Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 28, 2017

Seymour Hersh’s misfires on Khan Sheikhoun

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

On June 26th Die Welt published an article by Seymour Hersh that made the case that the Syrian military was not responsible for a Sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 6th. Instead, what supposedly took place was the unfortunate collateral damage of a leakage of toxic material when a guided missile struck a building where jihadists were meeting. Without exactly revealing how he got the information about what was stored there, Hersh points to supplies of chlorine in the basement that the jihadists dispensed to the locals when they needed to clean the bodies of the dead before burial as well as fertilizers used for growing crops. When a bomb hit the building, it created a Bhopal type disaster. The symptoms displayed by the victims was “consistent with the release of a mixture of chemicals, including chlorine and the organophosphates used in many fertilizers, which can cause neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin.”

I found the business about using chlorine to cleanse bodies most intriguing, especially since every Muslim website I could find about burial rituals stresses the need for clean water. For example, Al-Islam stipulates:

It is obligatory to bathe a dead body thrice. The first bathing should be with water mixed with “Sidr” (Ben) leaves. The second bathing should be with water mixed with camphor and the third should be with clean water.

Well, who knows? Maybe it was the camphor that killed 58 people and wounded 300. Camphor is used in mothballs, after all. If you had sufficient camphor stored in the building—a couple of tons of the stuff—it might have killed 58 people, right? Or at least, a shitload of moths. As far as organophosphates being used in many fertilizers, I suspect that Hersh might have been referring to bug and weed killers rather than fertilizers. If you check Wikipedia, it says that they are the basis of many insecticides and herbicides but there is no mention of fertilizers. An innocent mistake, I suppose. Maybe if the New Yorker had decided to publish Hersh’s article, they would have caught it but then again the magazine had declined to publish anything by him on Syria since the articles didn’t pass the smell test.

Instead, he has published his crap in the London Review of Books until now. This is a journal that has been a prime outlet of Assadist propaganda going on five years now, making room for Hersh, Hugh Roberts, Tariq Ali and Patrick Cockburn to make the case for Assad being a lesser evil. But apparently, his latest “investigating reporting” didn’t make the LRB grade as Dirk Laabs points out in a companion piece to Hersh’s article:

Hersh had also offered the article to the London Review of Books. The editors accepted it, paid for it, and prepared a fact checked article for publication, but decided against doing so, as they told Hersh, because of concerns that the magazine would vulnerable [sic] to criticism for seeming to take the view of the Syrian and Russian governments when it came to the April 4th bombing in Khan Sheikhoun.

Let me tell you something. If LRB nixes something because it takes the side of the Syrian and Russian governments, it has to be pretty fucking bad.

While I have no idea how Hersh learned about chlorine in the basement or organophosphate fertilizers upstairs, he does make sure to impress the reader with the “inside” information that backs up his reporting:

Russian intelligence, which is shared when necessary with Syria and the U.S. as part of their joint fight against jihadist groups, had established that a high-level meeting of jihadist leaders was to take place in the building, including representatives of Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-affiliated group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.

Well, that cinches it, I guess. If Russian intelligence says so, it must be true. Why would they lie? So what if some people believe that the first casualty of war is truth. That couldn’t possibly apply to the Russians. The only problem I have with taking them at their word is their apparent reluctance to share the evidence that supports their findings. Hersh writes:

The Russians were intent on confirming their intelligence and deployed a drone for days above the site to monitor communications and develop what is known in the intelligence community as a POL – a pattern of life. The goal was to take note of those going in and out of the building, and to track weapons being moved back and forth, including rockets and ammunition.

I mean, for fuck’s sake, I bought a Mavic Pro camera drone for $1000 that could have recorded all of these goings on. For that matter, ISIS has purchased off-the-shelf amateur type drones and equipped them with explosives to slow the advance of the Iraqi army. You mean to tell me that the Russians couldn’t have made such evidence available to all their stooges in the West, from Vanessa Beeley to Eva Bartlett? Either they are getting soft or they were just lying. You be the judge.

Another companion piece to Hersh’s article got my eyebrows raised so high that I began to fear that they would take wing and fly off. Titled “We got a fuckin ‘problem“, it purports to be an electronic chat between a security adviser and an active US American soldier on duty on a key operational base about the events in Khan Sheikhoun.

American Soldier: We got a fuckin‘ problem

Security-Adviser: What happened? Is it the Trump ignoring the Intel and going to try to hit the Syrians? And that we’re pissing on the Russians?

AS: This is bad…Things are spooling up.

SA: You may not have seen trumps press conference yesterday. He’s bought into the media story without asking to see the Intel.  We are likely to get our asses kicked by the Russians.  Fucking dangerous.  Where are the godamn adults? The failure of the chain of command to tell the President the truth, whether he wants to hear it or not, will go down in history as one of our worst moments.

AS: I don’t know. None of this makes any sense. We KNOW that there was no chemical attack. The Syrians struck a weapons cache (a legitimate military target) and there was collateral damage. That’s it. They did not conduct any sort of a chemical attack.

Sounds like lines from Oliver Stone’s next movie, doesn’t it?

If you want to read a good take-down of Hersh’s crap, I recommend Elliot Higgins who wrote a piece titled “Will Get Fooled Again – Seymour Hersh, Welt, and the Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack”. Like Theodore Postol who couldn’t get his years straight, Hersh doesn’t seem bothered by the inconsistencies between his timeline and those of the regimes he seeks to defend. He writes, “The target was struck at 6:55 a.m” but the Syrian foreign ministry held a press conference after the attack that dated the incident at 8:30 a.m. Oh well, what’s 90 minutes between friends, least of all 80 year old investigative reporters who can’t be bothered with such details.

If I were Seymour Hersh, I would have retired long ago. In fact, posterity will not look kindly on these elder statesmen of the left who have lent their good name to defending the Baathist dictatorship. Hersh, Cockburn, Fisk, Chomsky—all of them.

Indeed there were signs a decade ago that Hersh was “slipping”. (That’s the word my mother’s friend used to alert me to my mom’s behavior once she hit my age. She was losing her temper a lot and was driving erratically. Come to think of it, that pretty much describes me as well.)

In 2007, Michael Young, the opinion editor of The Daily Star, a Lebanese daily, started his Counterpunch article with words that opened with words indicate little respect for the “legendary” reporter:

It’s become a habit to greet whatever journalist Seymour Hersh writes with reverence. However, after his ludicrous claim last summer that Israel’s war in Lebanon was a trial run for an American bombing of Iran – an accusation undermined by postwar narratives showing the confused way Israel and the United States responded to the conflict – my doubts hardened.

The gist of Hersh’s article was that the Bush administration was lining up with Sunni extremists in Lebanon, something that Michael Young found untenable:

What about Hersh’s belief that the Bush administration is illegally hiding aspects of its pro-Sunni regional strategy? “The clandestine operations have been kept secret, in some cases, by leaving the execution of the funding to the Saudis, or by finding other ways to work around the normal congressional appropriations process.” The administration’s point man in this endeavor is purportedly Vice President Dick Cheney.

This revelation is noteworthy, but when we turn to the final part of Hersh’s text in which he addresses congressional oversight issues, we find little meat.

Little meat? That’s being generous. I’d say that Hersh had written a jumbo-sized shit sandwich and continues to do so.


  1. Had a great laugh reading this. Thank you, Louis, for the levity!
    Loved the piece, but, brother, comrade, man, the picture at the top? Come, man. Surely the aesthetics should count for something too. May I suggest a substitute? (not sure if the image will appear, but I hope it does_)


    Comment by Reza — June 29, 2017 @ 5:06 am

  2. Reza: you have tantalized me with your suggestion but the link doesn’t work for me. How locating the image, then left click on the browser window, then copy the URL and then paste that URL to this comment section. Give it a try, huh?

    Comment by uh...clem — June 29, 2017 @ 7:33 pm

  3. Uh…Clem, I did just that, but for some reason the image doesn’t appear.

    I found the image on a BuzzFeed News item, titled, Shit Stirrers: Meet the People Doing Poop Transplants the Government Doesn’t Want Them To. If you find the article, and if you scroll way down, you’ll see a cartoon image of an old medicine bottle, with the image of a snake curled and looking like poop, with the words “Snake Oil” below the snake. I thought it would work better aesthetically.

    Anyway, it was not meant to be. It’s just that I got a thing for aesthetics; a big shortcoming of mine.

    Comment by Reza — June 29, 2017 @ 9:26 pm

  4. I just read the june 30 edition of counterpunch where the narrative of Seymour Hersh was very warmly received .It is truly depressing to see credible voices on the left uncritically embrace such stupidity.

    Comment by David Melnychuk — June 30, 2017 @ 5:07 pm

  5. ‘“The target was struck at 6:55 a.m” but the Syrian foreign ministry held a press conference after the attack that dated the incident at 8:30 a.m.’

    Worse than that. The Syrians claimed it was 11.30am.

    Comment by Harlan Leyside — July 2, 2017 @ 5:48 pm

  6. You really have very little knowledge about the Middle East when you cite Michael Young as a reliable source.

    According to Mideast Wire: “Michael has always argued that he is a mere pundit – and not to blame him for US mistakes in the region or anyone elses mistakes. The problem is that he is read, he is taken, mainly by Neo LiberalCons, seriously and some of his best admirers in the Bush administration have used his columns as the ideological basis for some of their most disasterous moves in the region over the last 10 years.”

    Comment by Jeff Blankfort — July 3, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

  7. Okay, Michael Young is bad news. So what in the fuck’s name does that have to do with the idea that bombs + fertilizer = poison gas?

    Comment by louisproyect — July 3, 2017 @ 8:34 pm

  8. Jeff Blankfort: will you give us the link to the Mideast Wire article you quote, please?

    Comment by uh...clem — July 3, 2017 @ 9:08 pm

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