Richard Lloyd (left) is a former UN weapons Inspector, and current Warhead Consultant at Tesla, Inc. Ted Postol (right) is Professor of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.On 21 August 2013, the nerve agent sarin was used in an attack on the suburb of Damascus, Syria known as Zamalka.

At least 12 munitions, each potentially able to deliver more than 50 litres, fell within an area about 2,000 meters from east to west, and about 900 meters from north to south. We do not know whether the munitions were all fully loaded, or exactly how many casualties there were, but at least several hundred unprotected civilians were killed.

Within roughly a week of the attack, the US intelligence community reported to US leaders. Important findings were relayed to the public through press conferences, Congressional testimony, and documents released by the White House and State Department. The evidence that the Syrian government executed the attack was overwhelming. US Secretary of State John Kerry made the following statements in a State Department briefing to the press on 30 August:

Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack … we have taken unprecedented steps to declassify and make facts available to people who can judge for themselves. …

We know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time. We know where they landed, and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas … for four days, [the Syrian Government] shelled the neighborhood … at a rate four times higher than they had over the previous 10 days.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 3 September, Kerry said, “We have a map, physical evidence, showing every geographical point of impact – and that is concrete. … We are certain that none of the opposition has the weapons or capacity to effect a strike of this scale – particularly from the heart of regime territory.”

Kerry also emphasised the world-leading role of the United States: “By the definition of their own mandate, the UN can’t tell us anything that we haven’t shared with you … And because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the UN Security Council, the UN cannot galvanise the world to act as it should.”

Around the same time, the White House published a map of Damascus that clearly showed the areas affected by the nerve agent attack and the area controlled by the Syrian government. The White House also stated that it had data from US infrared early-warning satellites about where and when the rockets had been launched.

To knowledgeable experts, this would indicate that the US government had an unimpeachable source of technical intelligence that measured rocket launch locations and times of launch to fractions of a kilometer and fractions of a second, respectively.

Unfortunately, this was not the case.

The US intelligence community, supported by the remarkable capabilities of US space-based infrared satellites, supposedly observed that the chemical rockets were launched from the heart of Syrian government-controlled areas, as shown on the map that the White House released. For this to be the case, the munitions would have had to fly about 10 to 15 kilometers, which is simply not possible.

Our analysis of the munition used in the attack on Zamalka reveals that the munition’s range is actually about two kilometers. The United Nations conducted a completely independent analysis of the munition and reached exactly the same conclusion.

In other words, the entire basis for the US intelligence claim is wrong.

We have no doubt that there are talented and knowledgeable individuals within the intelligence community who would have known the actual range of the munition. After all, US intelligence units in Vietnam saw and analysed munitions of similar design. As such, the US intelligence community should have known that this munition could not possibly have flown 10 to 15 kilometers.

It is clear, then, that the intelligence assessment – which Kerry claimed was so carefully scrubbed – was not properly reviewed for accuracy. The fact that this assessment involved a US president, and that the United States could have taken military action in Syria as a result of its findings, makes this worse still.

It is imperative that this egregious error be explained. Otherwise, the chances of it happening again will grow, and next time, we might not be so lucky in avoiding an unspeakable disaster.

(To get a copy of Postol and Lloyd’s study, email a request to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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