Renowned MIT scientist Theodore Postol says a newly leaked OPCW report shows the supposed 2018 gas attack in Douma, Syria was “staged,” undermining the case for US strikes on the Syrian government.
By Aaron Maté
A newly leaked OPCW assessment challenges the claim that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in Douma in April 2018. Award-winning scientist and MIT professor emeritus Theodore Postol says the report shows the gas attack was “staged,” and undermines the case for the US strikes that followed.
“The evidence is overwhelming that the gas attacks were staged,” Postol said in an interview with The Grayzone’s Aaron Maté.
Postol continued: “If I were advising somebody, as I did when I was in the Pentagon, I advised the chief of naval operations, and part of my job was to take technically detailed analysis and translate it into information that could be readily understood by an intelligent non-expert, so if I were briefing the chief on this particular document, I would not caveat it quite the way that the [OPCW] professionals did, although they did a good job. I would simply say that the evidence is overwhelming that the gas attacks were staged, and then I would explain why this evidence is overwhelming.”
AARON MATÉ: The US has issued a new threat to Syria over what it calls the Syrian military’s possible use of chemical weapons in the province of Idlib. But this warning comes as a previous allegation that led to US military strikes on Syria is coming under question. The Syrian government was accused of dropping gas cylinders that killed dozens in the city of Douma in April 2018. But a newly leaked engineering assessment from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) challenges that claim and says there is a higher probability that the cylinders were “manually placed.” That is the first time this judgment has been made public. It was excluded from the OPCW’s final report on the Douma incident, which was used to pin the blame on the Syrian government.
Theodore Postol is Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT, and he joins me now. Welcome Professor Postol — if you could first talk about just what this leaked document says and what you think the significance of it is.
THEODORE POSTOL: This document is a highly professional document that was obviously produced by a team of experts. It’s written in an extremely careful way and in fact it describes, with high probability but I would say, if I were advising somebody — as I did when I was in the Pentagon, I advised the Chief of Naval Operations. Part of my job was to take technically detailed analyses and translated it into information that could be readily understood by an intelligent non-expert.
So if I were briefing the chief on this particular document I would not caveat it quite the way that the professionals did — although they did a good job — I would simply say that the evidence is overwhelming that the gas attacks were staged. And then I would explain why this evidence is overwhelming.
And the reason the evidence is overwhelming is they did, first of all, very careful mathematical calculations to determine what the scene should look like if it occurred as it appeared. So for example they — using a computer — assumed that a cylinder filled with chlorine was dropped from 500 meters onto this roof, one of the roofs. And what they found is that the cylinder always went through the roof — so that’s a very interesting result. In fact, what they did is, because these are computer experiments — that is to say, mathematical calculations that are done where they can change the parameters — they actually dropped, mathematically, cylinders that had nothing in them. Because they could not get a situation where a cylinder hit the surface of this reinforced concrete roof and did not just go right through it.
And this is critical because what the calculation indicates is that the cylinder would have had so much momentum that it would have gone through the roof — it would not have been on the roof, just sticking into in through this hole that had appeared to be the situation when inspected.
They then took their observations — they had experts on the scene, and these are real experts; I want to underscore real experts versus a phony expert, I’ll have more to say about that shortly — and these real experts observed that the hole in the roof had all the characteristics of a hole created by either an artillery rocket, or a mortar shell. And holes of this kind have certain characteristics that an expert — a true expert, a real expert — would understand. And they describe those details so that someone like me can understand why their conclusion is that it was an explosive charge that created the hole.
That is to say: somebody was firing rockets and mortars; some of them landed on the roof of this building, one of them landed on the roof of this building. It produced a hole. And somebody else came along and hauled the cylinder to this location and stuck it through the hole and tried to make it look like there was a scene that was created where the cylinder fell, caused the hole, and then it happened to be sticking through the hole. Well it turns out when you do the mathematical calculation that’s not what would occur — this cylinder would just pass through pass through the roof.
Now if you read this report — as an experienced person like myself, who can claim some expertise as a professional — you would find a very interesting sentence early in the report. In the early part of the report they describe how they collected data. And they describe collecting data by their own observations; by interviewing various people; and by having discussions with what they describe as “supposed experts.”
AARON MATÉ: Let me read that quote, Professor Postol: “The situation was also complicated by the many sources of information and opinion about what was alleged to have occurred, including impressions and views of alleged witnesses, spokespersons, the media, representatives of state parties, as well as the views of supposed experts in subsequent exchanges.”
THEODORE POSTOL: Yes. Now if I were writing a report, or if any other serious professional were writing a report, and there was legitimate disagreement among real experts – people who you don’t dismiss as not knowing what they’re doing — you would describe them as experts who have different judgments about this or that, and you would describe what those judgments are, because you want to give people an understanding of what the legitimate possible alternative explanations might be.
Instead, these people just talk about “supposed experts.” That is a signal to any other person who’s a real expert that they’re saying we had to deal with a lot of nonsense. Now if you also include the fact that this is a document that is written within a highly constrained bureaucratic environment, that’s another indication that the choice of these words is a serious criticism of the environment they’re in. If you were in the Pentagon and you were in an environment where you were allowed to do your work freely, you would never, never refer to other people who had other input as “supposed experts.” And I think this is a very telltale statement.
Now on top of this, you have a report that was produced and provided to the UN Security Council, and this report is itself very interesting. The report describes exactly what is described as the methodology used in this [leaked OPCW] paper. In other words, this is a report to the UN Security Council that’s published. And they talk about using computer simulations to understand how the scene was produced. And so they give the same description of how they went about doing the analysis. But they say that the result was scenes that they looked at, and the scenes that they produced through mathematical simulation, agreed. So they come to a totally different statement from the statement in this leaked document.
I think the leaked document is correct. And you know, I could go into some technical detail, but let me just give you an example. You have this hole in the roof where they’re supposedly a canister of chlorine; a cylinder of chlorine lying flat on the top of the roof.
Now the only way you could get a small hole with the canister lying flat afterwards, is if somehow the cylinder was falling in a vertical orientation, hit the roof, caused this hole to occur, and then bounced to its side and just came to rest.
Now, you’re dealing with a brittle material in the case of the roof. And what you would expect is that if you hit the brittle material in the orientation of a vertical, falling cylinder, it would look like a bullet hole going through glass. In other words, you wouldn’t have a cylinder lying on its side. If the roof were so thick that you didn’t get a crater, then you could have a canister sitting on its side. But there would be no hole in the roof, for which the canister could then inject the chlorine.
And so this is kind of a thought experiment that dovetails with the very serious computational, mathematical approach that was used in this analysis. So basically what the report to the UN Security Council did. is it borrowed the methodology, description from this [the leaked OPCW] document, or other documents like it, and then changed the findings. That’s what we have here, unambiguously.
So I could say this as an expert in these matters and also as a person who has seen other fraudulent discussions in the past. Unfortunately in my career, I’ve had to be in situations where I’ve wound up trying to find out if something was fraudulent. And this is a classic fraud trick: you describe enough to make it look like you actually did something serious, and then you produce something that makes no sense: In this case, that a cylinder hit the surface, caused this crater — but it didn’t go through like a bullet would have through, but somehow it, bounced back, and fell on the side. Just nonsense.
And so this does not look like an accident. It does not look like error. It looks like very determined, conscious fraud.
AARON MATÉ: So let me ask you, Professor Postol, about the political import of all this. Because I’m not in a position to judge the veracity of what you’re saying — I don’t have the technical expertise, it’s very complicated. But you are a prominent expert when it comes to missile technology, award-winning professor emeritus at MIT, and if what you’re saying is true that the findings were manipulated, coupled with the fact that we have this leaked document. Which tells us that the conclusions of that document were not included in the OPCW’s final report.
And whoever leaked this document felt compelled to share these findings with the public. They’re attributed to this engineering expert, Ian Henderson, but we don’t know who actually leaked it. But whoever did felt it should be publicly known. So what is the political import of all this?
THEODORE POSTOL: Well first of all let me again emphasize some past experience I have. As a science advisor on technical matters that have policy implications, if I were writing this report — and I’ve done things like this for the Chief of Naval Operations and others — the primary finding in this report would be that the evidence is unambiguous that the gas attacks were staged. This would be the primary finding of the report.
There wouldn’t be all this flurry of detail that you find in this report about all kinds of things that are irrelevant to that finding. This is the primary finding of the report. Somebody — gods bless them — had the courage to say, ‘I’ve had enough of this,’ and passed this into the public domain. And this is a good sign for many reasons. First of all, it gets the truth out. But secondly, it also indicates that there is a very high level of professionalism in the staff of the OPCW. That’s good.
So that means if we can correct the problems that are at the top — the people who are taking information that’s well constructed by highly capable professionals who are not politicized — then we solve this problem. So that’s good.
Now as for the motivations it’s very hard for me to do that, to know what they are. But you know I would be playing a little shy if I didn’t say that I have some understanding of the politics in this. And although I won’t claim total political expertise, right now the United States has been seriously involved in trying to blame the Assad regime for everything that’s happened in Syria with regard to gas attacks.
Now I want to be very clear here. I am not saying this guy Assad is a nice guy, and that he’s innocent. I’m not saying that he isn’t a war criminal. I’m simply saying that if you have a serious event where people are killed, and international law is violated — gas attacks are violations of international law — we need to do everything we can to understand who might have done this.
If we don’t like somebody we don’t blame them for it; we blame them for it if we have evidence. This is no different than a trial. If I don’t like somebody, I don’t blame them for being a murderer, unless I have evidence.
And this is very serious because it causes a breakdown in the respect for the UN, for the OPCW — which is less important than the UN — but the UN is the organization that we all go to try to see if we can implement the enforcement of international law. It also threatens the Chemical Weapon Convention because the Chemical Weapons Convention was negotiated at great effort in order to try to establish an international legal foundation for calling these kinds of activities crimes against humanity, atrocities. And if you’re specifically going to blame anybody who’s convenient for your political end, then you’re undermining the Chemical Weapons Convention, and we lose the treaty, and we lose the UN itself as an important vehicle for trying to enforce international law. So the stakes here are extremely high.
The way it appears to me right now — and this is a guess, so I want to be clear I don’t have any inside information here — the United States has been doing everything in its power to try to create an argument for going after the Assad regime militarily. Maybe we should do it, maybe not. But this is not the reason we should do it, if we should do it. I’m not going to argue for it or against it. But this is inventing pretexts in order to justify military actions.
And it very much it looks like what is going on with Iran right now, where there’s all these threats that nobody seems to be able to talk about them because they’re so secret. This very much looks like the kind of thing that we have seen when Colin Powell got up before the UN and simply produced one lie after another. It was a lie. All of the data was totally fabricated in order to justify going to war against Iraq.
Now I myself don’t think it was a particularly good idea to have gone to war against Iraq in that situation. Incidentally, in the first Gulf War of 1991, I actually thought we should have gone to war. I almost got strung up at the University, being at a university meeting with students, and I said I think we need to take care of this guy because it looks like he’s trying to build nuclear weapons, and I don’t think we can sit around and just let him do it. So in the Gulf War of ’91, I was extremely unpopular at MIT by saying this in front of a student audience. 2003 is a different story. We shouldn’t have been doing this.
But if people want to make an argument for going to war, they need to make the argument on its merits. And this has no merit. These are false statements that are not based in any real intelligence. And it’s an abuse of the political system to be pushing for these kinds of things, making these arguments.
AARON MATÉ: Well we’ll save a debate on the merits of the first Gulf War for another time, as we discuss now the merits of US military action in Syria, [about] which you have just given us, Professor Postol, a lot to grapple with in terms of the merits for the Trump administration’s claims for launching that air strike in April 2018.
Ted Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT. Thanks very much.
THEODORE POSTOL: Thank you very much.
Aaron Maté is a journalist and producer. He is contributor to The Nation magazine and former host/producer for The Real News and Democracy Now!. Aaron has also presented and produced for Vice, AJ+, and Al Jazeera.