A new report by the Pulitzer-winning veteran journalist Seymour Hersh says the Joints Chiefs of Staff has indirectly supported Bashar al-Assad in an effort to help him defeat jihadist groups. Hersh reports the Joint Chiefs sent intelligence via Russia, Germany and Israel on the understanding it would be transmitted to help Assad push back Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. Hersh also claims the military even undermined a US effort to arm Syrian rebels in a bid to prove it was serious about helping Assad fight their common enemies. Hersh says the Joints Chiefs’ maneuvering was rooted in several concerns, including the US arming of unvetted Syrian rebels with jihadist ties, a belief the administration was overly focused on confronting Assad’s ally in Moscow, and anger the White House was unwilling to challenge Turkey and Saudi Arabia over their support of extremist groups in Syria. Hersh joins us to detail his claims and respond to his critics.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations Security Council’s passage of a peace plan for Syria has been called perhaps the best chance yet to end the country’s civil war. The measure, approved Friday, calls for a ceasefire, talks between the government and opposition, and a roughly two-year timeline to form a unity government and hold elections. Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the terms.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Under the resolution approved today, the purpose of those negotiations between the responsible opposition and the government is to facilitate a transition within Syria to a credible, inclusive, nonsectarian governance within six months. The process would lead to the drafting of a new constitution and arrangements for internationally supervised election within 18 months.
AMY GOODMAN: The resolution is silent on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The US has insisted on excluding Assad from a political transition, pointing to the mass killings of his own people throughout the more than four-year war. But Russia and China have staunchly backed Assad. The world powers’ impasse has fueled UN inaction amidst a death toll of more than 250,000 and the world’s worst refugee crisis. Although the US remains opposed to Assad, his omission from the Security Council resolution signals a softening stance and a potential diplomatic turning point. The Obama administration has quietly backed off its public insistence that Assad must go, claiming it’s no longer seeking regime change in Syria.
Now an explosive new report says US military leadership in the Joint Chiefs of Staff has held that view all along and has taken secret steps to move US policy in that direction. According to award-winning veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, the Joint of Chiefs of Staff has tacitly aided the Assad regime to help it defeat radical jihadists. Hersh reports the Joint Chiefs sent intelligence via Russia, Germany and Israel, on the understanding it would be transmitted to help Assad push back Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. Hersh also claims the military even undermined a US effort to arm Syrian rebels in a bid to prove to Assad it was serious about helping him fight their common enemies. At the Joint Chiefs’ behest, a CIA weapons shipment to the Syrian opposition was allegedly downgraded to include obsolete weapons. Hersh says the Joint Chiefs’ maneuvering was rooted in several concerns, including the US arming of unvetted Syrian rebels with jihadist ties, a belief the administration was overly focused on confronting Assad’s ally in Moscow, and anger the White House was unwilling to confront Turkey and Saudi Arabia over their support of extremist groups in Syria.
Hersh’s report in the London Review of Books follows his controversial story in May challenging the Obama administration’s account of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Like that story, his latest piece relies heavily on a single source, described as a “former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs.” And while critics have dismissed both stories as conspiracy theories, it turns out that key aspects of the bin Laden report have since been corroborated. After the bin Laden story came out, US and Pakistani intelligence sources confirmed Hersh’s reporting that the US discovered bin Laden’s location when a Pakistani officer told the CIA, and that the Pakistani government knew all along where bin Laden was hiding.
For more, we’re joined by Seymour Hersh. He won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, when US forces killed hundreds of civilians. In 2004, Sy Hersh broke the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. His latest piece in the London Review of Books is headlined “Military to Military: US Intelligence Sharing in the Syrian War.” Hersh is working on a study of Dick Cheney’s vice presidency.
We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Sy Hersh. Why don’t you lay out this very controversial report that you have just published in the London Review of Books. What did you find?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, it began, actually, as I wrote, with a very serious, extensive assessment of our policy, that was completed by June – let’s say by middle of 2013, two-and-a-half years ago. It was a study done by the Joint Chiefs and the Defense Intelligence Agency that came to three sort of conclusions, that may seem obvious now but were pretty interesting then.
One is that they said Assad must stay, at least through – through the resolution of the war, because, as we saw in Libya, once you get rid of a leader, like Gaddafi – same, you can argue, in Iraq with the demise of Saddam Hussein – chaos ensues. The second – so that was an issue, that there – the point being, elections at some point, certainly, but for the short term, while we’re still fighting, he has to stay. And that wasn’t the American position then. And, I would argue with you, I still think the American position is very muddled, although they have seemed to soften it.
Secondly, the other point they made is that their investigation showed this notion of a moderate force just was a fiction, was just a fantasy, that most of the Free Syrian Army, by the summer, by mid-2013, were in some sort of an understanding with al-Nusra, or, as you put it, ISIL, the Islamic State. There was a lot of back-and-forth going – arms going into the Free Syrian Army and other moderates were being peddled, sold, or transferred to the more extremist groups.
And the third major finding was about Turkey. It said we simply have to deal with the problem. The Turkish government, led by Erdogan, was – had opened – basically, his borders were open, arms were flying. I had written about that earlier for the London Review, the rat line. There were arms flying since 2012, covertly, with the CIA’s support and the support of the American government. Arms were coming from Tripoli and other places in Benghazi, in Libya, going into Turkey and then being moved across the line. And another interesting point is that a lot of Chinese dissidents, the Uyghurs, the Muslim Chinese that are being pretty much hounded by the Chinese, were also – another rat line existed. They were coming from China into Kazakhstan, into Turkey and into Syria. So, this was a serious finding.
It was not the first time some of these points had been raised. And there was simply no echo. Once you pass this stuff on to the White House or into the other agencies – the Defense Department does this routinely. These are very highly secret. This study was composed of overhead satellite intelligence, human intelligence, etc., very compartmentalized stuff. But it did go to the State Department and to a lot of offices in the White House and National Security Council. No response, no change in policy.
So, at this point, as I wrote, the Joint Chiefs, then headed by an Army general named Dempsey, Martin Dempsey, who has since retired, decided that they had – that there was a chance to do something about it without directly contravening the policy. And that was simply that we were aware that Germany, the German intelligence service, the German General Staff, had been involved pretty closely with Bashar in terms of funneling intelligence. Russia – and it’s – a lot of people will find this surprising, but the United States military, the military has had a very solid relationship with the leadership of the Russian military since the fall of the Soviet Union in ’91. And General Dempsey, in particular, had a one-on-one relationship with the general who now runs the military for the Soviet Union. And so, we knew the Russians and the Israelis were also involved in some back-channel conversation with Syria, with the idea being Israel, sort of very on the margin on this, understood that if Bashar went, what comes next would not be healthy for Israel. They share a border with Syria, and you don’t want Islamic State or al-Nusra or any of those groups to be that close to the Israelis. It would be a national security threat for them.
So there was a lot of people, a lot of other services communicating, and so what the Joint Chiefs did is they began to pass along some of this very good strategic intelligence and technical intelligence we have – where the bad guys are, you can put it; what they might be thinking; what information we had. That was passed not directly to Assad, but it was passed to the Germans, to the Russians, through the Israelis, etc. The exact process is, of course, way beyond my ken, but there was no question that was a transmission point. The point being that there was no direct contact, but the information certainly got to him, and it certainly had an impact on Saddam’s – the Syrian army’s ability to improve its position by the end of the year, 2013.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk –
SEYMOUR HERSH: Period. That’s the story. Go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the source that you used for this story and the criticism of your single-source method.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, my god. Well, you know, as you know, it’s usually anonymous sources you get criticized for. That’s always been traditionally, although any day in The New York Times and Washington Post, they’re full of anonymous sources. That’s an easy way out. I wish I could tell you that I haven’t been relying on this particular person for since 9/11, but I have been. And many of the stories I wrote for The New Yorker about what was going on inside Iran, what was going – there was no bombs inside Iraq, part of those early stories I was writing, all came from one particularly well-informed person, who, as – you know, who, for a lot of reasons, I can’t make public. One is them is this government would prosecute him.
So the idea that there’s one source, that’s – I’ve done that – I worked for The New York Times, as you know, for eight or nine years, all during Watergate and the Vietnam War years, and won many, many prizes based on stories based on one source. I don’t know what the public think goes on, but, you know, if you get a very good source who over many years has been totally reliable, I’m not troubled by it at all. And neither – you know, the London Review, as many in America know, is a very, very seriously edited magazine, who did the same amount of very intense fact checking as happened when I worked at The New Yorker, which is famous for its fact checking, and the editing was certainly as competent and as good as you get in The New Yorker. I’m very happy working for them. And so, it’s not as if I’m not put to the same question that you’re putting, that critics may put, by the editors of the magazine. And they get – they have direct contact. They know who the person is. They have discussions with him, and with me not present. All of these standards are met.
AMY GOODMAN: Well –
SEYMOUR HERSH: Yes, go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me share with you some of the criticism of your piece –
SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, oh, spare me.
AMY GOODMAN: – like Max Fisher’s writing in Vox – but let me share it with our audience, as well – who, you know, talks about your relying entirely on one unnamed source for your principal allegation that US defense officials bypassed the Obama administration and shared intelligence with allies, who subsequently shared it with the Assad regime. Fisher goes on to conclude, quote, “We are required to believe that the senior-most leaders of our military one day in 2013 decided to completely transform how they behave and transgress every norm they have in a mass act of treason, despite never having done so before, and then promptly went back to normal this September when Dempsey retired.” Can you respond to that?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, there’s – it’s so many instances where the military disagree with a president. We’ve seen this in World War II, MacArthur. I mean, the idea that the Joint Chiefs of Staff – let me just say, in general, when you’re at that level, at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you make an oath of office not to the president of the United States, but to the Constitution. And there’s been many times the military objects. There were times just in the last couple of years, in congressional testimony, that General Dempsey has made it clear he disagrees with the policy.
Specifically about some of the matters that were raised in that article – and I did look at it, of course – is that, for example, Dempsey agreed in testimony that we should arm the moderates – the opposition, rather. And, in fact, what he agreed to – this is with the head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, at the time – when this discussion came up of arming dissident groups, opposition groups inside Syria, Panetta and the chairman both made a point of saying “vetted groups.” They said only those groups we really know are reliable, and not wackos and not jihadist groups that want to exclude anybody except those who share their particular beliefs in the future state, if they were to take it over. So there’s a lot of – there’s a lot of contradictory evidence about it. And there are – there certainly can be more sophisticated arguments to make than this has never happened before. This is certainly unusual that, in a time like this, the military would give information to allies, our allies, at their request, that differ from the official policy. Sure, that’s a very complicated thing, and it was a tough thing to do, but it happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Was there direct communication between the United States and Syria?
SEYMOUR HERSH: I’m going to stand by what I wrote in the article.
AMY GOODMAN: Which was?
SEYMOUR HERSH: I wrote in the article that there was no direct contact, that the whole purpose was to use the cutouts, that there was no attempt to directly engage with Bashar al-Assad or his regime.
AMY GOODMAN: And what –
SEYMOUR HERSH: But there – yes?
AMY GOODMAN: What did the US get in return?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, there was an understanding, obviously, conveyed by our allies. And the understanding was that we were going to give this stuff, and if Bashar would, among other things, agree to an election, a monitored election, once the war was over, and presumably he had re-established – you know, Bashar – there’s a lot of talk about the success of the Islamic groups, but Bashar right now, although he doesn’t control 100 percent – much less, 60 – I’m not sure of the number, but it was more than 50 percent, less than – the opposition groups controlled large swaths, 30 percent, 40 percent. But he does control as much as – I’ve seen estimates of 86 percent of the population. And the notion that everybody in Syria despises him, etc., all these things you hear, that’s not true. He has a lot of native support, and even from Muslims, because every Muslim in Syria is not a Wahhabi or a Salafist, an extremist. Many are very moderate people who believe they would be in trouble if the Islamic force, the Islamic groups, came into power, because they would go and seek out those fellow Muslims that don’t agree with their extreme views. So he does have an awful lot of support, more than most people think. This is not to say he’s a good guy or bad guy. We’re just talking about reality.
And don’t forget, we are a country that, in World War II, a year after the Russians had done – were in a pact with Hitler, we joined with the Russians against Hitler. So, you know, you sometimes overlook – one of the points also made by – in this article is this incredible hostility towards Russia and these allegations, time and time again, that Russia is not really serious about going after the Islamic State. And there – even just in the debate over at the UN, a statistic suggesting that 80 percent of the Russian attacks have nothing to do with ISIS, but they’re attacking the ISIS opposition, the moderates. And you just have to say to yourself, “Well, why then did ISIS bomb, as we all believe and the Russians believe, destroy a Russian airliner? Why was ISIS upset with Russia, if Russia was basically bombing their enemy, the moderates?” It doesn’t – it just – the logic in some of the American thinking and the thinking around the world on this, it doesn’t make much sense to me.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Sy Hersh is our guest, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His latest piece is in the London Review of Books; it’s headlined “Military to Military: US Intelligence Sharing in the Syrian War.” This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pete Seeger singing “If I Had a Hammer.” And in our next segment, we’ll be talking about the US government spying on Pete Seeger for close to 30 years. New documents have been released by the government, over 1,700 of them.