Scholars and Sci-Fi Authors to Debate Future of Humanity
By Tanya Lewis, Staff Writer 5 hours ago
Scholars and Sci-Fi Authors to Debate Future of Humanity
Technology has the potential to end humanity, or to save it. Which will it be?
A group of scientists, humanists and science-fiction authors will debate the longevity of the human civilization at a free public symposium today (Sept. 12) at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center in Washington, D.C.
“We’ve reached the stage in Earth’s evolution where humans are now a major agent of planetary change,” David Grinspoon, the chair of astrobiology at the Kluge Center, said in a statement. “Will these abilities threaten our survival as a species, or even threaten the Earth as a whole, or will we come to live comfortably with these new powers and use them to avoid, rather than hasten, disaster?” said Grinspoon, who will lead the day’s talks.
The event will kick off with introductory remarks by Mary Voytek, senior scientist for astrobiology at NASA, and Carolyn Brown, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs at the Library of Congress. [Super-Intelligent Machines: 7 Robotic Futures]
The first panel discussion will address what remains of nature and how humanity can save it. Environmental journalist David Biello will chat with materials scientist Odile Madden of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute and paleoanthropologist Rick Potts of the National Museum of Natural History.
Next up, sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson will explore the future in the literary and scientific imagination, with English professor Ursula Heise of UCLA and astronomer and science historian Steven Dick, the 2014 NASA/Library of Congress chair of astrobiology.
In the afternoon, scientists and sci-fi authors will address world-altering technologies that could affect climate or biological evolution, or prevent future disasters. Astronomer Seth Shostak of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institutein Mountain View, Calif., will sit down with science writer and New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin, atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science and planetary climatologist Jacob Haqq-Misra of the virtual research Institute Blue Marble Space, to muse about whether humans can form a healthy, long-term relationship with technology and the biosphere.
A concluding discussion with all the panelists and the audience will wrap up the day’s events.
If interested in attending, the talks will begin at 8:30 a.m. ET in room 119 of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building at 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C.
Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.
Arctic sea ice up 60 percent in 2013
Published September 09, 2013
About a million more square miles of ocean are covered in ice in 2013 than in 2012, a whopping 60 percent increase — and a dramatic deviation from predictions of an “ice-free Arctic in 2013,” the Daily Mail noted.
Arctic sea ice averaged 2.35 million square miles in August 2013, as compared to the low point of 1.32 million square miles recorded on Sept. 16, 2012, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. A chart published Sept. 8 by NSIDC shows the dramatic rise this year, putting total ice cover within two standard deviations of the 30-year average.
Noting the year over year surge, one scientist even argued that “global cooling” was here.
“We are already in a cooling trend, which I think will continue for the next 15 years at least. There is no doubt the warming of the 1980s and 1990s has stopped,” Anastasios Tsonis of the University of Wisconsin told London’s Mail on Sunday.
The surge in Arctic ice is a dramatic change from last year’s record-setting lows, which fueled dire predictions of an imminent ice-free summer. A 2007 BBC report said the Arctic could be ice free in 2013 — a theory NASA still echoes today.
“[An ice-free Arctic is] definitely coming, and coming sooner than we previously expected,“ Walt Meier, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, told LiveScience last month. “We’re looking at when as opposed to if.”
Noting the growth in ice, the Snow and Ice Data Center said that coverage was still well below the 30-year average. And the year over year growth in ice is “largely irrelevant,” argued The Guardian, noting that more ice is to be expected after the record low a year ago.
“We should not often expect to observe records in consecutive years. 2012 shattered the previous record low sea ice extent; hence ‘regression towards the mean’ told us that 2013 would likely have a higher minimum extent,” wrote Dana Nuccitelli.
Meanwhile, global surface temperatures have been relatively flat over the past decade and a half, according to data from the U.K.’s weather-watching Met Office.
A leaked draft of the next major climate report from the U.N. cites numerous causes to explain the slowdown in warming: greater-than-expected ash from volcanoes, a decline in heat from the sun, more heat being absorbed by the deep oceans, and so on.
Climate skeptics have spent months debating the weather pattern, some citing it as evidence that global warming itself has decelerated or even stopped.
“The absence of any significant change in the global annual average temperature over the past 16 years has become one of the most discussed topics in climate science,” wrote David Whitehouse of the Global Warming Policy Foundation in June. “It has certainly focused the debate about the relative importance of greenhouse gas forcing of the climate versus natural variability.”
Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/09/09/arctic-sea-ice-up-60-percent-in-2013/print#ixzz2ehfP2myN
Climate models wildly overestimated global warming, study finds
By Maxim Lott
Published September 12, 2013
Can you rely on the weather forecast? Maybe not, at least when it comes to global warming predictions over short time periods.
That’s the upshot of a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change that compared 117 climate predictions made in the 1990′s to the actual amount of warming. Out of 117 predictions, the study’s author told FoxNews.com, three were roughly accurate and 114 overestimated the amount of warming. On average, the predictions forecasted two times more global warming than actually occurred.
Some scientists say the study shows that climate modelers need to go back to the drawing board.
“It’s a real problem … it shows that there really is something that needs to be fixed in the climate models,” climate scientist John Christy, a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, told FoxNews.com.
But other scientists say that’s making a mountain out of a molehill.
“This is neither surprising nor particularly troubling to me as a climate scientist,” Melanie Fitzpatrick, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told FoxNews.com. “The work of our community is constantly to refine our understanding of the climate system and improve models based on that,” she added.
The climate models, Fitzpatrick said, will likely be correct over long periods of time. But there are too many variations in climate to expect models to be accurate over two decades.
But John Christy says that climate models have had this problem going back 35 years, to 1979, the first year for which reliable satellite temperature data exists to compare the predictions to.
“I looked at 73 climate models going back to 1979 and every single one predicted more warming than happened in the real world,” Christy said.
Many of the overestimations also made their way into the popular press. In 1989, the Associate Press reported: “Using computer models, researchers concluded that global warming would raise average annual temperatures nationwide 2 degrees by 2010.”
But according to NASA, global temperature has increased by less than half that — about 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit — from 1989 to 2010.
And in 1972, the Christian Science Monitor reported: “Arctic specialist Bernt Balchen says a general warming trend over the North Pole is melting the polar ice cap and may produce an ice-free Arctic Ocean by the year 2000.” That also proved wrong.
But people should still be concerned about global warming, Fitzpatrick says.
“The paper in no way diminishes the extensive body of observations that global warming is happening and that it is largely due to human activity,” she added.
“Global surface temperature is still rising … 2012 was in the top ten warmest years on record. The period 2001-2010 was the warmest on record since instrumental measurements began,” she added.
Christy agrees that there has been some warming over time, but says man-made greenhouse gasses are not as big of a driver of climate change as many think — and that many scientists are in denial about their mistakes.
“I think in one sense the climate establishment is embarrassed by this, and so they’re trying to minimize the problem,” he said. “The fundamental thing a climate model is supposed to predict is temperature. And yet it gets that wrong.”
The study authors did not answer questions from FoxNews.com about the policy implications of their research.
Why were the predictions off? The study authors list many possible reasons, from solar irradiation and incorrect assumptions about the number of volcanic eruptions to bad estimates about how CO2 effects cloud patterns.
Christy said he believes the models overestimate warming because of the way they handle clouds.
“Most models assume that clouds shrink when there is CO2 warming, and that lets in more sun, and that’s what heats up the planet – not so much the direct effect of CO2, but the ‘feedback effect’ of having fewer clouds. In the real world, though, the clouds aren’t shrinking,” he said.
The study also says that an overestimate of the power of CO2 as a greenhouse gas could be why the models over-predict, but that they do not know why the models are wrong at this point.
Christy said he is not optimistic about the models being fixed.
“The Earth system is just too complex to be represented in current climate models. I don’t think they’ll get it right for a long time.”
Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/09/12/climate-models-wildly-overestimated-global-warming-study-finds/print#ixzz2ehasx37o
High-Level U.S. Intelligence Officers: Syrian Government Didn’t Launch Chemical Weapons
Numerous Intelligence Officials Question Administration’s Claims
September 7, 2013
Preface: Without doubt, intelligence is being manipulated to justify war against Syria. Here, here,here, here and here.
Without doubt, the Syrian rebels had access to chemical weapons … and have apparently used them in the recent past.
Associated Press reported last week:
An intercept of Syrian military officials discussing the strike was among low-level staff, with no direct evidence tying the attack back to an Assad insider or even a senior Syrian commander, the officials said.
So while Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that links between the attack and the Assad government are “undeniable,” U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on Assad’s orders, or even completely sure it was carried out by government forces, the officials said.
Another possibility that officials would hope to rule out: that stocks had fallen out of the government’s control and were deployed by rebels in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war.
Reuters notes today:
With the United States threatening to attack Syria, U.S. and allied intelligence services are still trying to work out who ordered the poison gas attack on rebel-held neighborhoods near Damascus.
No direct link to President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle has been publicly demonstrated, and some U.S. sources say intelligence experts are not sure whether the Syrian leader knew of the attack before it was launched or was only informed about it afterward.
Indeed, numerous intelligence officers say that the rebels likely carried out the August 21st attack.
For example, the Daily Caller reports:
The Obama administration has selectively used intelligence to justify military strikes on Syria, former military officers with access to the original intelligence reports say, in a manner that goes far beyond what critics charged the Bush administration of doing in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.
According to these officers, who served in top positions in the United States, Britain, France, Israel, and Jordan, a Syrian military communication intercepted by Israel’s famed Unit 8200 electronic intelligence outfit has been doctored so that it leads a reader to just the opposite conclusion reached by the original report.
The doctored report was picked up on Israel’s Channel 2 TV on Aug. 24, then by Focus magazine in Germany, the Times of Israel, and eventually by The Cable in Washington, DC.
According to the doctored report, the chemical attack was carried out by the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother.
However, the original communication intercepted by Unit 8200 between a major in command of the rocket troops assigned to the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division, and the general staff, shows just the opposite.
The general staff officer asked the major if he was responsible for the chemical weapons attack. From the tone of the conversation, it was clear that “the Syrian general staff were out of their minds with panic that an unauthorized strike had been launched by the 155th Brigade in express defiance of their instructions,” the former officers say.
According to the transcript of the original Unit 8200 report, the major “hotly denied firing any of his missiles” and invited the general staff to come and verify that all his weapons were present.
The report contains a note at the end that the major was interrogated by Syrian intelligence for three days, then returned to command of his unit. “All of his weapons were accounted for,” the report stated.
An Egyptian intelligence report describes a meeting in Turkey between military intelligence officials from Turkey and Qatar and Syrian rebels. One of the participants states, “there will be a game changing event on August 21st” that will “bring the U.S. into a bombing campaign” against the Syrian regime.
The chemical weapons strike on Moudhamiya, an area under rebel control, took place on August 21. “Egyptian military intelligence insists it was a combined Turkish/Qatar/rebel false flag operation,” said a source familiar with the report.
[A "false flag" is a ploy for starting war which has been used by governments around the world for thousands of years.]
Agents provacateurs are as old as warfare itself. What better than a false flag attack, staged by al Qaeda and its al Nusra front allies in Syria, to drag the United States into a war?
And 12 very high-level former intelligence officials wrote the following memorandum to Obama today:
We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed because your advisers decided to afford you the opportunity for what is commonly known as “plausible denial.”
There is a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters — providing a strong circumstantial case that the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters. The aim is reported to have been to create the kind of incident that would bring the United States into the war.
According to some reports, canisters containing chemical agent were brought into a suburb of Damascus, where they were then opened. Some people in the immediate vicinity died; others were injured.
We are unaware of any reliable evidence that a Syrian military rocket capable of carrying a chemical agent was fired into the area. In fact, we are aware of no reliable physical evidence to support the claim that this was a result of a strike by a Syrian military unit with expertise in chemical weapons.
In addition, we have learned that on August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major, irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and Qatari, Turkish and U.S. intelligence officials took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, now used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors.
Senior opposition commanders who came from Istanbul pre-briefed the regional commanders on an imminent escalation in the fighting due to “a war-changing development,” which, in turn, would lead to a U.S.-led bombing of Syria.
At operations coordinating meetings at Antakya, attended by senior Turkish, Qatari and U.S. intelligence officials as well as senior commanders of the Syrian opposition, the Syrians were told that the bombing would start in a few days. Opposition leaders were ordered to prepare their forces quickly to exploit the U.S. bombing, march into Damascus, and remove the Bashar al-Assad government
The Qatari and Turkish intelligence officials assured the Syrian regional commanders that they would be provided with plenty of weapons for the coming offensive. And they were. A weapons distribution operation unprecedented in scope began in all opposition camps on August 21-23. The weapons were distributed from storehouses controlled by Qatari and Turkish intelligence under the tight supervision of U.S. intelligence officers.
U.S. saw yearlong rise in chemical weapons use by Syria
Officials cite a far bigger stream of intelligence than was reported. Some question the delay; others say a case had to be built.
By Ken Dilanian and David S. Cloud
5:14 PM PDT, September 6, 2013
WASHINGTON — In July 2012, senior U.S. intelligence officials drove to the Capitol to secretly brief top lawmakers on the first indications that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its own people.
The classified reports about a small-scale attack weren’t definitive, according to U.S. officials who were privy to them. It was still a month before President Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change his calculus” about taking action in Syria.
But it was the beginning of a stream of intelligence documenting what U.S. officials say was a yearlong escalation in the use of the banned weapons by the government of President Bashar Assad, a far more extensive record of the incidents than previously known. The Obama administration did not publicly acknowledge the attacks for months, and declared in April that it believed Syria had used chemical weapons.
Obama is struggling to build support now for a punitive strike after an attack Aug. 21 that it says killed 1,429 people. With many of its members deeply skeptical, Congress is expected to begin voting next week on whether to authorize military action.
Administration officials say the evidence for previous chemical attacks wasn’t as compelling, and critics acknowledge it would have been even harder to make the case for a military response to more limited use of the banned weapons. But some current and former officials say the slow response by the White House raises questions about whether earlier, clearer warnings by Obama — and perhaps limited actions such as providing sophisticated weapons to Syrian rebels — could have deterred last month’s attack in Damascus suburbs.
“It’s one of these situations where silence equals consent,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer for the Middle East who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.
The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons, saying that would make little sense at a time when it has been retaking territory from the rebels.
But on Wednesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told lawmakers that the U.S. knew of 11 chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government before the August incident, more than double the number the administration had divulged previously. The U.S. believes 150 people or more might have been killed in those attacks, officials say.
“The president didn’t believe it was a compelling enough case to win the support of the American people and the world,” Kerry said when asked why Obama didn’t take military action in April.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who chairs the House intelligence committee, said in an interview that the Obama administration should have responded more forcefully to the earlier attacks in an effort to deter further use of chemical weapons.
“All the forensic evidence, everything you see with this attack, we had with previous attacks,” said Rogers, who receives regular intelligence briefings and works closely with the administration even as he often criticizes it.
“The only difference is, this one was on the front page of the newspaper,” Rogers said. “That is a horrific standard…. We dithered, and the result is you get the front-page attack and we get to see hundreds of dead children.”
As reports of chemical weapons attacks accumulated in 2012 and early 2013, some officials within the government felt that the White House, recalling the intelligence failures that led to the Iraq war and reluctant to get involved in Syria, was insisting on an unrealistic standard of proof.
“Some of us were convinced,” said a recently retired senior military officer involved in top-level discussions with the White House on Syria. “Others, carrying the extreme level of proof required after Iraq, did not think it met their level of confidence.” The officer, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing classified intelligence.
Administration officials say the evidence on the previous attacks was not as strong, and was hampered by spotty intelligence coverage of Syria.
“Syria is a very challenging intelligence environment,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official. “Our methodology for understanding the scale is limited, particularly if the incident occurred in areas where our resources are thin.”
Chemical attacks started small and grew larger over the last year as the Assad government met with no international response, said U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence. In some cases, they said, a single shell was lobbed into a rural village, resulting in eight to 10 fatalities.
“First we started to see smaller use, for what I think was psychological impact,” Rogers said. “Then, in my mind, they moved to more tactical denial of battle space.”
A list compiled by the Syrian Human Rights League says there have been 63 suspected chemical attacks since last August, many of them killing 10 or fewer people. Investigating such attacks is difficult, experts say, because of the difficulty of obtaining tissue and soil samples and other evidence before it disappears. And some of those incidents may have involved crowd-control agents that are not banned, such as tear gas, or diluted chemical weapons.
The issue became public in spring.
U.S. officials say a March 19 sarin gas attack by the government went awry, killing Syrian troops. U.S. intelligence officials briefed Congress about it, and Rogers and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) appeared afterward on CNN. Rogers said he believed chemical weapons had been used by the Assad government, though he didn’t give specifics. Feinstein agreed, though she said the White House had urged her not to talk about it.
In April, Britain and France asserted to the United Nations that the Syrian government had conducted chemical attacks in the cities of Homs, Aleppo and Damascus.
Initially the Obama administration said it was still reviewing the evidence. Then, on April 25, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters the U.S. believed the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. The administration sent a letter to key lawmakers saying U.S. intelligence agencies “assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”
At that point, though, White House officials still weren’t prepared to say that Assad had crossed Obama’s threshold for action. By June, the evidence had become impossible to ignore, officials say. White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes announced that “our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.”
The intelligence, he said, included “reporting regarding Syrian officials planning and executing regime chemical weapons attacks; reporting that includes descriptions of the time, location and means of attack; and descriptions of physiological symptoms that are consistent with exposure to a chemical weapons agent.”
Rhodes cited four attacks: March 19 and April 13 near Aleppo; May 14 in the town of Qasr Abu Samra; and a May 23 attack in the eastern part of Damascus. The U.S. response was a presidential authorization for covert delivery of lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. But the provision of those weapons has been slowed by logistical and security concerns, officials acknowledged.
Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal remains a menacing mystery By Richard Engel, Jim Miklaszewski and Robert Windrem, NBC News
Wed Sep 4, 2013 10:20 AM EDT NBCNews.com
As the Obama administration seeks to rally support for a powerful missile attack on key Syrian targets, much about Damascus’ chemical warfare program remains shrouded in secrecy.
Experts agree that the program is the most advanced in the Third World, and that the Syrian government has used the poisonous arms against its own people “multiple times” in recent years.
Based on recent interviews with U.S. officials, allied intelligence officials and arms control experts, here’s what is known – and not known – about Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and the looming showdown over what the U.S. says is its most recent attack:
The size of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is not known with any precision, though the French
government has estimated it to be more than 1,000 tons.
The lack of certainty poses a problem, according to intelligence and arms control experts. “No one but the Syrians knows the inventory, and if the rebels overrun one of these depots, there are worries about the physical control of the weapons,” said one U.S. official, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity.
The experts say that Damascus’ program is distinguished by its size, diversity, quality and reliability.
President Bashar Assad’s regime is believed to possess sarin, VX (a persistent form of sarin that could render a city uninhabitable “for some days,” according to the CIA), tabun (another older nerve agent) plus blistering agents like mustard, phosgene and hydrogen cyanide. In addition, it is believed to have large stores of “precursor chemicals” that it could use to create more of the toxic agents.
The weapons are stored in five major locations — near the cities of Latakia, Palmyra, Homs and Hama, all in the north and central part of the country, and at al-Safir, near the Turkish border. However, weapons have been moved around the country over the last year for operational reasons, a process that has “accelerated quite a bit” as the threat of a retaliatory strike by the U.S. has increased, according to Pentagon officials. At the same time, U.S. intelligence has been
tracking the movements — not because the U.S. intends to target the chemical weapons, but in an effort to determine if the Syrians may be preparing for new attacks against the rebels.
Syria has many ways of using chemical weapons to attack remote locations, including a few dozen SS-21 ballistic missiles with a maximum range of 72 miles; 200 Scud-Bs, with a maximum range of 180 miles; and 60 to 120 Scud-Cs, with a maximum range of 300 miles. All these missiles are mobile, enabling Assad and his generals to quickly move or hide them, according U.S. intelligence officials.
Syrian fighter-bombers also can carry bombshells filled with chemicals. Even simple artillery shells can be loaded with chemical weapons and fired at targets within a relatively short range, according to U.S. experts.
Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is so large and diverse because it considers it a strategic deterrent to Israel’s nuclear weapons. Syria is one of only seven nations in the world that has not ratified the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, the arms-control agreement that outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of such weapons. Only Syria, North Korea, Egypt, South Sudan and Angola have not signed the accord for a variety of reasons. Israel and Myanmar have signed but not ratified the convention.
History of use
The U.S. reported last week that Syria has used chemical weapons “on a small scale against the
opposition multiple times in the last year.” The British government places the number of attacks at 14 since 2012. Chemical weapons also were used under Assad’s father, Hafez, more than 20 years ago in Hama during a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired rebellion. According to a November 1990 Senate Foreign Relations Committee memo, Syrian army units went to every house suspected of hiding insurgents and pumped in cyanide gas, killing as many as 20,000 occupants. Later, the government broadcast a report saying security forces had taken fierce reprisals against the Brotherhood and its sympathizers, “which stopped them from breathing.”
Attack on Ghouta
In its unclassified report on the Aug. 21 attacks on rebel-held enclaves in the Ghouta district outside Damascus, the White House said that preparations began several days before the pre-dawn
“Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from Sunday, Aug. 18, until early in the morning on Wednesday, Aug. 21, near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin,” it said. “On Aug. 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks.”
Secretary of State John Kerry also said in a speech Friday that rockets carrying the chemical weapons “came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, he said that hair and blood samples given to the United States by emergency workers showed signs of sarin.
The U.S. also accused the Syrian military of an attempted cover-up, shelling the area to remove evidence of environmental contamination.
U.S. and U.K. intelligence officials tell NBC News that Maher Assad, Bashar’s younger brother, authorized the attack, and Syrian rebels confirm that the 155th and 127th brigades of the 4th Armored Division, both of which are under his command, played key roles in carrying it out.
Status of investigation The U.N. is currently investigating not just the attacks in Ghouta, but a March 19 attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Al-Asal, near Aleppo, which reportedly killed dozens. The use of sarin is suspected in both.
The Ghouta attack — which the U.S. says killed 1,429, while the French estimate the death toll at “around 350″ — took place as U.N. inspectors were collecting samples from the Khan Al-Asal attack. The inspectors eventually gained access to the Ghouta site, and will ask to return to the scene of the earlier attack after the current investigation is complete.
According to the U.N., the blood and environmental samples collected in Ghouta were sent two European labs, which began testing on Wednesday. U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said he could not provide a timetable for when the tests would be completed. But under rules of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which carried out the U.N. inspections, the labs have 15 days to test the samples for chemical weapons residue or telltale chemical compounds caused by breakdown of toxic agents, determine what type of chemical – if any – was used in the attack and report their findings.
If the tests are positive, the labs will not make a determination on who fired the chemical weapons. That would fall to the U.N. to investigate.
Richard Engel is NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent; Jim Miklaszewski is NBC News’ chief Pentagon correspondent; Robert Windrem is an investigative reporter.
Syria: samples collected at site of alleged chemical weapons use to reach labs ‘within hours’
2 September 2013 – Samples collected by the United Nations chemical weapons inspection team in Syria are now being transferred from The Hague to laboratories for analysis, according to a spokesperson for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“Since the return of the Mission last Saturday, the UN team worked around the clock to finalise the preparations of the samples in view of their shipment to the designated laboratories,” the spokesperson said in a note to correspondents.
“The samples were shipped this afternoon from The Hague and will reach their destination within hours,” the note continued.
It added that the designated laboratories are prepared to begin the analyses “immediately after receipt of samples.”
The spokesperson had said that the analyses would be conducted in laboratories in Europe “strictly adhering to the highest established standards of verification recognized by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW].”
Once completed, a report will be given to Mr. Ban who will share the results with the 193-Member States, and the 15-member Security Council.
Mr. Ban has remained in close contact with the five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to his spokesperson.
He is due to brief the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council on the latest developments tomorrow morning.
Also tomorrow, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane will brief Member States that had written to Mr. Ban requesting the investigation of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Ghouta area of Damascus on 21 August.
The site was inspected by the team, led by Swedish scientist Dr. Åke Sellström, who spoke by telephone yesterday with Mr. Ban.
At the time, Mr. Ban asked Mr. Sellström to expedite the mission’s analysis of the samples and information it had obtained without jeopardizing the scientific timelines required for accurate analysis, and to report the results to him as soon as possible.