The following responses to questions are furnished by a colleague and co-member of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, retired CIA Analyst Elizabeth Murray (who retired as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the near East). The questions came as follow-up to our April 11th VIPS memo taking issue with the White House’s rush to judgement without providing adequate evidence to back up its claims used to justify its recent (illegal) bombing of Syria. In addition to Murray’s responses below, please see these excellent expert analyses challenging the White House: “Wag The Dog — How Al Qaeda Played Donald Trump And The American Media (Responsibility for the chemical event in Khan Sheikhoun is still very much in question)” by WMD expert Scott Ritter and “A Quick Turnaround Assessment of the White House Intelligence Report Issued on April 11, 2017 About the Nerve Agent Attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria” by Theodore A. Postol, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
1. Can you give me some background on your experience in the intelligence community?
I was a career CIA officer for 27 years (I worked on the intelligence side, not on the “dark” or operational side). I specialized in Middle Eastern media and political analysis, living and working in the Middle East for several years. My last position was Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East at the National Intelligence Council. I retired in 2010. I am fluent in Arabic, German, and Spanish.
2. The VIPS memo says that military sources say that the chemical agent that killed the people in Khan Shaikhun was the result of an airstrike hitting a Nusra weapons depot, which falls in line with Syrian and Russian narratives. However, the official US narrative is that chemical agents were dropped by a Russian or Syrian jet. What can you tell me about the Army sources VIPS has in Syria, and why VIPS trusts their info?
Because of our intelligence backgrounds, several members of our organization have contacts with insider knowledge of our government’s operational activities abroad. We were informed by sources on April 5th - a day after the chemical incident in Idlib - that what took place was not, in fact, caused by any chemical bomb dropped by a Syrian plane, but that the events transpired in a manner better explained and much closer to that described by the Russian and Syrian governments. We outline the details in our Memorandum.
We note that the official US narrative was put forth very quickly, in the absence of an impartial and independent investigation, and in the absence of credible evidence. In fact, the White House seems heavily reliant on opposition-based social media to make their case. Some of their videos actually contradict the US claims; for example, sarin toxin is lethal upon skin contact, but the videos show emergency workers using no protective gear handling victims — with no apparent consequences. This doesn’t make sense. I’m also wondering why the White House, not the National Intelligence Council, has issued an assessment. There should be a National Intelligence Estimate on this subject. The National Intelligence Council brings together the gravitas and expertise of all 16 US intelligence agencies. That is the norm for significant foreign policy matters.
As for our own sources, they need to be protected so we cannot reveal them. We would be delighted if a whistleblower would come forward, although that individual would have to be prepared to face consequences similar to those faced by truth-tellers such Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning or Thomas Drake.
3. The memo says “After Putin persuaded Assad in 2013 to give up his chemical weapons, the U.S. Army destroyed 600 metric tons of Syria’s CW stockpile in just six weeks,” but Reuters reported that US officials never believed it all had been destroyed. Do you think there’s any possibility that the Syrian government could have kept some chemical weapons?
Look, there are people who still believe that Iraq has WMD, despite our own government’s admission that it was wrong! The Reuters article quotes an unnamed intelligence official as saying the US “suspects” Syria still retains chemical weapons; that is an incredibly weak statement for an intelligence official to make, since the official doesn’t provide his or her name or offer any facts or evidence to bolster the claim. I am surprised the Reuters item was simply published without any substantiation - is that journalism or stenography? Also, a New York Times article of August 18, 2014 citing the US Defense Department as stating that the Syria’s most deadly chemical weapons including sarin gas have been completely destroyed. This took place under US supervision. Why is there no talk of rebel possession of chemical weapons when this is an established fact?
I think many Americans are well aware that there is a global media campaign under way to influence the public in the direction of war, much in the same way as the Iraq war was sold through the false allegations of WMD (long since proven false).
We should recall that the PR campaign to whip up American support for launching the first Gulf war in 1991 was professionally managed by what was then the world’s largest PR firm, Hill & Knowlton - so we shouldn’t rule out what could happen with respect to Syria. The neocon elements within the US administration want to turn Syria into a failed state, just as was done to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. It’s more of the same, and a human rights disaster.
4. While Tillerson and Trump have kept up the harsh rhetoric, Gen. Mattis said today that things won’t spiral out of control because it’s not in Russia’s interest. The memo quotes Russian Prime Minister Medvedev when he mentioned “absolute mistrust” between Russia and the US, and even speaks of nuclear war. While I agree that nuclear war is a threat, do you think the situation in Syria is dire to the point that a full-on war between the US and Russia could happen?
We should listen carefully to how Prime Minister Medvedev characterizes the state of the US-Russia relationship, since he is considered to be the most pro-Western person in the Putin administration. Not only did he mention mistrust—he said US-Russia relations have been “completely ruined.” Strong words! And if he is the most pro-Western of the Russian leadership, imagine what the rest of them think!
We are already playing a game of dangerous brinksmanship with record numbers of US troops massed on the Russian border with Poland and the Baltic States, and with the largest-ever military maneuvers since World War II having taken place there in June of 2016 (“Operation Anaconda”). How would we feel about 30,000 Russian troops massed along our border with Mexico? Our government staged a coup in the Ukraine back in 2014. This is Russia’s backyard. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and consider their position.
Right now, US and Russian aircraft are flying in close proximity in Syrian airspace. Channels of communication have been shut down since the US launched its 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian airbase. There is hostile anti-Russian rhetoric coming from the US administration and from every major media outlet in the United States. Imagine what could happen if the US shot down a Russian jet (accidentally or otherwise) or bombed a Russian ground crew. Events could easily spiral out of control and could lead to the use of nuclear weapons on either side. I don’t think Russia wants war, but we are really pushing them to the edge. I don’t think we want to go there.
5. Going forward, what should the US and the international community do to put the issues surrounding Khan Shaikhun, including the nature of chemical weapons and increased distrust between US & Russia, to rest?
We need to bring diplomacy back and let cooler heads prevail. Both sides should convene immediately for a high-level summit to defuse tensions and restore a working relationship.