When I first read the accounts of the nerve gas attacks in Syria back in August, my first thought was that this didn’t make any sense. Why would President Bashar al-Assad, who had been warned by the President Obama that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” he crossed at his peril, use such weapons to gain a trivial advantage?
My experience of being wrong in the past should have told me that the fact that something doesn’t make sense is no proof at all that somebody wouldn’t do it. As events unfolded, I realized that it would make even less sense for rebel groups to use sarin as a false flag operation, and I accepted the opinion of Doctors Without Borders and other impartial observers that the Syrian government, with or without Assad’s orders, is responsible for the killing.
A couple of days ago, my out-of-town friend Daniel Brandt e-mailed me a link to an article by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books (it had been turned down by the New Yorker and the Washington Post) claiming that President Obama’s charges against Assad were not backed up by U.S. intelligence.
He quoted sources as saying that the Al-Nursa Front, one of the main rebel groups, has the capacity to manufacture sarin. He quoted other sources as saying that U.S. intelligence services have hidden sensors scattered through Syria that would have warned of a government attack. The inspection team that went into Syria reached no conclusion about the source of the sarin, and, as Hersh pointed out, the U.S. government’s statements were carefully worded so as not to attribute its claims to the CIA.
Then Jack Clontz, an e-mail pen pal whom I’ve never met in person, sent me links to an article by a blogger named Eliot Higgins. Based on his Internet research, he has determined that the sarin delivery system was something called Volcano munitions, which only the Syrian government forces are known to have.
Who is more likely to have been responsible for the atrocity? Higgins asked. The Syrian government, which is known to have stockpiles of sarin gas and Volcano delivery systems, or the Al-Nusri Front, making home-made weapons in a secret machine shop?
Logically, both Hersh and Higgins could be correct. Hersh could be right in saying that Barack Obama and John Kerry were ready to commit acts of war based on incomplete information, and Higgins could still be right in saying that all the evidence points to Bashar al-Assad (or maybe some unauthorized person under his command).
I think the full truth is not yet known. For practical purposes, the issue is moot. Agreement has been reached for removal of chemical weapons from Syria, and both the Syrian government and the rebel forces have shown they are well able to kill people on a large scale by non-chemical means.
For me the lessons are as follows:
- Beware of confirmation bias. More than once in my life, I’ve started to look into something, found facts that appeared to confirm what I already thought, and stopped looking. This almost always proved to be a mistake.
- Beware of privileging secret information. Seymour Hersh uses confidential sources to provide him with inside information. Eliot Higgins searches the Internet to find what’s publicly know. Public information is just as relevant, and usually more reliable, than secret information. The principle applies to journalists as much as to the CIA and NSA.