by Andrew Mason
With three new ‘dossiers’ on Syrian WMD capabilities now published, all saying much the same thing and none providing any hard evidence of Bashar al-Assad’s direct involvement in the August 21 chemical incidents in the Ghouta district of Damascus, it is probably worth revisiting one particular previous US claim about the existence of a number of ‘smoking guns’ – in other words prima facie evidence strongly suggesting implied proof of the case that the US wanted to make.
In February 2003 US Secretary of State Colin Powell played and then translated (from Arabic) to a plenary session of the United Nations Security Council parts of the content of three intercepted conversations between Iraqi military officers discussing what was said to be WMD concealment efforts involving a ‘modified’ vehicle, nerve agent and ‘forbidden ammo’. This third claim, actually the second chronologically in the speech, was not a verbatim report of what had actually been said.
Powell not only did not place this communication into proper context, whereby the Iraqi authorities, as part of their increasingly proactive efforts to account for any remaining proscribed weapons, had just agreed with UN inspectors that they would search their vast ammunition dumps for lost, stray, or otherwise empty chemical warheads which had been left over from previous wars, he also added fictitious detail into his version of the transcript to make it sound far more incriminating towards the Iraqi regime, in so far as this then allowed for the possibility that such weapons had been at some point deliberately retained.
The following is a compilation of the original conversation, with Powell’s additions interposed:
Lt. Col: Sir …
Lt. Col: There is a directive of the [Republican] Guard Chief of Staff at the conference today …
Lt. Col: They are inspecting the ammunition you have.
Lt. Col: for the possibility there are forbidden ammo.
Lt. Col: For the possibility there is by chance, forbidden ammo.
Lt. Col: And we sent you a message to inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas.
(Powell’s version: And we sent you a message yesterday to clean out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure there is nothing there.)
Lt. Col: After you have carried out what is contained in the message … destroy the message.
Lt. Col: Because I don’t want anyone to see this message.
Col: Okay okay.
Lt. Col: Goodbye.
Moving forwards to today, it would seem that there is another message that no-one wants the world to see. Reported nearly a week ago by Kenneth Timmerman, a recognised authority on Middle Eastern military affairs, and published by the Daily Caller, a relatively new and successful entrant into the world of online reporting operating in the same sphere as the Huffington Post before it, this piece may explain why President Obama has taken the decision he has, to delay any US military action against the Syrian regime until such time as Congress returns on September 9 and further debates the situation.
The Obama administration has selectively used intelligence to justify military strikes on Syria, former military officers with access to the original intelligence reports say, in a manner that goes far beyond what critics charged the Bush administration of doing in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.
According to these officers, who served in top positions in the United States, Britain, France, Israel, and Jordan, a Syrian military communication intercepted by Israel’s famed Unit 8200 electronic intelligence outfit has been doctored so that it leads a reader to just the opposite conclusion reached by the original report.
The doctored report was leaked to a private Internet-based newsletter that boasts of close ties to the Israeli intelligence community, and led to news reports that the United States now had firm evidence showing that the Syrian government had ordered the chemical weapons attack on August 21 against a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus.
The doctored report was picked up on Israel’s Channel 2 TV on Aug. 24, then by Focus magazine in Germany, the Times of Israel, and eventually by The Cable in Washington, DC.
According to the doctored report, the chemical attack was carried out by the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother.
However, the original communication intercepted by Unit 8200 between a major in command of the rocket troops assigned to the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division, and the general staff, shows just the opposite.
The general staff officer asked the major if he was responsible for the chemical weapons attack. From the tone of the conversation, it was clear that “the Syrian general staff were out of their minds with panic that an unauthorized strike had been launched by the 155th Brigade in express defiance of their instructions,” the former officers say.
According to the transcript of the original Unit 8200 report, the major “hotly denied firing any of his missiles” and invited the general staff to come and verify that all his weapons were present.
The report contains a note at the end that the major was interrogated by Syrian intelligence for three days, then returned to command of his unit. “All of his weapons were accounted for,” the report stated.
What is quite unusual about this account is that it hasn’t been more widely picked up on and referred to elsewhere. It is possible that the author’s work is treated with a degree of caution being as some earlier claims made by him turned out to be less than wholy accurate, this with particular regard to reporting alleging that Iran had acquired Russian-made nuclear-capable missiles from North Korea, and that Saddam Hussein may have been responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Nevertheless, it is possible that his sources might see him as a trusted go-to person. In the Frontpage Magazine article which mentioned the Soviet-era SS-N-6 missiles he clearly states that “U.S. intelligence sources privately confirmed these reports to me.”
Although the magazine subsequently modified the wording of his article from ‘Iran had acquired Russian-made nuclear warheads’ to ‘Iran had acquired medium-range Russian-made nuclear missiles’, this account was still somewhat inaccurate because these were in fact more likely to have been N. Korean-made R-27 copies, otherwise known as the BM25/Musudan-1.
In originally debunking the initial missile claim the archived Newshoggers site also considers Timmerman’s wider bono fides, noting his earlier claimed neoconservative links.
What is currently difficult to reconcile is why the Daily Caller would publish this piece now if it had any doubt about the veracity of the information, which if shown to have been falsified would seriously damage the outlet’s future credibility and reporting credentials. It is quite possible that individual elements within the military/intelligence communities as mentioned in the piece are clearly aware that the manipulation of intercept data has already taken place, and by speaking out seek to defuse a potential repeat of the earlier Iraq intelligence debacle which ended up being hugely damaging to all concerned after it led to the war in Iraq which could have been otherwise been avoided. It is also possible that Obama himself has asked to see the original intelligence material to prevent a recurrence of recent history where he would end up eventually being seen in the same light as George W Bush, and this factor has now caused the deferral of responsibility for any attack against Syria to the wider congressional body-politic.