The Obama administration on Monday flatly denied a report from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, who reported that the Obama administration “cherry-picked intelligence” when building its case for a military strike on Syria.
In the story, published in the London Review of Books, Hersh accuses the administration of assuming that Syrian leader Bashar Assad was responsible for a sarin gas attack outside of Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people.
But Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence, called Hersh’s reporting “simply false.”
"The intelligence clearly indicated that the Assad regime and only the Assad regime could have been responsible for the 21 August chemical weapons attack,” Turner said. “The suggestion that there was an effort to suppress intelligence about a nonexistent alternative explanation is simply false.”
Hersh reports that al-Nusra, a jihadi group fighting in the region, had also "mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity.”
That would contradict repeated claims by the president and other top administration officials that only the Assad regime was capable of manufacturing and deploying the chemical weapon.
To bolster his argument, Hersh points to an incident late last year in which a U.S. sensor system showed sarin production at a Syrian chemical weapons depot in December 2012. At that time, Obama issued a warning to Syria not to deploy the weapon — something that did not occur before the August attack.
Hersh also quotes a munitions expert who raises doubts about whether, as alleged, Syrian rockets were used in the attack. The expert says the weapons used appear to be improvised and not of the Syrian arsenal, casting doubt on another central underpinning of the Obama administration’s intelligence assessment.
In August, the administration released an unclassified report that said the U.S. intelligence community assessed with “high confidence” that the Assad regime carried out the attack.
“Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation,” the report said.
According to the administration, there were at least 12 locations where sarin gas was deployed. It said U.S. intelligence intercepted communications among Assad officials that confirmed the regime was behind the attack, and that the regime had prepared making the poison gas three days before the attack.
Ultimately, the Obama administration opted against a retaliatory strike after Russia helped broker a deal under which the Assad regime would turn over its chemical weapons to the international community. The president’s plan for a series of precision strikes against Syria had found tough opposition among international allies and the U.S. Congress.