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The Nerve Gas Attack Described in White House Report Did Not Occur, Expert Says of Syria Incident

Posted on Apr 19, 2017

By Theodore A. Postol

  Video frames from the location in Khan Shaykhun where mass casualties either occurred or were being treated. (The wording below some of the images is embedded in the original recordings.)

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Theodore A. Postol is professor emeritus of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a specialist in weapons issue. At the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, he advised on missile basing, and he later was a scientific consultant to the chief of naval operations at the Pentagon. He is a recipient of the Leo Szilard Prize from the American Physical Society and the Hilliard Roderick Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he was awarded the Norbert Wiener Award from Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility for uncovering numerous and important false claims about missile defenses.

Editor’s note: This article about the alleged nerve agent attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, earlier this month contains an important error that Theodore A. Postol has corrected in a new report, posted April 21 on Truthdig.

This analysis contains a detailed description of the times and locations of critical events in the alleged nerve agent attack on April 4 in Khan Shaykhun, Syria. The conclusion assumes that the White House Intelligence Report (WHR) issued on April 11 correctly identified the alleged sarin release site.

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Analysis using weather data from the time of the attack shows that a small hamlet about 300 meters to the east-southeast of the crater could be the only location affected by the alleged nerve agent release. The hamlet is separated from the alleged release site (a crater) by an open field. The winds at the time of the release would have initially taken the sarin across the open field. Beyond the hamlet there is a substantial amount of open space, and the sarin cloud would have had to travel a long additional distance for it to have dissipated before reaching any other population center.

READ: A Critique of ‘False and Misleading’ White House Claims About Syria’s Use of Lethal Gas

Video taken on April 4 shows that the location where the victims were supposedly being treated for sarin exposure is incompatible with the only open space in the hamlet that could have been used for mass treatment of victims. This indicates that the video scenes where mass casualties (the dead and dying) were laid on the ground randomly was not at the hamlet. If the location where the bodies were on the ground was instead a site where the injured and dead were taken for processing, then it is hard to understand why bodies were left randomly strewn on the ground and in mud as shown in the videos.

The conclusion of this summary of data is obvious—the nerve agent attack described in the WHR did not occur as claimed. There may well have been mass casualties from some kind of poisoning event, but that event was not the one described by the WHR.

The findings of this analysis can serve two important purposes:

1. It shows exactly what needs to be determined in an international investigation of this alleged atrocity. In particular, if an international investigation can determine where casualties from the nerve agent attack lived, it will further confirm that the findings reported by the WHR are not compatible with the data it cites as evidence for its conclusions.

2. It also establishes that the WHR did not utilize simple and widely agreed upon intelligence analysis procedures to determine its conclusions.

This raises troubling questions about how United States political and military leadership determined that the Syrian government was responsible for the alleged attack. It is particularly of concern that the WHR presented itself as a report with “high confidence” findings and that numerous high-level officials in the U.S. government have confirmed their belief that the report was correct and to a standard of high confidence.

Methodology Used in This Analysis

The construction of the time of day at which particular video frames were generated is determined by simply using the planetary geometry of the sun angle during the day on April 4. The illustration below of the sun-angle geometry shows the Day/Night Sun Terminator at the location of Khan Shaykhun on April 4. The angle of the sun relative to local horizontal is summarized in the table that follows the image of the planetary geometry along with the temperature during the day between 6:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The next set of two side-by-side images shows the shadows at a location where a large number of poison victims are being treated in what appears to be the aftermath of a poisoning event. The shadows indicate that this event occurred at about 7:30 a.m. This is consistent with the possibility of a nerve agent attack at 7 a.m. on April 4, and it is also consistent with the allegation in the WHR that an attack occurred at 6:55 a.m. on that day.

The timing sequence of the attack is important for determining the consistency of the timelines with the allegations of a sarin release at the crater identified in the WHR.

Assuming there was enough sarin released from the crater identified by the WHR to cause mass casualties at significant downwind distances, the sarin would have drifted downwind at a speed of 1 to 2 meters a second and for several minutes before encountering the only location where mass casualties could have occurred from this particular release. The location where these mass casualties would have had to occur will be identified and described in the next section. If there was a sarin release elsewhere, mass casualties would have not occurred at this location but would have occurred somewhere else in the city.

Assuming the victims of the attack were exposed to the plume, the symptoms of sarin poisoning would have expressed themselves almost immediately. As such, the scene at 7:30 a.m. on April 4 is absolutely consistent with the possibility of a mass poisoning downwind of the sarin-release crater.

The next figure shows the earliest photograph we have been able to find of an individual standing by the sarin-release crater where the alleged release occurred. The photo was posted on April 4, and the shadow indicates the time of day was around 10:50 a.m. Thus the individual was standing by the crater roughly four hours after the dispersal event.

If the dispersal event was from this crater, the area where this unprotected individual is standing would be toxic, and this individual would be subjected to the severe and possibly fatal effects of sarin poisoning. As a result, this throws substantial suspicion on the possibility that the crater identified by WHR would be the source of the sarin release.

At the time of the sarin release, the temperature of the air was about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun was at an angle of only 8 degrees relative to local horizontal. This means that liquid sarin left on the ground from the dispersal event would remain mostly unevaporated. By 11 a.m., the temperature of the air had risen to 75 degrees, and the angle of the sun relative to horizontal was at 66 degrees. Thus, one would expect that the combination of the rise in air temperature and the sun on the crater would lead to significant evaporation of liquid sarin left behind from the initial dispersal event. The air temperature and sun angle are such that the area around the crater should have been quite dangerous for anybody without protection to operate.

This is therefore an important indication that the crater was probably not a dispersal site of the sarin.

The final set of three photographs shows arriving victims seeking treatment at a hospital at some location in Khan Shaykhun. The arrivals at the hospital are between 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. on the day of the attack. This is perhaps late since victims were seriously exposed by 7:30 a.m., but victims could have been trailing in after the initial arrival of severely affected victims. This time is considerably earlier than the time at which WHR alleges that a hospital was attacked while treating victims of the poisoning attack.

In the next section, we discuss the location where mass casualties would have occurred if the sarin release occurred at the location alleged by the WHR.



Sun shadows at about 7:30 a.m. on April 4 at a location where large numbers of victims from a poisoning event were being treated.


A man without protective equipment standing next to the crater at 10:50 a.m. on April 4—roughly four hours after the sarin release alleged by the WHR.


Victims arriving at a hospital in Khan Shaykhun between 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. on April 4 following the mass casualty event observed at 7:30 a.m.


An image from about 10:30 a.m. in Khan Shaykhun suggesting a possible additional location where casualties were generated from a poisoning attack.


Identification of the location of the mass casualties.

The figure on the next page shows the direction of the toxic sarin plume based on the assumption that the alleged release point was the crater identified by the WHR. The wind conditions at the time of the release, which would have been at about 7 a.m. on April 4, would have carried the plume across an empty field to an isolated hamlet roughly 300 meters downwind from the crater.


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