show, and the London Review did a piece that I wrote, months ago, questioning just the whole issue of “Whose Sarin?”—was the title. It wasn’t clear. This doesn’t mean we know exactly what happened in eastern Ghouta. What we do know—I’m talking about the military, the Pentagon and the analysts—is that the sarin that was recovered wasn’t the kind of sarin that exists in the Syrian arsenal. It just raises a grave question about one of the basic elements of the president’s argument for planning to go to war. The real point of the Shedd document, and the reason I wrote so much about it, is because when I did that piece months ago, the White House said they know of no such document, and there’s no—they have no information about sarin being in the hands of al-Nusra or other radical groups or jihadist groups inside Syria.
Here’s what’s scary about it. What’s scary about it is the military community—I know that the Southern Command, etc., were very worried about this possibility. The war is going badly for some of these jihadist groups. They obviously—more than al-Nusra, other groups obviously have the capacity now to manufacture sarin, with the help of Turkey, and the fear is that as the war goes bad, some of this sarin—you can call it a strategic weapon, perhaps; when used right, it can kill an awful lot of people very quickly—is going to be shipped to their various units outside of Syria. In other words, they’re going to farm out the chemicals they have, who knows where—northern Africa, the Middle East, other places—and then you have a different situation that we are confronting in terms of the war on terror. That’s the reality.
Meanwhile, the White House’s position, again, with this article, once again, even though we—this document they claim no longer existed, we ran a big chunk of it. Clearly, I have access to it. They are still insisting, “We know of no such document.” This head-in-the-sand approach really has to do with something I write about in the article. I quote people as saying, once the president makes a decision, it’s almost impossible to change—to get it changed. The president decided that the Syrians did it, and we’re justified in thinking that and continuing to think that, no other option exists. And so, he’s predicated a foreign policy which is a head-in-the-sand policy, because, meanwhile, we have a serious problem with these kind of weapons, particularly as Syria gets rid of the weapons. The only people inside Syria with those weapons are the wackos. And so, there we are.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the rat line?
SEYMOUR HERSH: The rat line is an informal designation of a—the CIA is—there’s a lot of very competent people in the CIA. I give it a hard time, but you’ve got to acknowledge a very—a lot of very bright people still work there, and they know what they’re doing. During the Iranian war, when—during when Cheney and Bush were deeply involved in trying to find out whether there was a secret underground nuclear facility inside Iran—they absolutely believed it—we would send in Joint Special Operation Command teams undercover from Pakistan, from wherever, through routes that the CIA had known for smuggling and moving cash. They would use those rat lines to go in.
And the rat line in this case is, very early in 2012, when this—I don’t know why, but maybe because of the hubris over what—the victory we thought we had in Libya ousting Gaddafi, which is a mess of its own, we set up a covert, a very secret operation inside Libya to funnel arms through Turkey into the Syrian opposition, including all sides—those who were secular, those who had legitimate grievances against the Assad government, and the other groups sponsored by the Saudis and Qataris, who are really trying to create a Wahhabi or Salafist government in Syria, take it over. And this was a very secret operation. It went for a long time. It only ended when the consulate in Benghazi was overrun. And it was done without—as I write, without telling Congress. And the reason we even know about it, there was a recent Senate Intelligence Committee report on Benghazi that was published a few months back raising questions about security, etc., the same issues Republicans constantly talk about, but there was a secret annex to the report that described this process of funneling stuff. And it was done with money, actually, from the Turks, from the Saudis and the Qataris. We sort of used their money, and we funneled—to use it to buy weapons and funnel it. The CIA was deeply involved in this.
In effect, you could almost say that, in his own way, Obama—you can call it shrewd or brilliant. He was almost channeling Saudi Arabia and Qatari and the Turks to get something done we wanted done, which was to have the opposition defeat Bashar al-Assad. And that’s what it was. It was a long-running operation. It only ended—and, by the way, when it ended with the—when we shut it down after Benghazi was overrun, we suddenly saw all kinds of crazy weapons be showing up, including MANPADS, the shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles. We showed—they were suddenly showing up inside—inside Syria in the hands of various jihadist groups. So, clearly, the rat line we set up after we shut it down had a life of its own, which is often that happens in these kind of operations.
AMY GOODMAN: After the Syria talks concluded earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry renewed his backing of the departure of Bashar al-Assad and said the United States is prepared to increase support for the rebel opposition.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: No one has done more to make Syria a magnet for terrorists than Bashar al-Assad. He is the single greatest magnet for terrorism that there is in the region. And he has long since, because of his choice of weapons, because of what he has done, lost any legitimacy. … I will just say to you that lots of different avenues will be pursued, including continued support to the opposition and augmented support to the opposition.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Secretary of State John Kerry. Sy Hersh, your response?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, by this time, they knew from the Joint Chiefs of Staff—they knew that the British had come to us with sarin that had been analyzed at their laboratory and that—we share a laboratory on chemical and biological warfare issues with Britain, place called Porton Down. It’s their chemical warfare facility. And we, Americans, share that in terms of analyzing international problems when it comes to chemical and biological warfare. So it’s a lot of—we have a lot of confidence in the British competence. And so, the Brits came to us with samples of sarin, and they were very clear there was a real problem with these samples, because they did not reflect what the Brits know and we know, the Russians knew, everybody knew, is inside the Syrian arsenal. They have—professionals armies have additives to sarin that make it more persistent, easier to use. The amateur stuff, they call it kitchen sarin, sort of a cold phrase. You can make sarin very easily with a couple of inert chemicals, but the sarin you make isn’t very—isn’t as lethal as a professional military-grade sarin and doesn’t have certain additives. So, you can actually calibrate what’s in it. They came to us, very early, within six, eight days, 10 days, of the August 21, last year’s terrible incident inside—near Damascus, when hundreds were killed. And it was overwhelming evidence.
And so, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by its chairman, Martin Dempsey, an Army officer of many years of experience—he was commander of the Central Command, covered the Middle East—they did go to the president, and they raised questions. They let him know the problems. And they also talked about the fact that the military was, I can say, unhappy. Military people tend to be—when you give them an assignment, they’ll do it, but often they see the risk more than civilian leaders. The first—the president wanted a wave of bombing, and the military came up with a list of a number of targets—I think 21, 31, something like that, targets—runways and other stuff. And they were told by the White House—I don’t know who—that they wanted something that would create more pain for Bashar. So then, the next thing you know, they’re coming back with a massive bombing attack, two air wings of B-52 bombers dropping 2,000-pound bombs, hitting power nodes, electricity nodes, etc., the kind of attack that would cause an awful lot of damage to civilian infrastructure. And that was an awful lot for the Joint Chiefs, and they really raised that question with the president.
And as I write, I don’t think there’s any other issue that would have forced him to stop as he did. The notion of we’re going to suddenly go back and sign a chemical disarmament treaty with the Syrians, that the Russians had been talking about, that had been raised a year earlier, and we didn’t bite them. He clearly jumped on it then. And he—look, you’ve got to give the president credit. As much as he wanted to and as much as he talked about it, when faced with reality, he backed down. He didn’t say why. But, you know, we don’t expect—we have learned not to expect very much credibility on foreign policy issues. Unfortunately, the fact that we don’t get straight talk from the top means that the bureaucracy can’t do straight talk. If you’re inside the bureaucracy, you can’t really tell the White House something they don’t want to know.
AMY GOODMAN: Uh—
SEYMOUR HERSH: That’s—yes, go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Sy, I want to talk Turkey for a minute.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: In your piece, you mention the leaked video of a discussion between the Turkish prime minister, Erdogan, and senior officials of a false flag operation that would justify Turkish military intervention in Syria. This is Erdogan’s response to the leaked recording.
PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: [translated] Today they posted a video on YouTube. There was a meeting at the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Syria, on the tomb of Suleyman Shah. And they even leaked this on YouTube. This is villainous. This is dishonesty.
AMY GOODMAN: Turkey briefly imposed a ban on YouTube following the leaked recording. Sy Hersh, could you explain what the Erdogan administration’s support for the rebels, the Turkish support for the rebels, has consisted of and where the U.S. now stands on this?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, where we stand on it now is that there’s not much we can do about it, because—well, let me just tell you what we know. What we do know, that Turkey is—that al-Nusra groups have been inside Turkey buying equipment. There’s also reports that they’ve also received some training from the Turkish intelligence services, which is very—is headed by a man named Fidan, who is very known. There’s reports, wonderful report in The Wall Street Journal recently about Fidan’s closeness not only to Erdogan, the prime minister and the leader of Turkey, but also to the most radical units. And so is Erdogan. They’re all supporting—if they have a choice, they’re supporting the more fundamental groups inside Syria. And so, we know they supply training. We know also there’s a—there’s, I guess you could call it, another rat line. There’s a flow—if you’re going to send the chemicals that, when mixed together, meddled together, make sarin, they flow—that flow comes from inside Turkey. A sort of a paramilitary unit known as the gendarmy—Gendarmerie and the MIT [Milli Istihbarat Teskilati] both are responsible for funneling these things into radical groups. There’s actually a flow of trucks that brings the stuff in. And so, Turkish involvement is intense.
And I can tell you, and as I wrote in this article, the conclusion of many in the intelligence community—I can’t say it’s a report, because they didn’t write a report about it—the conclusion was, based on intercepts we have, particularly after the event, was that there were elements of the Turkish government that took credit for what happened in eastern Ghouta, with the point being that this sarin attack crossed Obama’s famous red line. If you know, Obama had said in the summer of 2012, there’s a red line that, if they cross in terms of using chemicals or doing too much, the opposition, he will bomb to stop Bashar. And so, Turkey was dying, trying, repeatedly in the spring—there’s a lot of evidence there were some attacks in the spring. The U.N. knows this, although they don’t say it. I write about that, too, in the article. And also, the American community knew. That’s the reason why that secret report I wrote about, the talking paper, was written. We knew that the radicals were—had used—the jihadist groups had access to nerve agent and had used it against Syrian soldiers in March and April. Those incidents that were always described by our government as being the responsibility of the rebels, with high confidence, it’s just not so. And the report makes it clear. We have had a huge problem before the August attack in—near Damascus. We knew about this potential for months before. We just—it’s the kind of information, for some reason, it doesn’t fit with what the administration wanted to hear, so it just never got out. And that—
AMY GOODMAN: On—
SEYMOUR HERSH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Sy, on Sunday, the website EA WorldView published a piece headlined “There is No Chemical Weapons Conspiracy—Dissecting Hersh’s ‘Exclusive’ on Insurgents Once More.” The author, Scott Lucas, questioned the claim that rebels could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack last August, given the range and scale of the operation. He wrote, quote, “Reports on the day and subsequently indicated that 7-12 sites were attacked with chemical agents at the same time. In other words, whoever was responsible for the attacks launched multiple surface-to-surface rockets with chemical payloads against opposition-held towns in East Ghouta and one town in West Ghouta, near Damascus. [The chemical] attacks were … followed by … heavy conventional attacks.” The author, Scott Lucas, says that you fail to ask questions about whether anyone, apart from the regime, would have the ability to carry out such an extensive operation. Sy?
SEYMOUR HERSH: [inaudible] first article on—we’re past that. We now know. Actually, The New York Times even ran a retraction, of sorts. You had a—it was like reading Pravda. But if you read the article carefully, The New York Times had run a series of articles after the event saying that the warheads in question that did the damage came from a Syrian army base, something like nine kilometers, six miles, away. And at that time, there were a number of analysts, a group from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], led by Ted Postol, who used to be a science adviser to the CNO, the chief of naval operations, clearly somebody with a great deal of background and no bias. He did a series of studies with his team that concluded that the warheads probably didn’t go more than one or two, at most, kilometers—two kilometers, 1.2 miles. And we now know from the U.N. report—a man named Ake Sellstrom, who ran the U.N. investigation, he’s concluded the same thing: These missiles that were fired were fired no more than a mile.
They were—one looks—just from the footage one saw, they were homemade. They didn’t fit any of the nomenclature of the known weapons. And don’t think we don’t have a very good picture of what the Syrians have in terms of warheads. They have a series of warheads that can deliver chemical weapons, and we know the dimensions of all of them. And none of these weapons fit that. And so, you have a U.N. report. You have this independent report saying they were—went no more than one or two kilometers. And so, I don’t know why we’re talking about multiple-launch rockets. These are homemade weapons. And it seems very clear to most observers—as I say, even to the U.N. team that did the final report—the U.N., because of whatever rules they have, wasn’t able to say that—who fired what. They could just say—they just could describe the weapons and never make a judgment. But I can tell you, I quote somebody from inside that investigation unit who was very clear that the weapons fired were homemade and were not Syrian army. This is asked and answered; these are arguments that go on. This is—I assume it’s a blog. I don’t know the—I don’t know the blog.
AMY GOODMAN: And—
SEYMOUR HERSH: But this has been going—yes?
AMY GOODMAN: And Turkey’s interest, if it were the case, in pushing the red line and supporting an attack that would be attributed to Assad—their interest in getting the U.S. to attack Syria?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, my god, totally of great interest, because Erdogan has put—the prime minister of Turkey has put an enormous amount of effort and funds and others, including his intelligence service, in the disposable in the—he and Bashar are like, you know, at loggerheads. He wants to see him go. And he’s been on the attack constantly, supporting the most radical factions there. And also, I must say he’s also supporting the secular factions, the people who seriously want to overthrow Bashar and don’t want to see a jihadist regime; they just want to see a government that’s not controlled by one family, you know? But there’s no question Turkey has a deep investment in this. And it’s going badly. It’s very clear now that the Syrian army has the upper hand and is essentially—the war is essentially over. I know, I don’t like to—in terms of getting rid of Bashar, that’s no longer a done deal. There’s going to be some outpost, perhaps, in areas near Turkey where there will be various factions. They’ll be under pressure from the Syrian army all the way. But, essentially, this is a losing card we have. We don’t like to admit it, but that’s it. Bashar has held on. And whatever that means—
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, Washington, [D.C.]. We will have a link to your latest piece in the London Review of Books, headlined “The Red Line and the Rat Line.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, 20 years ago today, the genocide in Rwanda began. We’ll go to Kigali. Stay with us.
The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).
For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.
The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.
Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.