Denial Nondenial

Here’s a pretty interesting twist on the long-standing policy of governments everywhere to deny stories without denying them: confirming a story by denying it:

The State Department is publicly discounting claims made by its own diplomats about a chemical weapons attack in Syria.

On Tuesday, Foreign Policy detailed a secret and previously unknown cable from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul which came to the explosive conclusion that Syrian government forces dropped a hallucinogen known as “Agent 15″ on rebels in the town of Homs on December 23.

But less than a day later, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland has denied the report, saying that the Foreign Policy story ”did not accurately convey the anecdotal information that we had received from a third party regarding an alleged incident in Syria in December.”

“At the time we looked into the allegations that were made and the information that we had received, and we found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used,” she added. That’s a major deal, because the international community has repeatedly told the Assad Regime in Syria that the use of chemical weapons is beyond unacceptable. The White House issued a statement along similar lines.

Let’s dig a little deeper into this story and click on that “dropped a hallucinogen” link…

The Syrian military used an exotic chemical weapon on rebels during an attack in the city of Homs, some U.S. diplomats now believe.

That conclusion — first reported by Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin and laid out in a secret cable from the U.S. consul general in Istanbul — contradicts preliminary estimates made by American officials in the hours after the December 23 strike. But after interviews with Syrian activists, doctors, and defectors, American diplomats in Turkey have apparently rendered a different verdict. It’s important to note, however, that this was the conclusion of a single consulate within the State Department, and there is still wide disagreement within the U.S. government over whether the Homs attack should be characterized as a chemical weapons incident.

“We can’t definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23,” an unnamed U.S. official tells Rogin.

Said “compelling case” was made by a contractor who monitors rebel communications and discovered some YouTube videos.

What has been confirmed is that Syria used some sort of tactical weapon on its own citizens on December 23, and said weapon consisted of a “riot control agent.”

In other words, it could be tear gas, it could just be smoke, or it could be Agent 15, which is employed in such a fashion and is roughly as dangerous as tear gas, in that with normal use, it’s an irritant; in concentrated doses, it can be fatal.

CNN investigated the story and uncovered that doctors who treated those rebels employed atropine, which would actually enhance the effects of a hallucinogen. Those who were closest to the weapons strikes had more severe reactions to the agent than those farther away.

Atropine is used to treat sarin gas exposure. Hence, a denial nondenial.


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  • I took part in the Twitter argument about Rogin’s first post on Tuesday night. There is a bunch of conflicting stuff out there, a lot of people who don’t know what they’re talking about, and a number of people who retweet without reading what they’re retweeting (that’s the best interpretation).

    I’m working on a post that will try to sort some of this out. I’m not convinced it’s confirmed that Syria used an agent of any kind against its citizens. There’s a Facebook account that claims that the whole story was concocted by rebel sympathizers in Turkey. I have no idea how reliable that is.

    Atropine will kill you if you don’t have an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor in your system. And I don’t necessarily believe CNN either. There are far too many people reporting who don’t know what they’re talking about. And statements from the people on the ground have been contradictory; it’s possible they don’t know what they’re talking about either, the reporters have gotten it wrong, or they’re running an agenda.

    • I’m not convinced yet that there was an agent used, that if there was one used it was done by the regime rather than AQ, or that if one was used it was actually Agent 15/BZ at all. As Cheryl writes, there’s a lot of confusing and contradictory information going around on this story.

      What I am convinced of is that there is a faction within the U.S. State Department who have at least twice now leaked scary stories about Syrian chemical weapons to the press, obviously in an attempt to gin up the narrative for intervention. At the moment, that should be the real story imho.

      • I would not presume at all that this is an organized faction, nor would I be particularly certain as to what “gin up” means in this context. You’re looking at this through blog coloured glasses – seriously, how many times has the “left” part of the blogosphere sought to fit data around a narrative established by the leadup to Iraq? It’s damned near an analytical trope by now and it’s obscuring the fact that way more is unknown about these leaks than is known. Is it some neo-con salivating at the potential that “real men” will finally get to go to Damascus, or is it some young half gone-native FSO who’s seen too much butchery that the chattering classes and the folks back inside the Beltway use as grist without understanding?

        I dunno, and I don’t think anyone does at this point.

        I look at what the consensus state of play is and I see them going against the emotive, rather than for it as they did with Iraq. If that consensus shifts to go with the emotive, then I’d say grab your wallet. Right now, I don’t think so.

      • Former Clinton admin flack Heather Hurlburt:

        From a humanitarian perspective, the question of chemical weapons is a profound distraction. Either suffering of this magnitude is a regional and global matter of consequence, or it is not. And, equally painful, either there is a workable plan to end it from outside, through negotiations, force or some combination of the two, or there is not.

        No. Ultimately, this mini-story tells us more about ourselves in the west than about Assad’s regime and the fight to determine what comes after it.

        The Obama administration made chemical weapons use a “redline”. Why? Because of the weapons’ potential to kill thousands a day, not hundreds. But also because of the desire to maintain a taboo, however weak, against the use of such weapons anywhere, in order to protect US interests, forces and citizens from them.

        If Rogin’s report is correct, the Assad regime chose to use a chemical agent that is controlled under the Chemical Weapons Convention, but that is not one of the more lethal agents available to it. This suggests that Assad might be testing – and taunting – Washington, but also that the White House threat has deterred him, so far, from using the Sarin and other agents in his arsenal.

        But whether it is correct or not, the back-and-forth lays bare a set of efforts to move US policy based on that redline. Syrian opposition figures clearly worked hard to tell American diplomats, and Rogin, that chemical weapons had been used. What is perhaps even more interesting, from a Washington perspective, is that a state department that has been very nearly watertight under Secretary Clinton suddenly sees anonymous officials briefing reporters on the content of classified cables. There are, then, those inside government who want to use that pledge of a “redline” to press for more aggressive action as well.

  • Also in the CNN report, along with the comments about atropine from one doctor,

    The [US] officials also said that while some Syrian doctors on the ground were convinced the gas was a chemical weapon, others were not.

    A senior Turkish diplomat told CNN that Turkey also conducted its own investigation into the chemical weapons allegations, but found the claims to be unsubstantiated.

    The big problem in this story is figuring out whom to believe.

  • Steve FTW on Twitter: Surely the real Syrian CW lede is that someone at State keeps leaking scary stories to press to gin up intervention narrative.

    Now I don’t have to write that post.

  • It is highly unlikely that whatever was used was sarin. Sarin is a liquid at room temperature. It is dispersed by forming fine droplets that settle on skin and clothes. Think about the greasy film you get on you when you fry bacon.

    If sarin had been used, the people affected would have had that greasy film of sarin on their skin and clothes. So the guys who carried them in and the workers treating them would have been exposed. They would have needed hazmat-like moon suits to protect them. But the original report had them asking for more facemasks. Sarin fail.

    There have been no reports of responders or helpers with sarin symptoms.

    Therefore, it was not sarin.

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