Jeffrey LewisSyria, Forgeries and False-Flags

Whoops, somehow I initially published my notes for this piece instead of the piece itself. Here is the correct post.

Well, there are plenty of reasons to doubt Sy Hersh’s recent reporting implying that the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta was some sort of Turko-Saudi-Al Nusra false-front attack — I am rolling my eyes as I write it — and not a single one to buy any of it. Dan Kaszeta has explained all the technical problems with the scenario, while Aaron Stein provided a lot of the missing context here at ACW for things asserted about Turkey and Turkish foreign policy.

I don’t have much to add, the but the erstwhile Washingtonian in me noticed this passage:

Asked about the DIA paper, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence said: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’

Normally, the response is to “no comment” specific reporting on intelligence matters. Does that mean it is a forgery? Because I love forgeries.

Well, I hate forgeries — but I find them fascinating.  I find it hard to explain why, other than to say I am interested in public policy as a discipline that studies national-security decisions.  Understanding who made what decision and why requires working with historical materials.  The notion that some of these materials might be forgeries — or that perhaps decisions were made on the basis of forgeries — has always struck me as interesting.  Perhaps that is also because, as someone who prefers Cold War history to other eras, the role of intelligence agencies in controlling information as part of a broader ideological struggle has always seemed like a central part of the Cold War story that seldom finds its way on to center stage.

There are always incentives to feed bum information into the analytic process.  This is sometimes called the  “paper mill” problem.  William Hood — my favorite writer of spy fiction and nonfiction — has a lovely description of the “paper mill” problem in his nonfiction book, Mole.

The demand for intelligence was so great, and at the outset so undiscriminating, that a seller’s market sprang up.  Hundreds of agents found employment in one service or another — a few of the boldest attempted to work both sides of the street.  In Austria, and particularly Vienna, where honest work was hard to come by and scarcely paid a living wage, part-time spying became a cottage industry.

Neck and neck with the scores of agents who at least tried to do an honest job of spying — and perhaps occasionally reading over their shoulders — ran a horde of tricksters who scratched a living by compiling imaginative reports from refugee gossip and press gleanings. Emigres with intimate — if dated — knowledge of Eastern Europe, former Nazi intelligence officers, and con-men competed to peddle fabricated reports to any intelligence service gullible enough to buy them.  …

As CIA gained experience in the postwar operational climate and learned more about its targets in the east, the most egregious fabricators — some of whom were so prolific they were called “paper-mills” — were identified and put out of business.  But in 1952 espionage bunko games were still common.  Anyone volunteering information was suspect until his data and sources had been identified and tested. Recently, the station had spent hundreds of hours ferreting out the sources — nonexistent, as it turned out — of a former colonel in the prewar, Royal Yugoslav intelligence service. The information was trash, but the wily colonel had done a brilliant job of packaging it.

You probably already know about the forgeries suggesting that Iraq sought uranium in Niger. (Peter Eisner and Knut Royce wrote a book about them called The Italian Letter.) The Niger forgeries are a pretty decent example of a paper mill — although it is hard to say whether the goal was money or ideological.

And, of course, there were always the incentives of the Soviets to churn out forged documents to make its main adversary look very, very bad.  The Soviet Union churned out so many false stories to whip up anti-Americanism — disinformation like the false claim that AIDS was an escaped U.S. bio-weapon — that USIA had an entire program dedicated to responding to this stuff.

These active measures included forgeries, one of which I find especially interesting: Field Manual 30-31B (Honorable mention for PRM-46, a forged study on U.S. policy in “Black Africa” falsely attributed to the Carter NSC that is often racist in tone, evidently meant to make the United States look terrible in sub-Saharan Africa.)

FM-30-31B purports to be a supplement to FM-30-31, which apparently had a Supplement A.  The forged Supplement B, though, contains a description of what certain conspiracy types call “the strategy of tension” — the notion that CIA or conservative elements would stage terrorist acts to consolidate their control.  It’s the modern birth of the “false flag” conspiracy theory.  The original context of the forgery is the 1970s — following a number of terrorists attacks by Soviet-affiliated groups like the Red Army Faction in West Germany  and the Palestinian Black September organization.  The Soviets and their satellites were sensitive to the political blowback from their support for such groups — see how gingerly Markus Wolf treats the issue in his autobiography Man Without A Face — and found it convenient to blame the United States for those attacks — or at least to muddy the waters.

It is pretty much a straight line from thinking that NATO staged the “red terror” of the 1970s to concluding that 9/11 was an “inside job” — as illustrated by conspiracy theorists like Daniele Ganser, who started citing FM-30-31B in his book on NATO’s Secret Armies (with official beatdown) before graduating to 9/11 trutherism. There is a still a healthy belief in certain circles that the left-wing terror of the 1970s was all some plot by right-wing paramilitary organizations.  (This should not excuse the very many real instances of right-wing terror, which in the United States, for example, is quite common but underreported.)

Which brings us to the latest claims that Syria’s chemical weapons attack was some sort of false flag event.  The claim is nonsense of course, as Dan and Aaron make clear.  But what is also interesting is how neatly it fits into the pattern of previous disinformation efforts out of Moscow. Did one of the clients do a bad thing? Whether it’s the murderous glee of German Autumn or gassing the suburbs of Damascus, there are always fools willing to buy Moscow’s line that it’s one more CIA false-flag operation. Given how enthusiastically the Russians embraced the false-flag conspiracy from the moment Assad gassed Ghouta, it’s not surprising to see “sources” feeding the same line to reporters over and over.  Hell, Moscow’s now providing Sarin samples.

But it’s just a run-of-the-mill Moscow-driven disinformation campaign, like so many others. If the DIA report turns out to be forgery, rather than, say, taken egregiously out of context, then that won’t be so surprising.


  1. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Ha, Jeffrey, we’re thinking some of the same things. See the last few paragraphs here.

    • John Schilling (History)

      OK, seriously: The London Review of Books?

      Granted, we’ve had WMD-related wonkery published in some pretty non-traditional places, but Hersh usually publishes in the New Yorker. A magazine famous for its meticulous fact-checking, which is particularly important for a writer who makes extraordinary claims based on anonymous sources. But not this time. And a quick google finds the LBR outright bragging about the fact that they don’t do fact-checking the way New York does fact-checking.

      So, given the overwhelming evidence others have presented that Ghouta was the work of the Assad regime, the complete lack of supporting evidence in Hersh’s piece, and the bit where apparently nobody with a fact-checking department would touch it, is there any reason why anybody is even taking this seriously?

  2. Arch Roberts (History)

    Very good. Reminds me that a USG person in the know told me messages on nuclear trafficking trebled after 9/11. The signal-to-noise ratio has bedeviled people ever since. And Hersh always picks up the best noise, the better to divulge a signal at some point. He spent a couple years fumbling around a purported Chinese weapons design sent to Pakistan, and was proved right. But he is largely a reporter of noise.

  3. dingalingy (History)

    I am obsessively on twitter about Syria and I was on that night. There were reports of calm in those areas that night, for the first time in over a month of continuous shelling. Before I went to bed, I saw the first report of a possible chemical attack on Jobar, and in the morning, shelling on those neighborhoods resumed to a level where it was impossible for the UN inspectors to enter the area for 13? days to gather evidence.

    So what people are saying is that the regime stopped shelling so that the rebels could gas themselves! Then why wouldn’t they want the inspectors into the area immediately to gather evidence.

    If you don’t want complicated analyses of chemicals, trajectories, and such , just use your common sense. Thanks.

  4. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Hersh claims that he has the talking points document. I think it’s the other one you’re looking for – I’d like to see that one too.

  5. walt slocombe (History)

    If you like forgery controversies, and want to see what real passion about them can look like, I respectfully refer you to

    It’s about the “Jesus Wife Fragment” question.

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