Chapter 8: The Old Spies’ Network

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Among the deniers of chemical attacks there were more than few retired spies who had seen the seamy side of intelligence work at first hand and been shocked by it. Most had good cause to be disillusioned about their former profession and some had taken a courageous stand by exposing malpractices (or worse). These personal experiences seem to have made them generally distrustful of western governments and intelligence agencies, with the result that they tended accept new claims of intrigue and skulduggery far too readily. An alarming number of them went on to dabble in conspiracy theories.

In the United States they tended to gravitate around an organisation called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). Established in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war, its original aim was to keep watch on the intelligence services though it ended up as a haven for people with fringe views — including the denial of chemical attacks in Syria.

One of VIPS’ founders was Ray McGovern who had joined the CIA in the Kennedy era and worked there for 27 years. On leaving, he had been honoured with the Intelligence Commendation Medal but in his retirement he became increasingly critical of his former employer and in 1999 he wrote an article for the Boston Globe headed “How lies replaced intelligence at the CIA”. By the early 2000s, alarmed at the way the Bush administration was using intelligence material to build a case for war in Iraq, McGovern wrote several critical opinion columns for USA Today and the Christian Science Monitor among other newspapers. He also began to be quoted from time to time in news reports.

There were other former intelligence agents who shared McGovern’s concern and joined him in establishing VIPS. Among its members were several whistleblowers, including Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, and William Binney, a former intelligence official at the US National Security Agency. One prominent member was Lawrence Wilkerson who had helped Secretary of State Colin Powell prepare a presentation to the UN in 2003 making the case for war in Iraq — which he subsequently regretted. Wilkerson had considered resigning afterwards but stayed on at the State Department for a while and became involved in the investigation of torture among detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Starting just a few days before the invasion of Iraq began, VIPS published a series of memos analysing the Bush administration’s use — and misuse — of intelligence. Much of this turned out to be correct, thus enhancing the group’s reputation. In 2004 an article in Mother Jones described VIPS as having produced “some of the most credible, and critical, analyses of the Bush administration’s handling of intelligence data” in the run-up to the war.

However, just a few months after VIPS was formed, an argument broke out over the group’s purpose. A new memo issued by VIPS in July 2003 held Vice-President Dick Cheney mainly responsible for the deception over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and called for his resignation. But while Cheney remained in his post two members of VIPS resigned. Kathleen and Bill Christison — both former CIA employees — explained their reasons in a letter to the Salon website.

Calling for Cheney’s resignation was a tactical mistake, they said, because it would not achieve what was really needed: “a full-bore and independent investigation”. An organisation like VIPS “should be writing about policies and actions, not personalities”. They described the call for Cheney’s resignation as serving no purpose “except possibly grandstanding” … “It is an attention getter, an effort to keep the subject alive, rather than a reasoned piece of analysis and exposition.”

Their letter made a further point which proved remarkably prescient. Noting that VIPS consisted of retired intelligence officers who no longer had first-hand inside information, they warned that it needed to be “scrupulously careful” in everything it said. “We fear that, in its very laudable effort to expose the administration, this memorandum runs the risk of showing up VIPS itself as a group that plays fast and loose with the truth.”

This raised a fundamental question about VIPS’s purpose: was its role to keep watch on the intelligence services or was it more of a political campaigning group? Playing the watchdog role became more difficult over time because the longer its members had been out of intelligence work the fewer contacts they had on the inside. Also, McGovern seemed more interested in doing things that would attract publicity. In a protest against torture in 2006 he returned his Intelligence Commendation Medal while dressed in an orange jump suit (as famously worn by prisoners in Guantanamo Bay) and with a gag over his mouth. In 2011 he stood up during a speech by Hillary Clinton and turned his back on her in a silent protest. When asked to leave by security he refused and was arrested. In 2014 he was arrested again after being refused admission to an event where former CIA director David Petraeus was giving a speech. In 2018 he was ejected from the Capitol building in Washington after disrupting the Senate’s confirmation hearing of Gina Haspel as the new CIA director.

To stay in the public eye, VIPS also needed a regular supply of attention-grabbing stories that reflected badly on US intelligence — and it often failed to treat them with the necessary caution. A couple of weeks after the sarin attack on Ghouta it announced in a memo that “the most reliable intelligence” showed Bashar al-Assad was not responsible. The memo continued:

“There is a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East, mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters, providing a strong circumstantial case that the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters. The aim is reported to have been to create the kind of incident that would bring the United States into the war.

“According to some reports, canisters containing chemical agent were brought into a suburb of Damascus, where they were then opened. Some people in the immediate vicinity died; others were injured.

“We are unaware of any reliable evidence that a Syrian military rocket capable of carrying a chemical agent was fired into the area … “

It appeared from this that VIPS’s “intelligence” sources were simply repeating the allegations made by RT and various “alternative” websites, and that VIPS was not seriously trying to evaluate them. It had fallen into the trap that the Christisons warned about in their resignation letter years earlier: it was playing fast and loose with information from dubious sources while complaining that US intelligence agencies had low standards.

VIPS memos were routinely posted on the website of Consortium News which had a special section for them. The website’s founder was the late Robert Parry, a journalist who had exposed several key elements in the Iran-Contra scandal during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At the time, Parry was working for the Associated Press news agency but eventually left, accusing the AP of suppressing or watering down some of his Iran-Contra stories. He claimed this was due to a conflict of interest because the AP was having discussions with Oliver North — a central figure in the Iran-Contra affair — in an effort to secure the release of Terry Anderson, another of its journalists, who had been taken hostage in Lebanon. The AP denied that this had affected its coverage.

Parry, who won several journalism awards during his career, went on to work for Newsweek and the non-profit broadcaster, PBS, but he became frustrated over the scarcity of outlets for investigative reporting and in 1995 decided to create one himself. Consortium News, he said, was intended to be “a home for the serious journalism that no longer had a place in an American news business that had lost its way”.

Parry soon found that journalists were not the only ones seeking this kind of outlet. “To my great satisfaction, we also began developing what might be regarded as unlikely relationships with former CIA analysts,” he wrote. “Though these CIA folks had been trained not to talk to journalists like me, it turned out they also were looking for places to impart their important knowledge.” McGovern became a regular contributor to Consortium’s website and later joined its board of directors along with Gareth Porter — a VIPS “associate” and a winner of the mysterious Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism. In the 1970s Porter had co-authored a book disputing Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia (though he later recanted) and in 2014 he could be found on the Truthout website claiming that new information gathered by journalist Seymour Hersh had “ eliminated or cast doubt “ on the Assad regime’s responsibility for the Ghouta sarin attack.

An award for ‘truth-telling’

In 2017 the organisers announced that the latest winner was one of America’s most famous investigative reporters — but their choice proved embarrassing. The citation said:

“This year’s award goes to renowned Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Seymour Hersh, for his most recent report earlier this year on President Donald Trump’s lie that a Syrian aircraft carried out a ‘chemical weapons attack’ in Syria’s Idlib province on April 4.”

Complimenting Hersh on his “grit, integrity and tenacity”, the citation continued:

“Despite his reputation and the importance of the story, Hersh tried in vain to find a US or British outlet that would publish his report, and eventually ended up having to go to the mainstream German newspaper Die Welt to get the results of his investigation published. The common challenge we all face is getting such information into media outlets that US citizens regularly access.”

The difficulty Hersh had experienced in finding a publisher was not surprising, though, because his story was fundamentally wrong. It concerned the attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province where about 100 people had died as a result of being exposed to sarin. OPCW investigators confirmed the use of sarin in a report issued a few days after Hersh’s article appeared, and even the Syrian government accepted that sarin had been released in Khan Sheikhoun, though it denied responsibility.

Hersh’s article, however, claimed sarin was not involved. It quoted an unnamed “senior adviser to the American intelligence community” as saying no chemical attack had taken place. Instead, it suggested that Syrian forces using a conventional explosive bomb had hit a store of “fertilisers, disinfectants and other goods”, accidentally causing “ effects similar to those of sarin “.

This was scientifically impossible but it wasn’t the first time someone had made such a claim. VIPS member Wilkerson had given a strikingly similar explanation in a video interview for The Real News Network a few weeks earlier. It appeared from this that either Wilkerson was Hersh’s source or they both heard the claim from the same unnamed source.

Hersh had built his reputation with startling reports based on claims from anonymous but apparently well-placed sources — sometimes with spectacular results. He had exposed the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam back in 1969 and, more recently, the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Some of his other exposés had misfired, though, and he was criticised for his reliance on sources that could not be independently verified. One Pentagon spokesperson commented sarcastically that he had “a solid and well-earned reputation for making dramatic assertions based on thinly sourced, unverifiable anonymous sources”. His reporting on Syria fell mainly into that category.

In an earlier 5,000-word article about the sarin attack on Ghouta — published by the London Review of Books after being rejected by his usual outlet, the New Yorker magazine — Hersh took up the idea that rebel fighters were the real culprits. He quoted an unnamed “senior intelligence consultant” as saying that an al-Qaeda group active in Syria “understood the science of producing sarin” but he offered no evidence that the group had actually produced or acquired any.

The main problem with this was that in his enthusiasm for quoting secretive contacts Hersh had overlooked evidence that was freely available from open sources on the internet — with the result that his article raised questions which had already been answered elsewhere. At the time of writing, though, Hersh was apparently unaware of it. “[I] am a luddite and do little on the internet,” he wrote later in an email. Had he been less reluctant to use the internet Hersh might also have carried out reality checks on things his intelligence-linked contacts were telling him. A few minutes’ research on sarin, for example, would have shown the near-impossibility that rebel fighters — or indeed anyone other than a government — could have manufactured and weaponised it in the quantities needed for the Ghouta attack.

Hersh declined to engage in discussion of his Syria articles. “[I] have learned to just write what I know and move on,” he said in one email. Though it might be argued that he was simply reporting what sources had told him, his reporting had consequences. It provided more fuel for the chemical weapon deniers on social media, with many citing his previous exposés and the Pulitzer prize he had won 47 years earlier as evidence that he was right about Syria.

Hersh had originally been due to receive his Sam Adams candlestick during an anti-war conference at the American University in Washington but amid controversy about his award the programme was amended to say he couldn’t attend. Instead, the presentation took place at a “festive dinner” after organisers re-drafted the citation. The new wording played down his flawed reporting on Syria and instead celebrated him as someone whose other reports might deter President Trump from bombing North Korea.

The rocket man

Following the sarin attack on Ghouta in 2013, Postol and fellow expert Richard Lloyd had done some research into the likely range of the rockets used and concluded that it was probably no more than a couple of kilometres. This raised doubts as to whether government forces could have got close enough to hit Ghouta, and deniers of the attack interpreted it as evidence that rebels had fired the rockets. Postol had voiced other controversial opinions before taking an interest in Syria. He had argued, for example, that certain anti-missile defence systems — including Israel’s Iron Dome and the Patriot system used in the 1991 Gulf war — were far less effective than the military claimed them to be.

Postol made several further contributions to discussion of the chemical attacks — all pointing away from the regime’s culpability. He engaged in a protracted and at times acrimonious argument about hexamine with Dan Kaszeta, a security consultant who had knowledge of chemical weapons. The Syrian government had declared 80 tonnes of hexamine to the OPCW as part of its chemical weapons programme, and hexamine was also found in samples from the scene of every known sarin attack. At first the significance of this was unclear but Kaszeta suggested (correctly, as it turned out) that the hexamine was being used as an “acid scavenger”. Sarin is highly corrosive and additives are needed to reduce the risk of it damaging containers or munitions. As far as could be discovered, though, no one other than the Syrian government had ever used hexamine for this purpose — thus indicating that the sarin used in Syria had come from the regime’s stockpile.

Postol challenged Kaszeta over the hexamine, though he wasn’t a chemist. His qualifications were in physics and nuclear engineering, so he turned for assistance to a Twitter user who had studied chemistry but also happened to be a notorious conspiracy theorist and pro-Assad troll. This odd partnership resulted in Postol being ridiculed. Cheryl Rofer, a chemist who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory for 35 years, commented: “Postol is operating from a naive set of assumptions, based on limited experience in a first-year chemistry laboratory, presumably the experience of his informant. The result is a wrong-headed approach … Nothing in Postol’s argument sounds like it was written by a chemist or someone with a working knowledge of chemistry.”

Postol also sought to deny the 2017 sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun, and his claims became increasingly outlandish. In one article he noted that an American intelligence report on the attack was “directly” contradicted by a French intelligence report. “The discrepancies between these two reports essentially result in two completely different narratives,” he wrote. The discrepancies were not surprising, however, because Postol hadn’t noticed that the French report referred to a different attack in a different location four years earlier. In another article about Khan Sheikhoun, Postol disputed casualty figures by claiming the wind at the time would have carried sarin from the crater “across an empty field”. In fact it was blowing in the opposite direction. Postol had mistakenly thought a south-easterly wind blows towards the south-east rather than from it and he issued a correction.

In 2019 Postol co-authored a “ computational forensic analysis” of the Khan Sheikhoun attack. According to UN/OPCW investigators the sarin had been released from a crater caused “by the impact of an aerial bomb travelling at high velocity”. This implicated the Syrian military as the perpetrator since rebel fighters had no air power. Based on computer analysis, however, Postol et al claimed the crater had not been caused by a chemical bomb dropped from the air but by an artillery rocket armed with a small explosive warhead. If correct, this could mean rebels caused the crater, since they had rockets.

The paper had not been formally published and its existence became known when Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic contender for the US presidency who was also a chemical weapons sceptic, referred to it favourably on her website and linked to a copy of it posted on the internet. This allowed others to scrutinise its content in detail and a major flaw soon came to light. Based on their calculations, Postol et al maintained the crater had been caused by a 122mm rocket — a type widely used in conflicts. What they had not done, however, was check their calculations against known examples of craters caused by 122mm rockets. Further research by the investigative website Bellingcat showed significant differences between those and the crater at Khan Sheikhoun.

In the meantime, Postol and his co-authors had submitted the paper to Science and Global Security (SGS), an international peer-reviewed journal with links to Princeton University. Postol was one of 17 members of its editorial board, though he was reported not to have been involved in discussions about the paper’s publication.

SGS initially said the criticisms by Bellingcat and others were based on an early version of the paper and it would nevertheless be published in a future issue. This was followed shortly afterwards by a second statement saying SGS had “identified a number of issues” with the paper’s “peer-review and revision process” and had decided to withhold publication while editors decided whether “the problems that we identified” could be rectified. After further consideration the journal announced that it had decided not to go ahead with publication and was returning the paper to its authors “without prejudice”.

Postol then resigned from the journal’s editorial board, accusing it of making a “grievous mistake”. Its decision not to publish the paper “fundamentally contradicts the most basic goal to protect honest technical discussion that is the foundation for the advancement of science,” he wrote. “This decision is incomprehensible and inconsistent with everything I have stood for in my career.”

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Originally published at https://al-bab.com.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.