Syrian attacks

Published at Truthout:

Yellow Rain, Anthrax and Weapons of Mass Destruction: History of False Claims Raises Questions About Syrian Chemical Weapons Attack

Jonathan King, News Analysis

Tags: War and Peace; Politics and Elections; History; Syria; US Foreign Policy; Trump; Chemical Weapons; Biological Weapons; Iraq; WMD; Russia

The US missile attack on Syrian targets in April was a dangerous escalation of US military intervention in the Middle East. It was described by the White House and US State Department as a response to alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces in the town of Douma. In assessing the veracity of the US charges, it is useful to review some of the history of US claims of chemical and biological weapons attacks.

Yellow Rain

In 1981 Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State Alexander Haig charged the Soviet Union with using mycotoxins -- toxins produced by fungi -- in Southeast Asia, violating the Geneva Convention and Biological Weapons Convention. The State Department followed up with reports confirming attacks with mycotoxins and press reports appeared of interviews with Hmong residents claiming exposure to "yellow rain" which came down from the skies.

The Reagan administration used these charges to try to discredit the Soviet Union and also to increase the Pentagon budget for chemical and biological weapons research (always labeled as "defensive" programs).

Though the evidence was flimsy, continuous repetition in the press and from the State Department had an effect. The House Committee on Foreign relations held hearings with lurid testimony from Richard Burt of the State Department on the effects of the alleged toxin attacks. The Wall Street Journal ran a continued series of editorials accusing the Soviets of violating treaties and humanitarian values.

Meanwhile, however, the actual evidence became thinner and thinner. Thus Senior Editor Lois Ember in Chemical and Engineering News made clear that "no munition has been retrieved that tests positive for toxins," and even though the Army's Chemical Systems Laboratory "ha[d] not identified a single toxin in any of the myriad samples [of yellow rain] tested," the US government continued accusations.

Finally, in 1984 Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson was able to lead a team to investigate the Southeast Asian sites of some of the alleged mycotoxin attacks. They established clearly that the "yellow rain" was bee feces common to periodic large flights of bees in the region. Subsequent investigation of the interviews with Hmong people revealed serious inconsistencies, as well as the failure of the State Department to release negative results that had been found during the investigations. By 1985, Meselson's team was able to report in detail in Scientific American the identity of the claimed poisons as bee feces, and the absence of any creditable evidence of mycotoxin attacks on local populations.

Despite the complete collapse of the US case that yellow rain represented a chemical weapon attack, President Reagan continued to assert that it represented a military operation carried out by the Soviet Union. This was used to justify sharp increases in the Biological Defense Research Program within the Pentagon budget.

The US had dropped thousands of tons of "Agent Orange" and other herbicides in Vietnam in the previous decade, but that was conveniently ignored.

The Anthrax Letters

Soon after 9/11 attacks, envelopes with anthrax spores were mailed to a number of congressional and media offices. Anthrax, a common skin and respiratory infection of sheep and cattle, is infectious as an aerosol. It also forms spores which are very stable and long lived. Tragically, at least five people who handled the letters died from anthrax infections. Nations that maintained biological weapons programs before and during WWII had extensive experience with anthrax, including US biological weapons laboratories, and Japanese, British and Soviet facilities.

When the white powder of the envelopes was unambiguously identified as anthrax spores, many public figures immediately attributed them to an attack by terrorists or other adversaries in the Global South. In the following years, the anthrax samples were subject to intensive analysis, including genome sequencing. They were the same strain as used in four US military laboratories. By 2008, the FBI had concluded that the source of the anthrax was a US facility and the culprit was Dr. Bruce Ivins, one of the staff at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease at Fort Detrick, Maryland. In July 2008, Ivins committed suicide some days before he was to be arrested. As a result, no trial took place and the case was not completely resolved. However, no evidence was ever brought forward linking the anthrax letters to international terrorists or adversaries.

Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction

Millions of Americans heard Secretary of Defense Colin Powell forcefully claim in February 2003 that Saddam Hussein was violating UN agreements in continuing to maintain weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including chemical and biological weapons. This was the pretext for launching another war against the Iraqi government in March 2003. The US attack was a clear violation of international law and United Nations proceedings, and brought the nation into another counter-productive, destructive and expensive foreign conflict.

In fact, United Nations inspectors led by Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei had reported finding no evidence of WMD stockpiles or weapons caches in Iraq.

In October 2003, David Kay, head of the US search for weapons of mass destruction, reported to congressional intelligence committees that the Iraq Survey Group found no such weapons in Iraq. In February 2004, President Bush appointed a seven-member commission to investigate intelligence operations, including information about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. The final Iraq Survey Group report was released in October 2004. The report concluded that Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

The Gas Attack in Douma

In early April, news sources reported hearing of a chemical weapons attack from civilians, though many details were unclear, including the source of the attack. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an international agency that cooperates with the UN, and is responsible for assessing violations of the Chemical weapons convention, is investigating the charges.

The UN has well-developed protocols for assessing charges of treaty violations. In fact, the US and Russia worked together in 2013 to oversee the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons stores. This was widely publicized at the time.

Nonetheless, President Trump ordered a retaliatory attack on the Syrian government facilities. US news reports implied that the cruise missile strike was on the gas production or storage facilities.

This is the second time the US has charged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and military, and followed up with a missile attack. The first occasion was in the town of Khan Shaykhun. On June 25, 2017, Seymour Hersh presented sources and transcripts that questioned whether there had been a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government or their allies. According to Hersh, toxic chemicals were most likely generated from materials and munitions -- or agricultural chemicals for fertilizers -- that had been stored in or near the designated target, and would have been ignited by conventional weapons.

Muhammad Samini, professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Southern California, has provided a detailed account of the history of the charges of poison gas in Syria, which raises many questions as to the source of such materials and their uses. Among these are whether the source of the chemical weapons were ISIS or related groups, given that the Syrian stocks had been destroyed under international observation, and the unlikelihood that the Syrian Army would have used chemical weapons within territories it controlled, as had been charged earlier.

Agents of the US government have a track record of aggressively accusing foreign powers of violating chemical and biological weapons conventions and treaties, even when the charges were not backed up by reliable evidence. The charges then served to justify continued hostile actions abroad, avoidance of peaceful courses of action and budget increases for Pentagon programs. The allegation that the Syrian government or it allies recently launched a chemical weapons attack on the city of Douma fits this pattern. Before dispatching dozens of missiles with high explosive warheads, in violation of UN standards, the US government and military need to wait for the report from the OPCW, as well as from other neutral observers. Going forward, some committee of the Congress needs to investigate and report on the continuing use of attacks to justify foreign military interventions.    



Jonathan King is professor of molecular biology at MIT, and vice-chair of the board of directors of Massachusetts Peace Action. Professor King was one of the leaders of the biomedical scientist's "Pledge Against the Military Use of Biological Research" pressing for full US ratification of the Biological Weapons Convention, which occurred in 1989.