tv After Words Joby Warrick Red Line CSPAN May 8, 2021 12:59am-1:55am EDT
university professor author angela stent. >> host: welcome, everyone to what will be a fascinating and probably disturbing conversation. joby warrick is the "washington post" national security correspondent and a two-time pulitzer prize winner, once for journalism and once for general nonfiction in the book category. he covers the middle east, terrorism, intelligence and other national security issues, and his book "red line," tells a powerful story about how the united states worked to destroy president bashar al-assad of syria to destroy his arsenal of
chemical weapons. and it really does read like a thriller in many places, except it's a very compelling book and i'm sure you will get a lot out of reading it. i published a book a couple of years ago where i accepted the conventional wisdom that russia and the united states worked together on chemical weapons, but of course if you read joby warrick's book, you will see they've done a lot to obstruct it and that is a whole another story, so i'm going to begin with the first question. can you tell us why you decided this. >> guest: i'm honored to be with the experts in this country. it's terrific and i couldn't have recommended it highly
enough. why i do this book is for several reasons, but as a storyteller, story uses the courtesy of our trade and this is amazing as tragic as it is. all of the drama of trying to get this stuff out and then having the syria policy collapse around it so that was part of it and then the more i got into the subject, the more complicated and fascinating the storyline began heading off in so many directions from activists trying to prod the united states into doing something just to the pure cruelty of some of the combatants and isis coming into the picture and trying to figure out what to do with these weapons, so there is wonderful fascinating story threads. that was part of it. as another part, as an author -- this is my third book -- in each
one, i try to let the narrative tell a bigger story. my last book ended up focusing on mostly one individual who was the godfather of isis back in iraq in the early 2,000's creating an organization like al qaeda, and an intelligent story that allowed me to understand where the group came from and why they are so different and why they are so vicious. i tried to do the same thing here. there are confusing complicating things. why was the redline threat issue, why is the conflict so horrific and tragic, so i tried to explain some of those complexities in the book and i try to make it more powerful and real and relatable.
>> host: they are moving. i guess the next question how did you go about collecting the material for the book on a complicated and dangerous subject? >> one of the privileges of my job, we have a license to ask questions including two government officials. we can go up and say i work for the "washington post," i'm an author i would like answers to questions and you can get some responses and to have the answers we are seeking this complicated in the war how do you do that, who does it and then make sure you have it all.
so i've done a lot of work on weapons of mass destruction and in my realm of sources they spoke to people that are on the ground to deal with the frustrations and complications and that leads to a million other sources along the way all of this becomes part of this tapestry and each story collects in its own way to another. >> host: your book starts out with a compelling portrait. how do they find out about the chemical weapons program? >> guest: we had in angering they were doing something in the 70s and this is when they had
weapon systems of various kinds. they had all kinds of capabilities and the syrians were starting to nibble at the edges as well getting precursor stocks from other countries. but what became fascinating to me was how this program was different from the others. with syria, it was a chemical weapons program arsenal which was nuclear arms and so they put a lot of effort and expertise into building a very robust chemical weapons program not just mustard gas and the old stuff but the most sophisticated weapons they can build.
we had a scientist that happened to love america and he was open to the idea of helping us out. we were trying to protect his identity but he agreed to help us by giving secrets from inside of the program. how much did they have, and even at one point he passed a sample to us, a small sample of certain that he could take back home and test himself. i will not give away the ending, but he betrayed and ends up being discovered. because of that spy when things do start to go bad and the country starts to fall apart, we
know as the united states very well what is at stake and what the weapons are that can potentially be parted by any number. a. >> he is a very compelling character you write about him in the book but there are a number of compelling characters in your book, some from the region, some from different parts of the united states. would you like to give a hint of the larger-than-life characters that appear in the book? >> a few of them i could probably write a whole book about because they are so interesting. they help take the weapons out. they had no real military or technical weapons experience but had to go head to head and force
them to hold up to their promises. the hotel comes under artillery attack people are following her around so her life becomes very interesting but she sticks to it and makes this promise but her story is compelling. there's others like this i will mention, just this young medical intern who finished this degree and just wants to become a doctor and live a normal life as a physician. the war drags him into the conflict in a way that he never anticipates. he's working in the hospital when the forces bring in some of the opposition figures they have
arrested and take them out of the hospital and prison. they had medical supplies in their car and they torture and kill them answer their bodies on fire. at one point he is arrested and taken into prison and beaten and his father paid someone to get him out of jail and he's troubled about what to do and he decides i have to go back to the front. his mother grabs a knife, gives it to him and says i'd rather be killed by you than to have the horror of some day knowing someg somebody is going to knock on the door and tell me that my son is dead the chemical weapons and
he's obsessed with the idea that if the attack happens, people have to know what to do. and he also begins to try to collect evidence and bring it to the outside world sometimes crossing into the territory. he's one of the many fascinating people that you meet as you go through this journey. >> host: indeed he is a very sympathetic character as you've described him. let's move on now. if you could describe the 2013 attack in syria and how the u.s. and its partners were able to
identify the exact nature of the chemical weapons. >> guest: there is the attack that happened in 2013. but before that, there was kind of an interesting run-up. there were little and break attacks across the country, and artillery shell here and there, tear gas canister filled with sarin dropped on one town in northern syria to kind of test the obama administration's redline and a theory on whether they could use the strategic weapon as a tactical tool to break the resistance and demoralize them, to drive out the area that they occupy. so there's interest around the world to understand what these attacks are so they put together a team of inspectors to try to investigate and while they are there, this attack takes place
in the suburbs to the south. for the missiles or rockets shells maybe there's a couple dozens of the most. this one attack ends up killing 1400 people where the children are sleeping in the underground basement shelters and it seeps down to the lower structures of the building to have this account right away and the images of this attack are around the world. so this begins a great diplomatic struggle between the united states, the un, russia and all these other places on how to respond. they are in the syria to witness it and be close enough to go and
investigate. they become part of this as well because the u.s. wants them out to launch an airstrike. you've got a fact-finding mission on the ground. you've got them wishing to be low-key about this, but they get shot at, held up at gunpoint but managed to get precious evidence and samples and while the rest of the world has concluded it was a nerve gas attack, there is no clarity about who was responsible. this team finds compelling evidence that points to the regime and over time eliminates the operation, but this is the core story of the book and some
amazing acts of bravery on the parts of those that went to these dangerous places to understand the truth. a. >> could you say something about what helped them identify them? >> guest: one of my favorite stories as heartbreaking as it is, in those investigations when they were trying to figure out these attacks involves a single woman, one in the northern part to the turkish border and it's just a couple of tear gas canisters. one of them in the courtyard and she becomes the only fatality. she gets a pretty good dose of sarin and her family decides to take her out of the country to get help. she dies in turkey and then it's miraculous for her story because they have a body and eventually
because the investigators come in july and they try to find evidence of these attacks and have a woman they can autopsy. they do this autopsy and not only find sarin, but enough of it that they can do a pretty good profile that becomes crucial later on when they try to prove that it came from the syrians and not another source of terrorists. >> you also look at isis and the chemical weapons. isis was trying to acquire them. does that make it difficult to attribute and how was isis able
to acquire? >> guest: when they were running the organization they once said weapons of mass destruction was a duty for this terrorist group and they tried to make things they could use. they begin using chlorine is a chemical weapon so there is an opportunity they could potentially steal some stuff and they came very close. the next best thing we will try to make our own to draw the attention of the world with just a few rockets shells and the
programs. this has never happened except the japanese death called but the terrorist group with laboratories, university facilities and they go to work to try to make chemical weapons. we find out how this activity is going on and very quietly to try to find the locations and identify, capture or kill the key individuals, so we stopped them very quickly. they did manage to make -- they used a lot of chlorine, but they didn't up making mustard gas. it isn't all that is technically challenging but the kind they made was very crude in the sense that it deteriorates very quickly. for that reason when the
investigators examined the attacks they can say this is something that was made in the laboratory but it doesn't high-grade stuff and they were able to say this is isis manufactured. even though they didn't get as far as they would like it is clear that the ambition didn't go away. we don't know if they've been killed or captured somewhere we just assume they are still around. they continue to say occasionally that they want to do this again, that it has an aspiration to carry out the attack and that knowledge about how to do it still exists. >> and in world war i it's used. >> that is important.
it's the only weapon system that we decided to do something about, so the first banning of a weapon was chemical weapons. there is something that was viscerally terrible. it's something that motivated us to say this is never going to happen, there is an international taboo against it. so we were alarmed by all of the things that we saw. >> very importantly, tomac. let's look at the obama
administration. if you could talk about the evolution of the policy of syria why wasn't there more of a response afterwards and why wasn't it happening yet? >> guest: one has to put one's self back in time in 2011. the obama administration when the arab spring is breaking out. i happened to have been back in the late '80s a reporter covering the fall of communism
and the perils were amazing. there was a sense of history turning so it was exciting in a way. there were the democracies on the horizon and the obama administration had to quickly scramble what to do about the movement, how to respond with egypt and other places aspiring to be free of dictatorship and so our initial response was condemning violins and dictators and then the president of syria must go. the problem was it was ruled by an extremely brutal family that was prepared to sacrifice anything and destroy the country to stay in power in a way that
others were not. russia, number one, and iran. both saw the vital national interest and even more so as the war continued and their commitment to get a solid to leave and that becomes the core international conflict. the administration i think you would talk to most they would acknowledge we gave the syrians more hope than we were prepared to back up by saying the implicit meeting is that al-assad must go and we are going to make it go whereas they were not about to get involved in the military conflict if at
all and its reluctance to become involved with boots on the ground, so that isn't going to happen but because of statements like al-assad must go and the redline warnings which kind of grew out of the intelligence that we had of these typical weapons that were so problematic and worrisome were about to be handed over to the terrorist group that came from a 2012 and so we are putting out messages all over the world to talk to the syrians and see if we do this there is going to be big trouble and in one case obama uses the phrase redline which has a kind of implicit meeting but again it is an instance where we appeared to promise help we were not prepared to
deliver. we had a billion-dollar training and equipping program that trained tens of thousands of fighters that delivered weapons to them as well as equipment and uniforms and lethal aid and because of the opposition so fragmented it has a sort of unified office but the reality on the ground as there are hundreds of these small groups that don't necessarily work well together. some of them are people we don't want to associate with. the more we try to help, the worse the situation seemed to become i think to the folks in the obama administration they
would look back and say this was a train wreck. i think that she's absolutely right about that and as much as we tried and had good solutions everything could blow up in our faces. >> they wanted al-assad to stay in power. can you say more about what the stakes were and still are in this situation in syria and so going back to what happened with congress' role. >> guest: this becomes the out
for obama whatever he's contemplating whether or not to use military force in syria it's quite complicated. it's given the redline warning. the missiles on the tubes are ready to go but there's a number of factors that get in the way and this whole problem in the middle east we have a bad history of misinterpreting and starting the war so we make sure that took some time and other countries started to back away from the idea. we should do it as a united country so let's get congress to support and within the cabinet,
people felt very strongly that they would back the president and get behind the leader and the republicans would support the military strike and it turned out that nobody supported this idea so they promise a military strike and the support of congress to do it. so until this deal came together, you really looked stuck. what i see as important about this conflict going forward is that had has become ever more clear that the united states needs to remain engaged. the biden administration has other things they are focusing on but without at least a diplomatic presence in the
region, without some military component of that response it becomes easy for other countries to dominate the solution, whatever that is, and it could be quite if for example iran is allowed to create a land bridge to lebanon that goes through iraq and syria and is kind of populated along the way with militia groups. that's what they've been trying to produce and it would take an active presence by the united states to make sure that it doesn't come to fruition. >> let's turn to the russian and american angle of this now. dismantling the chemical weapons programs they were supposed to work with the u.s. identifying the weapons and then destroying it, but as you tell us, would
you say putin had an extraordinary piece in september of that year saying we should do this and apart from that apparently telling the secretary of state they basically told they had to go along with it it seems not only did they not do anything to help either identify or dismantle them, but in some cases obstructed it so tell us more about what they did and were they interested in having the syrians? >> guest: there was an interesting moment when countries in the world including the united states and russia came together over the chemical weapons talk and the motivations for doing this for quite different but there was a common
cause trying to disarm the stockpile. from the russians point of view he could help resolve the problem and they had the ability and i think you eluded to this, there is a moment when the foreign minister and secretary of state were having an argument in the book and blaming lover off for not forcing them to cooperate and he says when you wanted them to get rid of the chemical weapons you wanted them to turn around in 24 hours. he looks back and that shows you the great power of influence the russians had over their allies
survival. they had this card to play and they played it very well. it was in russia's interest to eliminate a stockpile that was becoming an embarrassment and by implication it's better to get rid of the weapons so that was a good thing to do from russia's point of view but they did remarkably little after the initial deal was broken to get them to contribute various things they could have done. they brought them across the black sea. there's things they could have done. at the end they refused and
contributed to the maritime operation that was essentially providing protection off the coast but everything had come from the united states or the un or our allies and after the initial removal after the bulk of the stockpile was taken in support of the operation to being completely in al-assad's camp backing up allegations blocking any kind of punitive measures from ever getting to revote and not just the united states and so from that point on, putin becomes more and more of an obstructionist protecting his client at all costs.
that's been a role since 2015. >> host: as far as you could identify they never really put pressure on him except initially saying that you had to allow these people to identify and take away the weapons. so, now you have some fascinating details in the book about how these weapons were identified and how they were transported to the place to where they were going to be then transported to somewhere where they could be destroyed.
[inaudible] really at the very last moment. >> very little is known i must say people do not appreciate the difficulty of the challenge. it is one of the most remarkable feats in history. the entire program was completely or mostly dismantled and it happened after the war people were firing rounds over the vehicles passing during these weapons but you can look back to the moment when the deal comes together. everybody is excited and asked the question how do you do that, who does that we have the
organization for chemical weapons and they have inspectors that go around and do the verification missions. they don't have the logistical ability to set up camp in another country so this program was cobbled together and just three weeks after the deal was signed, the first inspectors start to rise and do the job. they got there so quickly we don't have an operating room or the tools, they don't have anything so they start from scratch. it allows them to go to one facility after another first to do inventory and then start
calling things out so every piece of equipment that they could identify had to be literally trashed. to the extent that they could never get. to destroy the production equipment or there were laboratory is left over from these factory -like facilities where they made chemical weapons and they were dismantled piece by piece so they could never be used again so that was the job they did and it took place in an amount of time nine months from beginning to end but when you get the chemical weapons out of the country mostly liquid stuff, there's no place for it to go.
there's no country that will say sure bring those plastic chemicals we will take care of it. the united states, european allies, nobody wanted this stuff so the solution comes to this one organization that works with a special team where they find chemical weapons that are left over and they can figure out how to get rid of it so they were tasked with building a machine that can take the chemical weapons and destroy them and there's an initial plan we will build the machine off the coast of syria, they will gradually take the weapons and get rid of
them. let's put the machines on a ship and take it out in the middle of the sea and there's all kinds of reasons because chemical weapons capsizing all these dangers isn't really ideal but there's nowhere else to put them for 42 days they are spending circles around the mediterranean machine to try to destroy the weapons and there are problems that come and equipment breaks down and they start to wear out much more quickly than they thought it was because on a cargo ship you've got all these liquids at top.
so you've got that going on and activists coming out and all this drama but somehow they managed to get it done then they are done and the ultimate statement at the end where the farewell messages 42 days to destroy the stockpile is the number combined because we have to remember these were a threat more than to the rest of us because it could kill a lot of
people. one of the deadliest attacks the legal power of these weapons can't be underestimated. >> it is an amazing story. fiction couldn't be any better than that. one of the things president trump did is react to a chemical weapons attack and this is after they were supposed to have gotten rid of all of them. >> and they cheated after the weapons were taken out before they were all destroyed. he goes back to his old ways and doesn't use sarin anymore but starts using a poor man's
chemical weapon. it just starts dropping. chlorine isn't going to kill a lot of people, it can make you sick and it can kill you if you get a lot of it in your system so that becomes the substitution for chemical warfare so that goes on as a steady drumbeat of these low-grade low casualty attacks kind of a finger in the eye. then obama leaves and trump comes into office and for whatever reason he feels bold enough to use sarin in an attack trump says i'm going to enforce the red line and do what obama never did and launch the missile. he got a lot of praise for that.
this happened twice. there were two instances 2017 and 2018 when trump uses weapons to respond. if you look at what was achieved it gets a little more complicated because the missile strike that obama was envisioning was very much like the one trump launched not for the regime change but essentially just a punitive strike where you destroy some airplanes and a few command-and-control centers. the result of the one trump carried out was an airport was disabled for a few hours if you airplanes were destroyed but he had his planes back in the air the same day.
he was back to his old ways and almost no time. if you think about what obama did, despite the flaws and incompleteness of the mission, if you want to punish the syrian dictator, deprive him of the strategic arsenal so no matter what he kept behind, the strategic stockpile to detour against israel doesn't exist anymore it's as if somebody came to the united states and said you did something bad. we are going to take away your nuclear arsenal. he had agreed to do that so 1300 times it was about 90 to 95% of what he had and to have to give it up was a huge plus for him but also he couldn't use it. it was much harder for other groups would want to get it.
so there was a national interest served even though it didn't come out to his advantage and it made obama look weak in some ways and managed to accomplish something that was pretty significant. >> what you also show is in some ways the sort of taboo on chemical weapons has ended and we know that they still had them you see him kill his half-brother and [inaudible] somehow some of the facilities still exist even though they were supposed to have been
dismantled. what does this mean going forward in the future of chemical weapons? >> it's really interesting. the erosion of the taboo against chemical weapons is an important part of it because he got away with it in the sense that he was not ever forced to admit to anything and was never held accountable for anything, he had russia kind of taking the side and having his back and supporting and protecting him and the united nations he did have two pay a price. that erosion of the norms has been noticed by others to take
up the idea and you see other countries such as russia and north korea feel emboldened to do it as well with the instances you mentioned in 2018 and the attempt over the summer and north korea with of the attack in another country in singapore against a member of his own family using a chemical weapon that was sprayed on his face as he was walking through an airport. so you do wonder as they see this as something they can get away with and yell about but then not really force them to face very serious consequences, then the behavior becomes encouraged wanting others to do the same. you are right about the russians. they develop what is probably the biggest chemical weapons stockpile ever created during world war ii, which and this new
thing they developed in the 1980s and after the cold war ended, those programs as we know now, didn't really go away. they didn't dismantle some of those. they continued to do the research and maintain their stockpile so that when they had a need for something like this they could easily use it in a military setting or to stabilize the country and any number of ways and if you have to imagine that if there is no reluctance to do that kind of research, chemical or biological weapons perhaps. so, this is an issue that i think as we demand accountability from the russians for the attack on these other instances we need to demand transparency on the research that they are doing including getting inspections and access
and whatever is needed to make sure they are coming clean about what they are doing and what their intentions are. >> as you show in your book they are not allowed to attribute which of course the russians have always had a kind of resolution and security council that would lay the blame so in the absence of being able to do this we don't have that many tools where we can hold them responsible for what they do. >> this is a great difficulty and you're absolutely right, the un and the oc w are set up as census organizations and they can do great things if there is
a consensus, but it is a very polarized world. it's often to the advantage of some of our adversaries to get in the way of the plans even if they do not necessarily object to them, just being contrary in and in the case of syria, you can see again and again the organizations are so constricted about what they can say. they can go into syria and say yes, chemical weapons were used we cannot explicitly say that we think that this was syria that did it. now that's been so much frustration over what happened over the last decade it is a separate investigative body that is in the process of doing attribution. so let's go back and look at some of these old instances and
using the scientific method to introduce the responsibility of who did this. they dropped these ordinances from the stockpile. the chemicals are traced to the weapons that we know they made and so they are naming names now in a way that has not been done before so that gives you hope that as frustrating as this has been and as elusive as it's been, there is still a process and there will be accountability. that evidence exists and has been collected.
we hope it does fall to the coalitions willing to get things done. releasing the evidence and making these things public so sometimes countries have to act as coalitions or even unilaterally to callout when people do things wrong but hopefully eventually there will be some justice. >> i think we are out of time and we will end on what may be a hopeful note people have come to realize that there has to be more accountability for this. again, "red line" by joby warrick. you should all go out and order it. it is a good read and i would