A letter to the Chair of the Commons Defence Committee, the Rt Hon Julian Lewis MP, and his colleagues on 13 April. A parallel letter was been sent to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Crispin Blunt MP, and his colleagues.
"Dear Dr Lewis,
Re: Evidence re Ghouta sarin atrocity on 21 August 2013
I am writing to you and your colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Committee with reference to a piece of mine on the Ghouta atrocity which was recently posted on his ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ blog by Colonel W. Patrick Lang. He is a distinguished American military Arabist, formerly in charge of the Middle East, South Asia and Terrorism at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the first Director of its ‘Humint’ service, and also the first Professor of Arabic at West Point.
My piece develops arguments made by the veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in an article entitled ‘The Red Line and the Rat Line’ published in the ‘London Review of Books’ in April 2014. If his arguments are correct, they have very significant, and disturbing, implications for us in Britain – implications particularly relevant in the light of the recent incident at Khan Sheikhoun and subsequent events.
They may be even more disturbing, against the background of claims made yesterday by our Ambassador to the UN about that incident. Actually, these appear contradictory. So the identification of ‘Sarin, or a Sarin like substance’ in samples from the incident by scientists from Porton Down provides, Matthew Rycroft told the Security Council, good grounds for believing the Syrian government to have been responsible. But then, we were assured on ‘Twitter’ by Mr Rycroft that ‘Scientists in UK have analysed samples from #Khan Sheihoun. Tested positive for #Sarin.’
As sarin is a member of a group called ‘organophosphates’, which includes several other compounds which can be used as chemical weapons, the natural construction of his statement to the Security Council is that material of this kind was identified in the samples tested, but it was not established – yet at least – that it was sarin. But if this was so, it is difficult to see what grounds there could have been for the confidence expressed in the ‘Tweet’.
It would be just possible, although it is not the obvious interpretation, that Mr Rycroft meant to suggest that both sarin and some other ‘organophosphate’ were identified. But, even if the claims can withstand critical analysis, which is not clear, this would also have quite different implications to the suggestion that only sarin was found. It is far from obvious that it would make the Syrian government the likely suspect.
Particularly given the sorry history of accusations against the government of Saddam relating to WMD by American and British officials and politicians which turned out to be baseless, and had disastrous consequences, it would be helpful if Mr Rycroft could be more precise. And, hopefully, we will soon have clarification about exactly what the tests carried out at Porton Down are supposed to have established, and on what basis.
As it happens, it is precisely such clarification that we also need in relation to the Ghouta atrocity. And what makes this all the more relevant to the current situation is that Porton Down plays a central role in Hersh’s account of what was described in press coverage at the time as the ‘head-spinning reversal’ by President Obama.
It was to almost universal surprise, and against the advice of most of his senior national security advisors, that on 30 August 2013 President Trump’s predecessor abandoned plans to respond to Ghouta with air strikes.
According to the ‘Red Line and Rat Line’ article, his change of mind resulted from an intervention by the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. And this, Hersh claims, was successful because General Dempsey was able to support his case with the results of tests on samples from Ghouta carried out at Porton Down, which definitively exonerated the Syrian government.
In subsequent interviews, Hersh has claimed that these tests showed that the toxin used at Ghouta was ‘kitchen sarin.’ The question of what tests carried out at Porton Down and elsewhere established about its precise composition is critical to assessing whether his case his credible. The question of what parallel tests establish about the composition of toxins used at Khan Sheikhoun do or do not establish will be highly significant in assessing whether claims such as those made by Mr Rycroft are credible.
What makes the parallels particularly relevant is that, in support of his – unsuccessful – attempt on 29 August 2013 to secure the support of the Commons for British participation in air strikes in Syria, David Cameron was able to rely on an ‘assessment’ from the Joint Intelligence Committee.
Its then Chairman, Sir Jon Day, provided precisely the same kind of endorsement to claims made on the other side of the Atlantic as Mr Rycroft has just given, asserting that there were ‘no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility’ for Ghouta. As Obama’s change of mind happened on the day following, if in fact test results from Porton Down account for it, these would have had to be in General Dempsey’s possession by that date at the latest.
Accordingly, it is very difficult to see how, if Hersh is right, Sir Jon and his colleagues could have had good grounds for their claim. Indeed, it would appear that there is a real possibility that they committed contempt of Parliament.
My post on ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ argued that a careful scrutiny of ‘open source’ material suggested that Hersh’s account is plausible. Among other things, it addressed one of its most puzzling features, which has, hardly surprisingly, frequently been used to call its credibility into question: the suggestion that the samples tested at Porton Down were supplied by Russian military intelligence.
Whether or not my arguments in support of Hersh’s analysis are cogent you and your colleagues must judge for yourselves. A critical point, however, is that there is evidence in the possession of the British government which should make it possible to decide the issue of responsibility for Ghouta definitively one way or the other, and that arguments about the need to protect ‘sources and methods’ cannot provide good grounds for keeping it secret. And the same situation, I think, is going to apply in relation to Khan Sheikhoun.
As I document in my piece, it is abundantly clear from the public record, that, whether or not Porton Down tested samples from Ghouta supplied by the GRU, they certainly tested ones obtained by our own intelligence services. Furthermore, it is also apparent that its scientists tested samples from earlier incidents in which sarin was used in Syria, in particular that at Khan Al-Asal near Aleppo on 19 March 2013.
Here, a basic distinction between different types of samples is crucial, which is also relevant to the claims by Mr Rycroft. If what is at issue is establishing what toxin or toxins have been used, then ‘physiological’ samples will do the job. Moreover, in normal circumstances, analysis by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) would very rapidly establish whether the ‘signatures’ indicating sarin, or any other ‘organophosphate’, were or were not present in the samples.
There would not be the kind of uncertainty apparently implied by Mr Rycroft’s comments: Porton Down should already know precisely what form of forms of ‘organophosphate’ can be identified from the samples. There are, I am told by people with better knowledge of the technicalities than I, circumstances in which test results might indicate that some ‘organophosphate’ had been used, but leave open the question of which. However, in such circumstances, it would be wildly inappropriate to claim that sarin use had been established.
By contrast, GC/MS analysis of ‘environmental’ samples – of which soil is commonly a key one – may both make it possible to establish whether sarin has been used, and also to ascertain crucial facts about how it has been produced which may make it possible to ascertain who used it. Where such analysis has only ‘degradation products’ to work from, that is, compounds into which an ‘organophosphate’ breaks down, it may indeed not be immediately clear whether sarin or some other toxin has been deployed.
If this is the situation in relation to the tests done at Porton Down on samples from Khan Sheikhoun, then clearly, once again, there would be no justification for claiming, at this point, that sarin use had definitely been established.
If what has been identified, by analysis of either ‘physiological’ or ‘environmental samples, is a combination of sarin and a ‘sarin like’ substance – another ‘organophosphate’ – then questions would arise whether such a combination was likely in Syrian government munitions. But in any case, if Porton Down have ‘environmental’ samples, they should be in a position to do the kind of tests which establish critical facts about how the toxins were made and thus make it possible to have a rational argument about who is likely to have used them.
At the outset, however, we clearly need clarification as to what kinds of samples – ‘physiological’, ‘environmental’, or both, either have been, or are going to be, tested at Porton Down.
In relation to Ghouta and the other earlier incidents to which I have referred, however, it is already clear from the public record that ‘environmental’ samples were supplied to scientists there. And as there is nothing secret about the techniques of GC/MS analysis, it is difficult to see why ‘sources and methods’ considerations provide any cogent reasons why the results of these tests should not be made public.
It also would seem relevant that when Resolution 2235, unanimously adopted by the Security Council in August 2015, set up the Joint Investigative Mechanism of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, it was given the task of assigning responsibility for chemical weapons incidents in Syria. This had not been part of remit of the UN/OPCW inspectors who reported on Ghouta.
However, as far as I can see, there is no time restriction in the Resolution, so it would seem appropriate if the JIM cleared up the position regarding that incident.
It is a matter of public record that OPCW inspectors took and analysed samples from the relevant Syrian chemical weapons stocks before the destruction of these on board the U.S. vessel M.V. ‘Cape Ray’ was completed in August 2014. It has been asserted by Hersh that tests carried out on these by U.S. experts, who we know were also present, did not match with those on the samples from Ghouta.
As with the results of the tests at Porton Down, it is difficult to see any good reason why the results of these tests should not be made public. If all these analyses were in the public domain, it would seem, arguments about who was responsible for Ghouta could be resolved, once and for all.
One final problem merits a brief mention. It was suggested in an article by Martin Chulov in the ‘Guardian’ on 5 April that results on ‘soil’ samples which had already been collected by ‘rescue workers’ at Khan Sheikhoun and supplied to ‘western intelligence officials’ were going to be compared to those on samples from the stocks destroyed on the ‘Cape Ray’. It was also suggested that ‘physiological’ samples were being supplied.
Obviously any such comparison would be of very limited and uncertain evidential value, given the fundamental principle that a secure ‘chain of custody’ is basic in chemical weapons investigations. If moreover Mr Rycroft’s claims are made on the basis of samples described by Martin Chulov, where there are no good grounds for discounting the possibility of ‘doctoring’, then they have no merit, and his making them into a tone of self-evident righteousness brings this country into disrepute.
It is obviously highly desirable that UN/OPCW inspectors should retrieve samples from the Khan Sheikhoun incident. However, in relation to the significant stock of test results we know to exist, with some of them, as with those on samples from the stocks destroyed on the ‘Cape Ray’, ‘chain of custody’ is established. In relation to others, if in fact the test results ‘mesh’ with those either on samples where it has been established, or where collusion can be ruled out, there might be adequate grounds for accepting the validity of the results without it.
This, however, does point up the critical importance of getting the significant stock of test results we know to exist into the public domain as soon as possible.