Allegations that Hillary Clinton was involved in the sale of chemical weapons during her time as United States Secretary of State seemed to be echoed in weaponized disinformation campaigns directed at Ukraine a decade later.
The claim was introduced through a blog post summarizing journalist Seymour Hersh’s book The Killing of Osama bin Laden. In the book, Hersh claimed that former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration had established a “rat line” in 2012 for the purposes of relaying weapons from Libya to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The book stated:
By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from [Muammar] Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer.
Hersh also wrote, however, that a spokesperson for Petraeus denied that any such operation took place. But the blog’s headline ignored that and also claimed that according to Hersh, Clinton had “approves sending Sarin gas to Syrian rebels”:
However, in the body of the post itself, the blog said:
Hersh didn’t elaborate as to whether the “arms” he referred to encompassed the chemical precursors for creating sarin gas, which Libya stockpiled. However, multiple independent reports have independently confirmed that Gaddafi of Libya did, indeed, possess such stockpiles.
Hersh also claimed in the book that the “rat line” operation was run through the U.S. embassy in the Libyan city of Benghazi — the same site as that of the 2012 attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and spawned years of weaponized conspiracy theories used to attack Hillary Clinton.
But when the progressive news site Alternet asked him what role Clinton purportedly played in that operation, Hersh again did not link her to chemical weapons. He said:
The only thing we know is that she was very close to Petraeus who was the CIA director at the time … she’s not out of the loop, she knows when there’s covert ops. … That ambassador who was killed, he was known as a guy, from what I understand, as somebody who would not get in the way of the CIA. As I wrote, on the day of the mission he was meeting with the CIA base chief and the shipping company. He was certainly involved, aware and witting of everything that was going on. And there’s no way somebody in that sensitive of a position is not talking to the boss, by some channel.
The claims accusing Clinton of stocking Syria’s chemical arsenal also ran counter to past reporting on other countries’ involvement in that process, particularly in September 2013 — seven months after Clinton had resigned as Secretary of State.
That month, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “The Russians supply them. Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.”
A Pentagon spokesperson later released a statement regarding Hagel’s remarks:
In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia. The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program. Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program. We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime.
Also in September 2013, the U.S. and Russia — an ally to al-Assad’s government — reached an agreement calling for the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal. As ProPublica reported at the time, evidence suggested that other countries had been helping Syria amass that type of weaponry for years:
As then-CIA director William Webster said in Senate testimony back in 1989: “West European firms were instrumental in supplying the required precursor chemicals and equipment.” Asked why the companies did it, Webster answered: “Some, of course, are unwitting of the ultimate destination of the products they supply, others are not. In the latter case, I can only surmise that greed is the explanation.”
Indeed, Syria received precursor chemicals from the West until well into the last decade. Last week, the German government acknowledged that between 2002 and 2006, it had approved the export to Syria of more than 100 tons of so-called dual-use chemicals. Among the substances were hydrogen fluoride, which can be used to make Teflon, and also sarin. The exports were allowed under the condition that Syria would only use them for civilian purposes. The British government also recently acknowledged exports of dual-use chemicals to Syria.
Both the British and German governments said there’s no evidence the chemicals were used to make weapons.
And a report published by the the Congressional Research Service in September 2013 found “no doubt amongst the UK intelligence community” that Bashar al-Assad’s government already possessed chemical weapons.
The U.S. did send weapons and other supplies to Syrians fighting the Assad regime that same month. As the Washington Post reported at the time:
The arms shipments, which are limited to light weapons and other munitions that can be tracked, began arriving in Syria at a moment of heightened tensions over threats by President Obama to order missile strikes to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons in a deadly attack near Damascus last month.
The arms are being delivered as the United States is also shipping new types of nonlethal gear to rebels. That aid includes vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment and advanced combat medical kits.
Amid its invasion of Ukraine on March 11 2022, Russia accused the U.S. of supporting Ukraine in developing its own chemical weapons in a now-familiar narrative.
“Russia is attempting to use the Security Council to legitimize disinformation and deceive people to justify President Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, American ambassador to the United Nations.
“Ukraine does not have a biological weapons program, and there are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories supported by the United States — not near Russia’s borders, not anywhere.”
As The Guardian reported, that type of accusation had already been a familiar aspect of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s playbook against Assad’s opponents in Syria and elsewhere for years:
From 2015, when Russia took a prominent stake in the conflict, and throughout the gruesome years that followed, claims that they, instead of the Assad regime, had used chemical weapons were a ready-made slur that put them on notice of an imminent assault. The allegations were made by Moscow, whenever ground forces it was supporting wanted to clear a town or city. Brutal, indiscriminate bombardment followed. So did impunity.
For its part, Russian forces have attacked humanitarian corridors set up to allow civilians to escape Ukraine, just as its “safe corridors” that were nominally set up to allow civilians to escape from Syria were notorious for their threats and dangers.
Agnès Callamard, secretary-general of the humanitarian group Amnesty International, said in a statement:
The deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian objects and indiscriminate attacks are prohibited under international law. All unlawful attacks must cease. This pressing need for humanitarian corridors is a direct result of Russia’s betrayal of its legal bligations. Regrettably humanitarian corridors are needed urgently.
The parties to the conflict must give absolute priority to civilians’ safe passage out of the conflict areas and into safe havens, meaning also not to those under Russian control. Russian forces must also immediately allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians who remain in their homes.
Charles Lister, who leads programs for the non-profit Middle East Institute covering both Syria and counter-terrorism, told The Guardian that these attacks in Ukraine were also present in the Syrian conflict and fit a larger pattern of tactics favored by the Kremlin.
“We saw this in Aleppo and now we are seeing it in places like Mariupol. It is clearly a tactic of intimidation and subjugation,” Lister said. “In both cases, it’s shell to hell, surround and besiege, then shell to hell again and offer concessions.”
Update 3/11/2022, 3:47 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. -ag