Seymour Hersh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who famously exposed the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, and more recently, the U.S. military’s abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. This weekend, Hersh reported that the alleged chemical attack in Idlib, Syria, this March was not perpetrated by the Syrian military, as the Trump administration has claimed. Relying on a high-level adviser to the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency as his source, Hersh punched holes in the official narrative of the chemical attack, reporting that the Syrian bombing had actually targeted a high-level jihadi meeting with conventional munitions and warned the U.S. government of the strike beforehand, using a deconfliction channel. The strike hit a facility that may have contained chemicals such as chlorine and fertilizer that would have produced a cloud as well as neurological symptoms in victims that could be mistaken for sarin.
We contacted Hersh to discuss the story.
Ken Klippenstein: Why is the deconfliction process by which forces in Syria notify each other of air operations to avoid accidents so important?
Seymour Hersh: More air force is involved than people think. It’s not only Russian… Syria’s flying, Russia’s flying, America’s flying… The Brits fly, the Canadians fly, the Aussies fly. It’s sort of like air [traffic] control at an airport… We have something called AWACS. It’s a big plane that monitors everything and the Russians and the Syrians will communicate their routes and their packets and where they’re going and what they’re delivering in English to these aircraft, AWACS, which monitor large parts of Syria. So there’s a lot of coordination. That’s what deconfliction is.
KK: Can you take us through the extraordinary events you reported on in rebel-held Syria and how they unfolded?
SH: So the story I wrote is simply about the fact there was a very special mission. It was a secret mission, it was a mission to bomb a meeting of the jihadist headquarters in this town Khan Shaykhun. It was a major town of about 48,000 (before the war began anyway) and the Russians told us about a serious meeting of the leadership there on the fourth and we had it early. It was a command-and-control for the region. One way they control the areas is by controlling food, medicines.
Russia and Syria do a lot of bombing in that area. It has propane gas tanks, it has plastic canisters of cooking oil, it has fertilizer, it has insecticides—it’s a big farming area. We also assumed some weapons were stored there because it’s a big operational base for al-Nusra [Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate], so they expected some secondary explosion; they weren’t surprised to see a cloud arise.
It was a laser-guided bomb that the Russians supplied to Syria. We had the intelligence of a meeting and we planned for it, we planned for it days in advance. It was coordinated very carefully. Everybody: us, the UK, the NSA, the CIA—everybody knew there was going to be a meeting there. In fact Russia even contacted our intelligence people, our CIA through a liaison I guess (I don’t know how), that there was going to be a secret meeting and if we had an asset there, if there was somebody we owned at that meeting, get him out of there because it’s going to be hit.
So all of this was pre-planned, the Russians supplied a laser-guided missile, no chemicals involved at all. If you’re dealing with sarin—are you kidding? Military-grade sarin? My god, you’d have to have huge facilities for storing sarin, for protecting anybody who gets near it. Just a drop will kill. You can’t smell it; it’s odorless, sightless. It doesn’t [cause] smoke.
The idea of sarin was on nobody’s table. It was not sarin. Whatever happened, and I don’t know—the opposition may have had sarin on the premise that got blown up and I don’t know. But I do know that Trump ignored the intelligence about it. He saw pictures of what were said to be children wounded or killed by sarin. Ambassador [Nikki] Haley [showed] some [photographs] and he saw it and he said, from that point on, he was going to bomb. It didn’t matter what the intelligence was.
KK: Why didn’t Trump listen to the intelligence?
SH: I quote somebody as saying, when he makes up his mind he makes up his mind; it didn’t matter what the intelligence was. In this case what we know is that he was told the day before that there’s no reason to think the Syrians dropped a sarin bomb. We know that Doctors Without Borders were at a clinic about 60 miles away, still in Syria, and they said that there were people there who definitely came in [having been] gassed by chlorine, which can also cause fatalities.
KK: What impression do you get of President Trump from your sources?
SH: He doesn’t like things in writing, he likes a lot of pictures, he doesn’t know much, he doesn’t work hard… I asked somebody about it who knows more than I do about the guy, “Is it possible that he could be doing a cover-up [regarding the Russia investigation]?”
And my friend said, “Well, the problem with that is a cover-up implies you do one step when you have a second step in mind, and that’s not this guy. This guy does one step. There’s just no second step. He just, he is what he is. Not a profound thinker.”
KK: Do you know if we’re still doing deconfliction [communicating with Russia to prevent attacks on their armed forces]?
SH: Never stopped. Never stopped. Even after the shoot-down of the plane the other day. Never stopped. It’s too important.
KK: Are there plans for a war on the Assad regime?
SH: There’s plans for everything in the government. Of course there is. It’d be shocking if they didn’t have an attack plan. It doesn’t mean a thing that they would. I don’t know about the long-range plans in Syria. My own guess is there are not many long-range plans.
KK: In your article you state, “The White Helmets are known for its close association with Syrian opposition.” [White Helmets are the rebel-friendly civil defense teams that have been widely celebrated in the West and funded by the U.S. and UK governments, among others.] Could you elaborate on this group and what you know about them?
SH: The only thing I know about the White Helmets is they’re supported by our State Department and the UK. There was a movie last year [about them] that won an Oscar. I’m sure they go places that nobody wants to go and pull people out, but they are in rebel territory and they’re considered to be groups that work against Bashar Assad. That’s one reason we finance them. We’ve very mixed emotions on Assad. He’s the only game in town, but we don’t like that. He’s the only game in town, nobody else is going to win that place, nobody else is going to win that country. If America thinks they can grab a piece of Raqqa and use that as leverage against them, there’s going to be a war, we’re going to be in a war there.
I know by writing this piece I’m going to be called pro-Russia and pro-Syria and all that stuff. So be it. What can you do?
KK: You think the White Helmets serve a sort of propaganda function for the rebels?
SH: I don’t think there’s any question they do. There’s a video about—it’s just comical, it’s out of Monty Python. There’s two guys in hazmat suits, they’re carrying something. They’re asked by somebody speaking Russian, “What do you have there, brother?”
“Oh, we’ve got some samples of sarin we’re taking to the hospital in Turkey for the UN.”
So he opens it up and there’s a bird wrapped up in cellophane. So he unwraps the cellophane—because that presumably is going to keep the sarin from getting you—and he shows it to the onlooker. They’re putting up skull-and-crossbones placards into the ground, pounding them in to warn people. Meanwhile cars are going driving back and forth. It’s the most funny—as I said it’s beyond belief. If you look at one [of the guys] in slow motion and very closely apparently you see he isn’t even wearing gloves.
This is the bird that’s later used in a UN report to show there were sarin and sarin-like [substances]. We didn’t make a big deal of it in the story I wrote.
KK: You mentioned earlier that the Russians gave us a warning in advance of their airstrike so we could get any assets out of the target building. How much of a backchannel is there with Russia?
SH: Don’t forget a lot of people around [the late ISIS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi [are] Chechens. Russia fought two civil wars in Chechnya, one went on for 10 years. You talk about bloody and hard-minded. The place looked like Dresden after World War II. So the Russians clearly have a lot of information about it. We’d be negligent if we didn’t have assets inside if we could. It’s just I’m sorry to say because a lot of people find it abhorrent that we’re tidy with the Russians.
I also think these investigations are going to lead nowhere. I see nothing to make you think you’re going to be able to prove what everybody wants to believe.
KK: Could you respond to the criticism of your article by Eliot Higgins, who alleged that open-source satellite material supposedly shows the site of the bombing was not the structure you described? [Higgins in a self-styled weapons analyst whose Bellingcat open source investigative site is funded by entities including the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. government-backed NGO that has promoted regime change around the globe.]
SH: He offers no facts, just insults and a lot of certitude about things about which he just does not know, or seems not to, e.g., that the U.S. and other foreign military [have] the most sophisticated satellite data to do bomb damage assessments, and would never think of relying on commercial satellites. They fly over Khan Shaykhun, so I have been told, something like every five days, and their images actually provide very little reliable data about bomb damage. Buildings that look intact from on high with intact roofs may have no living space in them… the difference between post-strike damage photos from a military satellite or drone and the available commercial stuff is day and night.
KK: Is there a new Cold War afoot?
SH: My experience would say there sure is… there’s a lot of propaganda going on about Russia. I would think Trump… would feel free to bomb Syria any time he wanted. Nobody clearly seems to care very much about if we bomb Syria. Whether or not we have authority or whether or not he knew what the facts [were], it’s just not of interest to most people. I think for the great majority of the American people, they’ve suffered economically under Obama and they really are looking forward to Trump delivering more money in their pocket. I think they haven’t lost faith yet. So that’s not going anyplace. I think also if there’s another year of investigations and grand juries and special reports and nothing’s going to come out of it, Trump’s going to get a lot of sympathy.
The Democrats may be playing with fire on all of these investigations because unless they really think they have something… I don’t see anything but getting sympathy for Trump. The Democrats aren’t attacking specific ideas, they’re just wallowing and trying to talk about what the Russians did, they stole the elections, and you know, the cover-up—which they’re not going to prove, I don’t think. I don’t see any reason to be optimistic about it. So they may end up giving this guy another run, he may hold the Congress and he may be reelected, unless they start talking about real issues—you know, jobs. He’s not delivering, but they don’t talk about [that]. They only talk about, did he cover up something that nobody’s clear on what. It’s not clear what he was covering up—Russian mob money? I don’t know. Nobody’s quite made a case to me.