President Barack Obama told a half-truth in September when he went before the nation to make the case for why the United States needed to respond militarily to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh alleges.
"In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts," Hersh wrote in the London Review of Books.
"Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the U.S. intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country's civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a U.N. study concluded — without assessing responsibility — had been used in the rocket attack."
The Obama administration has responded to Hersh's allegations, saying that they are "simply false," said Shawn Turner, spokesman for the director of National Intelligence, USA Today reports.
Hersh explained that according to a report included in the Operations Order — a document put together by U.S. intelligence prior to a ground invasion — evidence is included "that the al-Nursa Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity."
Hersh alleges that the Obama administration "cherry-picked" the intelligence it cited in favor of blaming Syrian President Bashar Assad for the use of sarin gas, when it should have included al-Nursa in its list of suspects.
"We know the Assad regime was responsible," Obama said
in a speech he gave Sept. 10. "In the days leading up to Aug. 21, we know that Assad's chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.
"I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike," he added.
Hersh argues that Obama was about to go to war against Syria because Assad had apparently crossed the "red line" by using chemical weapons, but he was about to do so without verifying who it really was that had used the chemical weapons on the Aug. 21 attack.
According to the Hersh, there was a lot of frustration and even anger over what those in the intelligence and military community viewed as a "deliberate manipulation of intelligence" by the administration.
"One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration's assurances of Assad's responsibility a 'ruse,'" Hersh wrote. "The attack 'was not the result of the current regime', he wrote."
"A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information — in terms of its timing and sequence" to make it look like the administration had captured intelligence in "real time," Hersh explained.
"The same official said there was immense frustration inside the military and intelligence bureaucracy: 'The guys are throwing their hands in the air and saying, 'How can we help this guy' — Obama — 'when he and his cronies in the White House make up the intelligence as they go along?'"
The officials said that Obama made it sound like the government had received an advance warning that the attack was going to take place before it did, but that wasn't the case, the officials claim.
The United States has set up "a secret sensor system inside Syria" that is watched by the National Reconnaissance Office to alert the government in case there is any "movement of chemical warheads stored by the military."
Hersh explains that for sarin gas to be used, it can only be prepared a few days in advance, as it will start to eat away at the warhead. However, there was no movement detected in the days leading up to the Aug. 21 attack. A possible alternative explanation is that the warheads were supplied to the Syrian army from somewhere else.
The administration is continuing to stand by its claim that Assad was responsible for the August attack.
"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."
One of Hersh's best-known investigative works broke the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal during the Iraq War in 2004 in The New Yorker.
The New Yorker and The Washington Post passed on Hersh's Syria story before he asked the London Review of Books to publish it, according to The Huffington Post.
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