Seymour Hersh, the legendary investigative journalist who broke the My Lai massacre and the abuses at Abu Ghraib, says in a new report for the London Review of Books (the New Yorker and the Washington Post both reportedly passed) that the Obama administration did not tell the whole truth while arguing for a military strike against Syria's Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons.
Hersh accuses the Obama administration of cherry-picking its evidence and omitting key, contradictory facts. But the administration's greatest sin, according to Hersh, was its failure to reveal its knowledge that an al Qaida-aligned group of Syrian rebels — the al-Nusra Front — had mastered the creation of sarin gas, the substance used in the chemical attack the administration cited as a cause for war. "When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect," Hersh writes, "but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad."
Responding to Hersh's report, Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence, said Hersh's allegations are "simply false."
"The intelligence clearly indicated that the Assad regime and only the Assad regime could have been responsible for the 21 August chemical weapons attack," Turner said. "The suggestion that there was an effort to suppress intelligence about a nonexistent alternative explanation is simply false."
In both its public and private briefings after 21 August, the administration disregarded the available intelligence about al-Nusra’s potential access to sarin and continued to claim that the Assad government was in sole possession of chemical weapons. This was the message conveyed in the various secret briefings that members of Congress received in the days after the attack, when Obama was seeking support for his planned missile offensive against Syrian military installations. One legislator with more than two decades of experience in military affairs told me that he came away from one such briefing persuaded that ‘only the Assad government had sarin and the rebels did not.’ Similarly, following the release of the UN report on 16 September confirming that sarin was used on 21 August, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, told a press conference: ‘It’s very important to note that only the [Assad] regime possesses sarin, and we have no evidence that the opposition possesses sarin.’
It is not known whether the highly classified reporting on al-Nusra was made available to Power’s office, but her comment was a reflection of the attitude that swept through the administration. ‘The immediate assumption was that Assad had done it,’ the former senior intelligence official told me. ‘The new director of the CIA, [John] Brennan, jumped to that conclusion … drives to the White House and says: “Look at what I’ve got!” It was all verbal; they just waved the bloody shirt. There was a lot of political pressure to bring Obama to the table to help the rebels, and there was wishful thinking that this [tying Assad to the sarin attack] would force Obama’s hand: “This is the Zimmermann telegram of the Syrian rebellion and now Obama can react.” Wishful thinking by the Samantha Power wing within the administration. Unfortunately, some members of the Joint Chiefs who were alerted that he was going to attack weren’t so sure it was a good thing.’