Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh rejects the Obama administration’s claim that the Bashar al-Assad regime carried out deadly chemical weapon attacks in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013 that killed hundreds of Syrian civilians. “We had a crime,” Hersh says. “Sarin was used. … But the only villain we looked at was the Syrian government, when the United States had had internal high-level CIA reports that … extremist groups were getting the precursor chemicals needed to make sarin [gas] from the Turks and also from the Saudis.” Hersh writes in his new book that al-Nusra, a militant group fighting in Syria’s civil war, had “mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity.”
AMY GOODMAN: Like what? Like what do you think needs to be more aggressively investigated right now?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, I’ve gone—I’ve gone absolutely batty about—you know, you don’t have to—it’s not about whether Bashar al-Assad is a good guy or a bad guy, but this whole business that goes on with “We know he used sarin.” The fact of the matter is, the president did not go to war because he was told not only—as I wrote about in the London Review, not only by the chairman, Dempsey, and—who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs—and, by the way, Dempsey, who retired last fall, would never—was always fighting the idea of putting special forces in. He was always against it. A very interesting chairman, very low-key, very bright. He left—the day after he left his job, he went to teach. He’s got a chair or something—an appointment at Duke University, where he got a master’s degree in fine arts. He’s actually a Yeats scholar. It’s hard to think of a general like that. He’s a pretty interesting guy. The new guy is in a different league, you know, and we’ve got a new secretary of defense, too. So it’s just, you know, “Katy, bar the door,” let’s just go do it.
I think the story that—I think what the president did with Bashar al-Assad on the sarin is almost like a blood lie, because we know now from the Jeff Goldberg long, long, long, long essay in The Atlantic magazine, that created so much news, Obama just talked openly to him—in some ways, very remarkably. But he also, in the middle of the article, which a lot of people did not read, so I’ve discovered, the president clearly—he was talking to nobody else, Goldberg was. All of a sudden, Goldberg writes that the—that General Clapper, the chief of—the head general in charge of all intelligence, the Office of National Intelligence, told the president very early after the sarin attack that it was not a slam dunk—a “slam dunk” being that famous phrase that George Tenet, the CIA director, used to tell President Bush that there were nuclear bombs there. And it’s a big significant word. It means you don’t have a case.
And as you know, as many know, I also wrote that Chairman Dempsey, on the day before the president decided not to bomb, also told the president that, based on information he had from his friends and his fellow—his colleague in—Sir Peter Wall, who was his—Peter, the chief general of England, had relayed that information to him, the samples we had. And so, what the president did is he said, well—what he’s told the American people is, “We got a good deal on this, because the Syrians suddenly agreed to give up their arsenal.” And that’s why it was—it wasn’t that we didn’t have the case. It’s that there was a concession made, and he’s glad he didn’t bomb, because look what happened: We got a good concession.
In fact, I don’t know why—you know, I give a lot of lectures to journalism schools and speak to groups all over the world every year, even in the Middle East, where there are a lot of people interested in investigative journalism. Anyway, the first thing I say to everybody is, you know, before you write, read. There’s a tremendous amount of information, A, that the Syrians were unhappy with the chemical arsenal. It was—Bashar al-Assad inherited from his father. It was considered useless. It was under constant attack by the rebels. There’s more than 20 nuclear depots—chemical depots, mostly with mustard gas, etc., and also nerve gas, the chemicals that make up nerve gas. One of them was taken in—above, in the province above Aleppo, Idlib, shortly after the rebel war, the civil war against him, began in 2011. He lost one of his arsenals. And the Russians were helping him.
And so, the issue for—with us, there was talks between Lavrov and Kerry, the two foreign ministers. And it was raised—it’s absolutely clear that a lot of discussion was raised about this when the president, two months before the sarin attack, which was in August of 2013—in June, there was a G20 conference, and Putin and—Putin and President Obama had a two-hour meeting, at which they discussed Syria a lot, nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, other weapons. And clearly, it came up then.
What was the problem? The problem was, Syria said, “We want to get rid of this junk. We don’t have the $1.2 billion,” which is the actual cost it took to get rid of it. The Russians kept on saying to us before this incident, before the sarin attack, the alleged sarin attack—they kept on saying, “Look, we’re losing—we’re not as rich as we used to be, because the oil prices are going down, in part because of American shale oil production around the world. And you share it with us.” And we said no. And that changed. On the night of the 30th or the 31st, the day before the raid, the president acceded to paying a great chunk of the cost of getting rid of the weapons. And that’s what happened.
He had other problems with bombing. The British Parliament voted down any participation. The French were ready to go. They were online, ready to take off. Their bombing was to take—when he said no, it was the next day that the bombing was supposed to begin. Congress also had told him. Nancy—we know this from something Nancy Pelosi said, then the House speaker. They were going to have hearings on this whole issue, after the bombing began. And General Dempsey, the one that I wrote about, who told them there was no there there when it came to proving it was—the sarin we found had no relationship to the sarin known to be in the arsenal. Dempsey told him he would testify honestly to Congress, too. He would say—he would raise the questions.
Now, you have to understand, I’m not saying I know what happened. I’m just saying, in the article I wrote then and saying now, we had a crime. Sarin was used. People died—not as many as we said, 1,400. That was just the number we estimated. Most of the medical—up to 350, 380 was the number. One is more than enough. But as—what we—the only villain we looked at, the only person we looked at, was the Syrian government, when the United States had had internal high-level CIA reports that al-Nusra and other—ISIS wasn’t there, but other extremist groups were getting the precursor chemicals needed to make sarin from the Turks and also from the Saudis.
Look, right now, 250 French tanks, I’ve been told, are headed for the war in Yemen, financed by the Saudis and by the UAE. And who’s delivering them? We are. We do. You know, it’s really strange. In any case, what happened, what I now know, is that we did supply a ship, a major Merchant Marine ship, that was parked out in the Mediterranean, that was involved—and we paid for this. Thirteen hundred and eight tons of stuff were trucked by the Syrians to the coast, moved to the ship, where they—it was a Merchant Marine ship called the Cape May, an American ship, that was—had two large containers that had been put into it, at great cost. It was done quickly. They decontaminated the stuff. And guess what happened when we had all of that stuff coming in, all of his sarin and all of his weapons, all of the rockets used to deliver weapons. They gave up their whole arsenal. We had a forensic analysis team there that concluded—this isn’t what you’re going to hear from the government, but it concluded then—this is almost six months later—that the DNA and the—of the material they got rid of did not match anything we know to be in the Syrian arsenal. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a rogue operation somewhere, but it sure changes the story for me.
The quick announcement that Bashar al-Assad did it is simply not true. And the president did not go forward, not because of an agreement; he went forward because he knew it was the wrong thing to do, and he also wouldn’t get backing necessarily from Congress. And he’s permitted that lie, this blood lie, to be kept on told. We keep on saying—he’s never stopped from saying that Bashar—that there’s—he’s never suggested there was a question about it. And this isn’t a brief for Bashar. It’s about what I—what we pay our presidents to do. We don’t tell them to spread, you know—or to not make it clear what the caveats are. That isn’t what we do, not in this kind of a world, when it’s so tense and there’s so much trouble in the Middle East anyway. And so, we’re driven by—we’re driven by instinctive Cold War hatred of Russia in much of our policy, and from a belief that Syria—Bashar has to go. I’ll tell you something. The talks in Geneva failed because the opposition there—and Bashar did go to the talks—they failed because the opposition said, whatever happens, he can’t run for election. And the reality is, and I know this—I know this—I know a lot of people in the international world who are not pro-Assad—it’s not about anybody being pro-Assad. The reality on the ground is, he would win an election, because most of the Sunnis see him as a much better alternative to the chaos that would exist if something like ISIS or al-Nusra or one of those crazy groups got in. And so, we have this story wrong. And, you know, it’s unpopular to say it, but I will tell you right now—
AMY GOODMAN: Sy, I wanted to ask you—
SEYMOUR HERSH: Go ahead, shoot.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the Foreign Policy article headlined “Sy Hersh’s Chemical Misfire: What the legendary reporter gets wrong about Syria’s sarin attacks.” Eliot Higgins cites video and other documentary footage questioning your piece, writing, quote, “There is no evidence of Syrian rebel forces ever using this type of munition—and only Syrian government forces have ever been shown using them.”
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, tell that to the U.N. There’s been a couple of studies done, in which they don’t—you know, everything that’s been said—you know, there’s something called the chemical warfare treaty. And there’s something called the—what is it? I wrote it down, because it’s the prohibition—it’s the prohibition of chemical weapons. There’s all these international groups, organization for the prohibition of weapons. And none of them have ever accused—all these great groups that have done all the investigations, they always said that the chemicals are there.
And I will tell you, I don’t like to write about highly classified stuff I’ve seen, but I have seen—I have seen documents, from the highest level, all sorts of documents, involving overhead, agent reports, Israeli intelligence, all of our friends, beginning in April and May of 2013, four months, three months before the accident—the incident in the use of—the alleged—the use of sarin—the actual use of sarin in—near Damascus, that was—caused so much trouble, where 1,400 were allegedly killed. We’ve been reporting for four months before that, and it went to the president. It went to the White House; I can’t say what the president reads. It certainly went to the—went to the DIA, to the CIA. And it said clearly, great concern about the fact that the Turks, the Turkish Gendarmerie, which is a sort of a special branch, sort of a paramilitary police force—this Gendarmerie, who are right now killing PKK like crazy in Turkey. Like crazy. It’s real massacres this guy Erdogan is doing, who’s one of the big problems of the area. He’s always supported the crazies—ISIS, etc. And we look the other way. I don’t know why we do, but we do. And also the Saudis were supplying.
Sarin is made by taking two chemicals and melding them. It’s really high dangerous. And what the Syrians do in their arsenal is they add—they put additives in it that make the whole—make the stuff less toxic and more reliable, easier to handle. But in the field, they just mix the stuff in, you know, a witch’s brew, like in Macbeth, I guess, the first scene. And they have the stuff. And we’ve known that. We’ve known that for four months before the incident in August of 2013.
And so, I don’t know who Higgins is. And all I know is that a group at MIT, headed by Ted Postol, who at one time he was a professor there for many years at MIT and also served years as the chief adviser on missilery and other stuff to the chairman—the head of the Navy—head of the Navy, the chief admiral running the Navy. He was an adviser there for many years. He knows what he’s doing. He’s written report after report rebuking what Mr. Higgins said. I haven’t actually looked at much of his stuff, Higgins.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sy, we’re going to have to break. But when we come back, as we spend the hour with you—you were talking about Saudi Arabia. President Obama just made his fourth trip there. I want to go, though, to Pakistan and talk about Saudi government support—you write about this in your new book, The Killing of Osama bin Laden—for Osama bin Laden hiding in Pakistan. This is Democracy Now! We’re talking to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sy Hersh. His new book, yes, The Killing of Osama bin Laden. Stay with us.