Feb 14, 2014

More on Hexamine

If this is your first time here, I recommend starting from the conclusion page.

In recent weeks new information has surfaced regarding the Hexamine findings,which require revisiting the issue.

First, to summarize the “Hexamine is the smoking gun” theory: This claim is based on Hexamine being reported by Syria as part of their chemical program, and Hexamine being found in all sarin-positive samples in Ghouta. Supposedly, this is a “smoking gun” connecting Syria’s stockpiles to the sarin used in Ghouta. The main objection raised so far to this theory is that Hexamine findings in the field could come from many sources, such as the rockets’ booster charge, and that Hexamine was never associated with sarin production – specifically, it is a well-known Mustard Gas stabilizer.

The new information:
  1. Ake Sellstrom was quoted as saying that Hexamine “is in their formula, it is their acid scavenger”.
  2. Dan Kaszeta has published on twitter a list of components found in US mustard gas containers, none of which contained Hexamine, decreasing the likelihood that Hexamine was used as a mustard gas stabilizer, and increasing the likelihood it was used for sarin.

Let’s examine these in detail.

Sellstrom’s Quote

There are three problems with this quote:
  1. Quotes by Mr. Sellstrom should be taken with a grain of salt, given the many manipulations detected in his first report. He has specifically made a misleading statement in the past claiming that sarin found in the field was of higher quality than Iraq’s, while omitting the fact that Iraq produced very low purity nerve agents.
  2. While the question did mention sarin, Sellstrom’s answer did not explicitly state Hexamine is used as an acid scavenger for sarin.
  3. In the December press conference (13:00) Sellstrom presented himself as having little understanding of this issue.

US Mustard Gas list

These lists originate from a study done on Mustard containers kept at Aberdeen, Maryland, and indeed do not list Hexamine.

However, Aberdeen has been developing chemical weapons since 1917, while Hexamine was discovered to be a Mustard Gas stabilizer only in 1945. It is therefore possible these batches were manufactured before Hexamine was used, and indeed, the chemical agents are described in the reports as partly solidified.

Whether or not this is the case, it should be noted that this is of little relevance to Syria. Syria started its program in the 1990s, at which time the use of Hexamine was already published in several patents, one of them explicitly states: “Hexamine [is] currently adopted as the official stabilizer for Levinstein mustard by the [United States] Chemical Warfare Service” (as detailed here, the patents also state this applies to distilled mustard / HD).

So whether or not the US has used Hexamine for this purpose, Syrian scientists had easy access to this information, and it is definitely likely they would make use of it.

Hexamine is Probably not a Mustard Stabilizer

Despite these two findings not being enough to discredit the theory that Hexamine was used to stabilize Mustard Gas, there is another problem with this theory: Syria has reported very large amounts of Hexamine (80 Tons). Since Hexamine is used as a Mustard stabilizer at 1% concentration, this would equate to 8000 Tons of Mustard Gas, while it seems like Syria reported only 400 Tons

I therefore no longer believe Mustard stabilization is the main purpose of Syria’s Hexamine.

So why is it there?

First, let’s examine Dan Kaszeta‘s theory that it is an additive to binary sarin intended to neutralize HF generated during the final stage. As discussed in the past, Isopropylamine is the well-documented additive for this purpose. It was the choice made in all known sarin programs, and there is likely a good reason they chose a chemical that is closely related to one of sarin’s immediate precursors (isopropanol).

There is no reason to think Syria made a different choice, especially when we know they declared 40 Tons of Isopropylamine. Furthermore, this amount matches the report of 120 Tons of Isopropanol, which is close to the ratio required for mixing OPA (the 28%:72% mix of Isopropylamine and Isopropanol that is used in binary sarin). 

If we are to accept Dan’s claim that Hexamine is more efficient than Isopropylamine (“can bind to as many as four HF molecules”), then 80 Tons should equate to a much larger amount of sarin than was reported.

We can therefore safely discredit this theory.

Hexamine Still far from a Smoking Gun

At this point, it is hard to say what the exact purpose was. Hexamine is used in many organic chemistry processes, and there is no way to know whether it was used for neutralizing by-products, for assisting in synthesis of precursors, or directly added to the final products. There is also no way to know whether its use was related to sarin, VX, or mustard, all of which produce acids in the process (e.g. Phosphorous acid for Mustard Gas).

Whatever it may be, it is definitely not a “smoking gun”. It can maybe be qualified as “weak circumstantial evidence”. 

Before it is remotely useful in determining culpability, all the following points must be proven:
  1. It was not intended for another purpose or for one of the other agents.
  2. It was used in a way that keeps significant amounts of it in the final product (i.e. detectable in the field samples).
  3. The Hexamine findings in the field originate from the sarin, and not from other sources such as the explosive booster charges. This is probably the weakest link in the chain, since the UN reported 3 Hexamine findings in sarin-negative areas, and several explosive-related findings in sarin-positive areas.
  4. The opposition doesn’t also use it in their sarin process. Especially difficult to prove since the opposition is assisted by many Army defectors. If the government found Hexamine to be useful, this could have easily leaked.
Clearly, there is still significant work ahead for anyone trying to use Hexamine as evidence for regime culpability.


The Big Picture

Since it’s been a long time since we examined the scenarios, and it is easy to get lost in the details, this seems like a good opportunity to remember the big picture: Despite many requests, no one was yet able to provide a regime-attack scenario that is consistent with all the evidence. The main issues that make such a scenario highly implausible are:
  1. Why was the attack carried out from a field near Irbin that is under opposition control, when the government possesses many long range chemical shells and rockets?
  2. Why was the sarin manufactured using basic chemicals?
  3. Why was a low-grade alcohol used in the process?
  4. Why was a low-quality rocket, originally designed as an incendiary weapon chosen?
  5. Why did they choose to attack a residential neighborhood behind the front lines for little military gain?
  6. Why didn’t Western intelligence sensors detect activity at Syria’s chemical sites prior to the attack?
  7. Why attack during the UN’s visit?
  8. Why invite the UN and then divert them from the Khan Al-Assal investigation, especially as we now know Khan Al-Assal  to be a sarin attack against Syrian soldiers and pro-government civilians? It would seem the government had a strong incentive to allow the UN to carry out this investigation and publish these findings.
  9. Is it pure coincidence that two more sarin attacks against Syrian soldiers occurred just a few days after the Ghouta attack, and in the same area?
  10. What are the Liwa Al-Islam launch videos? If they are fabricated, why make them so unusable for mass media, and why publish them long after the military threat was averted? Is the Liwa Al-Islam sarin video published before the Ghouta attack also a fabrication? For what purpose? 
(More details can be found on the conclusion page).

Claiming that these severe discrepancies are somehow outweighed by a finding of some multi-purpose chemical in the field and in Syria’s stockpiles, is highly speculative.

It is especially problematic when we know there is a solid opposition-attack hypothesis that is fully consistent with all the evidence, and the only objections raised against it so far are extremely weak, namely:
  1. We don’t have direct documentation of the opposition looting this specific version of the Volcano launcher.
    Weaknesses:
    • We do have documentation of the opposition using the smaller Volcano version.
    • The same claim is true for the government: There is no documentation of it using using this Volcano version (the incendiary/chemical).
    • This claim assumes the Liwa Al-Islam videos, which show the opposition using the chemical Volcano are fabricated.
  2. Despite ample evidence that the opposition is producing sarin, we don’t know the exact location of the opposition’s sarin production plant (sometimes ridiculed as “a giant secret plant”).
    Weaknesses:
    • As described here there is no need for a giant lab using today’s laboratory technologies.
    • The opposition is in control of vast areas of land. There is no reason to think we should be able to locate the plant.
    • We do have documentation of the opposition capturing a large chemical plant.


Conclusion: While it is possible that Syria used Hexamine in the sarin production process, and it is not impossible that the Hexamine findings in the field are related to sarin, this is only one of many plausible explanations, and therefore very far from being a “smoking gun”. Given the much stronger evidence indicative of an opposition attack, and the lack of any plausible regime-attack scenario, this evidence is of negligible value.

27 comments:

  1. Agree, with you Sasa, whatever hexamine was used for, doesn´t point to culpability.
    Another Q:
    Is it excluded that hexamine originated from small "internal" explosive charge used to disperse Sarin?

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    1. Hexamine is a residue of explosives including RDX. One synthesis path for RDX uses Hexamine as a precursor.

      Hexamine is also used as an anti-corrosion agent for small metal parts including screws. It's also an ingredient in come anti-corrosion paints.

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    2. Understand that but could a charge inside the rocket for dispersing the Sarin have been a source of hexamine (amongst eventually other sources, incl GB-hexamine residue, whatever production process is). Or would RDX not be a useful explosive for this purpose?

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    3. I can't say for certain, but RDX is very commonly used as a component of military primary explosives. In contrast for example TNT requires a booster so is much less likely to have been used instead of an RDX composition.

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    4. RDX in any quantity or as a primary explosive is necessarily limited to the USA. Every other country looks for cheaper or easier to produce alternatives. The plastic explosive C-4 uses RDX. Europe? Semtex -because it's cheaper/easier. US munitions makers are the only ones that can get their taxpayers to use RDX, so they used plenty.

      RDX may be used by some non-US countries in small quantities in specialty fuzes or bursting charges, but those are exceptions. Certainly nothing in a quantity that would leave the kind of residue the UN found.

      This doesn't mean *hexamine* wasn't used in the explosives, it only means RDX probably had nothing to do with its presence.

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    5. Don't you think that for booster charges, that need to be small and efficient, it's a decent choice?

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    6. That's not my point. Arms makers use 1) what the military tells them to use, or 2) what they can make a profit on through sales. RDX is the Cadillac of choices and unlikely to be used by any country but the U.S. I don't have any references. You have to ask an EOD guys - they know stuff like this. If price or manufacturing difficulty was irrelevant, then I suppose everyone would use RDX. If Syria made the fuzes themselves or bought Iranian or Chinese, then there probably wasn't any RDX involved.

      Hexamine itself isn't expensive and there are plenty of other hexamin-based explosive compounds that could have been used. My EOD buddy thought the idea of finding *any* quantities of undegraded hexamine (and nothing else) after a conventional explosion to be laughable.If you're looking for minute amounts of raw manufacturing impurities you need way more than a solvent swipe on a spent weapon.

      His son was in Afghanistan. They constantly sent IEDs (or the remains) back to the states for neutron activation analysis by the FBI to find stuff like that. They can't use simple gas chromatograph mass spectrometry on a solvent swipe. If the solvent swipe did somehow just manage to pick up undegraded hexamine residue and undegraded TNT and nothing else, then it was probably some other hexamine-based explosive, not RDX.

      If the OPCW insists there was RDX residue as well, then they really should have send it to the FBI lab in Maryland for neutron activation to identify the U.S. supplied fusing or explosive manufacturer.

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    7. Interesting. So what is his understanding of the Hexamine findings?

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    8. Just a couple of "intentionally vague" comments about RDX and Syria. Folks have very short memories about RDX (mass)production in Syria and its connections to their good buddies Iran and Hezbollah. The RDX manufactured in Syria has a unique (documented) chemical signature and if one were to dig deep enough they just might find this info and the exact location of the plant (in Syria ) that makes/made it.

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    9. Short memories? I have to say that's hardly common knowledge, Jody. You know way more about this stuff than most, so I trust there was some RDX mass-production in Syria. I'll gladly defer to you - my geezer EOD pal will be scolded harshly and it will cost him many beers. The location of the plant doesn't interest me much if you say they made it. Ultimately, you're saying trace amounts of hexamine could have come from *Syrian* sourced RDX. Good enough for me - I just didn't know they made any.

      I understand the obvious Iran connection with Syria for sales of arms, but not about them helping Syria develop any capability. Or was Syria making it (partially) for Iran's consumption? I don't understand why Iran wouldn't just make their own. Syria can't have had much better chemical engineering talent than Iran the last decade. I don't think the raw materials are an issue (aside from cost).

      Hezbollah? I know their link to Iran, but vaguely recall that they didn't care much for Assad before the war. I'm not getting if there's some other kind of connection your suggesting other than as a consumer. I imagine Hezbollah would want RDX if they could get it no matter who made it.

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  2. So you´re saying RDX together with te Sarin is quiet likely? Gov or rebel use, that doesn´t change the field findings.

    What about this filling scenario: A number of plastic bags of eg 1l each are put in rocket (to make things easy and safe for the launching team), this together with an RDX charge, the whole thing is welded together (or are there bolts to keep it together?), brought to the battlefield and fired. Sarin together with hexamine all over the place.

    Out of your dispersal maps I seriously doubt the claimed number of rockets and the amount of Sarin. Even Selstrom says the number of casualties passing trough medical centers exaggerated.

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    1. Note that Composition B was commonly used by the US as the burster charge for their chemical shells and rockets (M687, M55 etc). Composition B is RDX and TNT, matching the findings of Hexamine and TNT in the field samples.

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  3. Also, it does not consider the fact that the Sarin could have been sourced by a third party and given to the rebels for use. Knowing full well the government would be blamed. the Saudi's, the Qataris the Turks, were all trying to convince the Americans to strike at Assad and take him down (they would all have the means to procure this).

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  4. Back in tin-foil hat land: I don't believe the 'reports' of 40MT of hexamine at all any more. It either just was never there, or its a red herring by the UN or Western Intelligence to mask some other agent they do not want to have publicly known. At the very least, any CW declaration of hexamine is absolutely preposterous when they didn't declare anything else except direct precursors.

    The UN's OPCW is not under any obligation to disclose Syria's declaration list. As far as I can tell, they are specifically *prohibited* from doing so *at all* by their charter members. Its not intended to be public information and might discourage non-members from signing on. 'Hints' or 'Leaks' don't qualify - the sources of those always have an agenda.

    Aside from a single initial report of questionable origin (someone who didn't personally see the declaration), the only other thing we have is the vague procurement for disposal specs.

    Unless someone has proof that Syria actually (and very unnecessarily) declared 40MT of a non-schedule chemical on their CW inventory, then they most likely didn't. It's not a fact - it was simply repeated over and over as if it were - by myself as well.

    Claiming knowledge of non-disclosed information - that Syria *did* declare 40MT of hexamine - puts you squarely in my tin-foil hat universe. You have to go even further down the rabbit hole to believe Sellstrom would be candidly offering *additional* non-disclosable details for a supposedly-leaked non-disclosable fact, even though he heads the organization that prohibits their disclosure. That's way too much for me. You have now gone well into tin-foil bunny-suit territory.

    The other angle to this whole hexamine thing was pointed out to one of my crusty old EOD pals. I explained the whole OPCW / hexamine thing for his opinion (he doesn't follow anything about Syria). The first thing he said was, "Only hexamine?" I said I didn't know but they were looking for CW and mentioned that as an interesting chemical.

    He chuckled and said they should have found about 20 or 30 "interesting chemicals" related just to the explosive charges a week later. If CW were an issue, then they should have found far more interesting corrosive reaction byproducts from the paint and metal and if strong oxidizers or mineral acids (sulphuric, hydrochloric) were involved.

    Then he asked me what kind of hexamine salts they found. I said I didn't know - just plain hexamine I guess. He pointed out that it would have been proof that Sarin WASN'T used. If they didn't find *any* chloride or fluoride salts of hexamine at all, then it couldn't have been any known sulphur mustard or Gx or V-agents. There wouldn't have been any point in using it in an agent that impossibly pure. Some of the hexamine would have reacted with the acid and they should have found those salts as easily as they found the hexamine. I suppose the same would go for isopropylamine. Those salts are far more stable in the environment than Sarin or its decomposition products.

    Assuming a reasonably proficient lab, where are the dozens of other 'interesting chemicals' they found? Why absolutely none related to the peeling or bursting charges? And why 'just hexamine' without any byproduct salts? If there was no acid-producing CW in that warhead, then what did it hold?

    It doesn't matter which side you're on - the whole UN story it turning out to have more holes than Swiss cheese.

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    1. The second point is especially interesting. I too wondered why no product of Hexamine-HF or Isopropylamine-HF was reported. Anyone?

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    2. And (sorry) it should have been 80MT of hexamine in my ramblings, not 40MT.

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  5. If I understand well, the problem is the reporting of hexamine instead of its Cl or F salts? I see four possibilities:

    1/ sloppy UN-reporting , or
    2/ intentional "UN-hiding-stuff" reporting, or
    3/ it is the truth, or
    4/ I don´t understand the chemistry behind it.

    If option 3 is the case (=pure hexamine was found and none of its salts), there is a big question mark concerning the GB find.

    Maybe option 4 is the most plausible?

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  6. The chemistry behind it is: add a fluorine or chlorine atom to a hexamine molecule and it is no longer called a hexamine molecule. Thermally-degraded hexamine is no longer hexamine. Finding hexamine isn't an issue, but finding none of it's thermal degradation products or none of the acid-reaction products is just bizarre.

    Even if the claim is made that they found altered hexamine and just didn't chose to report that as an 'interesting chemical', then you have to consider the statistical improbability that they would call hexamine out *and* Syria would declare an enormous amount of an unexpected non-scheduled substance - hexamine - as part of their CW stockpile. It's not like they declared it as a result of the OPCW report.

    That and the fact that nobody is known to use it in their CW programs, Syria had not only adequate but the 'right' amount of the amine that they would need for their declared GB2, and not another single mystery chemical with an unexplained use was declared (according to guesses based on the OPCW RFPs) or found by the OPCW on tested sites. It all sounds too strangely convenient, but is still enough of a factoid to give 99% of the average CNN viewers ample 'proof' of a connection with Assad.

    It fits the UN's passive-aggressive approach of claiming total neutrality and focusing on CW yes/no, but then (fairly obviously) dropping little hints that go well beyond that mandate to suggest the guilty party. Their flawed back-azimuth measurements did not support yes/no in any way. Why report them at all? Things that do directly support the yes/no determination like matching samples to results were turned into a guessing game. They have to realize what this looks like to the rest of the world.

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  7. Paveway,

    Why would the UN promote the hexamine issue on purpose? How could they know that Dan Kaszeta would use it as an argument for Syrian Gov culpability a few months (or was it weeks) after the ´hint´was dropped? And the hex argument has no value at all, just used by Dan to attract attention. What is Dan´s motivation? Who knows?

    Remains the issue that no hexamine salts were detected. Do you think there were none (that is serious then), or just sloppy UN work?

    I think that´s a very important issue. If UN cannot differentiate between hexamine/hexamine salt, who says they can differentiate between GB or something that looks like it.

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  8. Dan isn't guilty of anything besides noticing the connection and writing about it first - I would have done the same if it supported my general view of what happened. *Someone* would eventually have pointed it out because it sticks out like a sore thumb and it kind of supports (however weakly) the 'Assad did it' argument, at least at first glance.

    As far as the UN's findings, it's irrelevant to me - personally - whether it's sloppy, an honest mistake or a lie. The result, either by omission or commission, suggests some level of confusion and deception is tolerable on the UN's part. I just can't accept that and still trust anything I see from the UN about this from now on.

    Sure, greater good and all because the CW program is being dismantled, but what happens a few months from now if someone decides to execute the biological weapons false flag. I see the skids being greased for that one right now by mainstream media. Why would the UN have any more credibility investigating that?

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  9. From the UN today....:

    The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents.

    Concerning the incident in Khan al-Assal on 19 March, the chemical agents used in that attack bore the same unique hallmarks as those used in al-Ghouta.

    Does this change any of your analysis?

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    1. Thanks for the quote. I'll write a quick review now.

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  10. Interesting event (if confirmed) concerning the previous news of chemicals smuggling from Turkey

    http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/178003#.Uxi-Zj9_vxc

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  11. IF hexamine was used as acid scavenger, should´t hexaminefluoride salt have been found at impact site? ( hexamine was reported but not its salt (to explain what I mean: a lab would´t report sodium hydroxide if they found NaCl- kitchen salt).
    The same goes for the isopropylamine fluoride salt which is not reported by UN. So I guess it wasn´t there and no stabilization was used.
    What do you think?
    Or where

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    1. This point was raised by Paveway about 10 comments above. Seems very relevant and I'll add it to a future post.

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    2. If you think it through it might even change your conclusion into "no sarin in rockets"

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