The Obama administration quashed intelligence reports that suggested an al Qaeda-linked group could have been responsible for the sarin gas attack carried out in Syria last August, according to a news report published in London on Sunday.
In threatening a U.S. military strike on Syria during the weeks that followed after the Aug. 21 chemical attack, President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry cited “definitive” evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad had been responsible for the incident.
What they kept secret, according to an article by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, was the belief of U.S. spy agencies that military forces loyal to Mr. Assad were not ones in Syria’s civil war to have access to sarin.
“In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal ‘Operations Order’ — a planning document that precedes a ground invasion — citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al Qaeda, had master the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity,” Mr. Hersh wrote in the London Review of Books.
The al-Nusra Front was officially designated a “foreign terrorist organization by the Obama administration last year and should have been a suspect, according to the Hersh article.
Instead, in order to solidify a White House narrative that Mr. Assad had crossed Mr. Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons, the Obama administration “cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad,” the article claims.
While Mr. Hersh’s assessment could be read as providing backing for Russian claims that the Syrian rebels were behind the deadly August attack, the article has drawn a harsh dismisal from at least one key source in the U.S. intelligence community.
In a statement emailed to The Washington Times on Tuesday, Shawn Turner, the director of public affairs at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said that — contrary to claims made by Mr. Hersh’s article — “The intelligence clearly indicated that the Assad regime and only the Assad regime could have been responsible for the 21 August chemical weapons attack.”
“There’s no evidence to support Mr. Hersh’s claims to the contrary and the suggestion that there was an effort to suppress intelligence is completely false,” said Mr. turner, who added that, “As it stands today, no U.S. intelligence agency assesses that Al Nusrah Front has succeeded in developing a capability to manufacture sarin.”
U.S. officials have said more than 1,400 people, the majority of them innocent civilians, were killed in the attack.