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Propaganda Deja Vu? Media uncritically echoes unnamed US officials on Syria’s chemical weapons

“All governments lie.” — I.F. Stone

The mainstream media is at it again, uncritically regurgitating the vague and unverified claims of anonymous American intelligence officials who say that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has readied chemical weapons to use on his people.

There’s no doubt that Assad, whose family has passed down authoritarian rule of Syria like an heirloom, appears to have committed war crimes for which there is no excuse.

That being said, the mainstream media is so invested in villainizing the Assad regime, they have neglected to report accurately on certain factions of the armed opposition who have committed atrocities as well. This is partly due to the brutal escalation in violence that has made it unsafe for journalists to report from inside Syria (even the United Nations was forced to pull out its staff), leaving media outlets reliant on information from people on the ground. Since Syria has long been designated as “evil” by the west (an arbitrary label that need not apply to the repressive government’s of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain), the media has followed suit, unquestioningly publishing rebel claims as fact, a trend meticulously documented in an October article by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

In this context, the media’s willingness to parrot unverified claims by unnamed officials about Assad’s alleged plans to use chemical weapons should come as no surprise. That doesn’t mean it can’t be true. After all, Assad is no angel and has track record of unleashing indiscriminate violence. But so did Saddam Hussein when anonymous American officials (better known as Dick Cheney) deliberately spread the lie that he had acquired weapons of mass destruction. Media outlets were happy to take the bait, setting the stage for a war that should have never happened.

That’s not to say that present-day Syria is identical to Iraq 2002, but the mainstream media certainly hasn’t changed, sticking to their preferred and simplistic narrative (Assad is bad, rebels are good, west is a benevolent savior) no matter the cost, which brings us to the latest round of journalist malpractice (re: chemical weapons).

It all started on December 1, when the New York Times reported, “Western intelligence officials say they are picking up new signs of activity at sites in Syria that are used to store chemical weapons. The officials are uncertain whether Syrian forces might be preparing to use the weapons in a last-ditch effort to save the government, or simply sending a warning to the West about the implications of providing more help to the Syrian rebels.”

The Times went on to quote a somewhat incoherent and vaguely worded statement by an unnamed source speculating on the Syrian regime’s intentions:

“It’s in some ways similar to what they’ve done before,” a senior American official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “But they’re doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons. It’s not just moving stuff around. These are different kind of activities.”

The official said, however, that the Syrians had not carried out the most blatant steps toward using the chemical weapons, such as preparing them to be fired by artillery batteries or loaded in bombs to be dropped from warplanes.

So the US is understandably concerned about what Syria might do with its chemical weapons stockpile given the current civil war. Fair enough. But the same unnamed official admits that this is basically speculation on their part and that they’re only guessing what the Assad regime might be thinking of doing. Nevertheless, mainstream outlets ran with the story, which quickly changed from “Syria might be considering using these weapons” to “Assad has the bombs laced with chemicals on fighter jets and ready to go,” in less than a week. Based on what evidence? The unchallenged claims of even more unnamed US intelligence officials, of course!

While the Associated Press, and Wired’s Danger Room wasted no time in granting anonymity to intelligence people pushing the same story, the worst coverage of all came from NBC News whose articles more closely resembled stenography than journalism:

The Syrian military is prepared to use chemical weapons against its own people and is awaiting final orders from President Bashar Assad, U.S. officials told NBC News on Wednesday.

The military has loaded the precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs that could be dropped onto the Syrian people from dozens of fighter-bombers, the officials said.

As recently as Tuesday, officials had said there was as yet no evidence that the process of mixing the “precursor” chemicals had begun. But Wednesday, they said their worst fears had been confirmed: The nerve agents were locked and loaded inside the bombs.

NBC failed to challenge a single claim while granting anonymity to those making them. Sound familiar?

McClatchy, one of the few news outlets to question the allegations, reported, “Administration officials…offered no public evidence justifying their heightened fears, citing classified intelligence.”

The only intelligence official to publicly lend his voice to the chorus of anonymous warnings was Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “The intelligence we have raises serious concerns,” declared Panetta, providing no evidence.

Meanwhile, NATO has deployed Patriot missiles and troops along Turkey’s southern border with Syria in an attempt to de-escalate the situation, though it’s unclear how adding more bombs to an already violent war will decrease hostilities. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have repeatedly and very publicly threatened Syria, warning the chemical warfare will provoke serious “consequences”. White House spokesman Jay Carney echoed the sentiment, indicating that the administration is considering military  intervention as an option.

On November 28, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was “considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar al-Assad from power.” Earlier that month, the Pentagon told Obama that 75,000 troops would be needed to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, an estimate initiated by Obama’s “extensive contingency planning for how the United States would respond if the chemical weapons were on the move or appeared vulnerable,” reported the Times.

The Syrian government says chemical weapons accusation are just a pretext for US intervention, a charge that has been downplayed in the western media. But given all that we know about the Obama administration’s desire to bring down Assad, is it really that absurd that his administration might use this as an excuse?

Prior to December 1, most reports citing Syria’s chemical weapons focused on the regime moving its stockpile to safety to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands. Last month, the New York Times, once again quoting anonymous American officials, reported on US concerns that Lebanon’s Hezbollah might try to acquire Syria’s chemical weapons. The Times ultimately admitted, “there is no evidence that Hezbollah…is making any effort to gain control over the chemical weapons.” Yet, in just a matter of days, these anonymous officials changed their tune from militants and terrorists using chemical weapons to Assad, who they just said had moved the weapons to safety. Wouldn’t it be great if we had institutions willing to investigate these claims?

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11 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on RD Revilo.

    December 6, 2012
  2. neo #

    I wish one day the poor third world country can attack UK, USA, France and other European countries on the basis of false claims and destroy them as the US and European countries did in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria

    There goal is only one ” save the mother of all bitches Israel ”

    More than 90% of US economy is in hands on Jews

    911 was inside job of Mosad and CIA

    Did the western media ever told the public that how many people died after US intervention on Afghanistan, Iraq and libya, the figure is in millions

    How many people got killed in 911 according to US government?? 3000!!!
    How many people did US killed?? Over 1.5million

    think who is evil

    December 6, 2012
  3. emp #

    “…though it’s unclear how adding more bombs to an already violent war will decrease hostilities.”

    Over many months, going back to March 2012, the regime in Syria has used helicopters, and later jet airplanes, to shell civilians from the air. Many times, residential buildings, mosques, churches, and even hospitals have been shelled (a few weeks ago in Aleppo a field hospital that had been targeted several times before was finally hit from air strikes leading to at least 40 people be killed when the hospital collapsed, among them one of the doctors). When people make proposals about Syria (or Gaza or other similar situations), it is important to consider what you would want to happen if you lived there or were watching family who lived there. If your family were in Gaza, and you were watching the possibility of a jet bombing your family, would you want them or people around them to have anti-aircraft weaponry that could defend them, or would want them not to have it and hope for the best? People need to consider this question hard and seriously. Every day, people are being killed and maimed by shelling. And, even if you think that they should not have weapons capable of defending themselves from these attacks, should you be proposing that they be denied that if they want them?

    Syrians have attempted over many months to acquire anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to prevent this shelling, but have said that they have been unable to because arms dealers have said that the US has told them not to. They are not proposing getting offensive weapons such as helicopters or jets, but defensive weapons to prevent these attacks. This is basically unmentioned in the outside media, but is demonstrably true because the aerial attacks have continued every day for months. If they had been able to get anti-aircraft weapons, then the attacks would have been stopped.

    Over the past several weeks, the Free Syrian Army has captured some stockpiles of anti-aircraft weapons from the regime’s military. As a result, over the past several days, they have shot down a number of jets and helicopters.

    One of the significant problems with the outside media’s coverage of the situation in Syria is they have not talked to Syrians or let Syrians speak regarding Syria. Instead, they rely on outside experts to provide information, observation, and analysis. As you can imagine, most countries would find this unreasonable if outside media applied this practice to events in their country.

    Many Syrians have wanted assistance (and some have proposed a NFZ with humanitarian corridors), but do not want outside interference. It would be good if articles about Syria weren’t all written from the perspective of what outsiders, especially the US, want or plan to do “for Syria.”

    December 6, 2012
  4. emp #

    Here is a five-part series (about 30-minutes combined) by photojournalist Robert King, mostly English, with English subtitles:

    1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKsWGuLzsWk
    2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7K8e3CywVUo
    3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2vUZBSPsSQ
    4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojrQeSOEUSk
    5. Shelling of the hospital: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWSOIXS5o3c

    December 6, 2012
  5. emp #

    “…given the current civil war.”

    It is ubiquitous that the situation in Syria is referred to as a civil war. For what it is worth, every Syrian I have heard speak about this or write about it has objected to the term. (Likewise, Egyptians are objecting to it being used to describe what is possibly going to happen there.) And I have not seen any Syrian write or say that that is what they want it to be called. Here is Robert King’s response about this:

    Q: You say Syria is not a civil war. What is it?
    Robert King: I think it’s a slaughter bordering on ethnic cleansing.

    Some others, especially Syrians, want the term genocide to be applied, but that’s unlikely to occur since it has a technical definition in international law, as I understand it.

    December 6, 2012
  6. emp #

    Here is Robert King’s interview with two Syrians, included Dr. Osman, who speaks in King’s video report:

    http://www.vice.com/read/interviews-with-an-fsa-media-center-coordinator-and-a-doctor-in-aleppo-0000567-v19n11

    The first Syrian makes a few points that aren’t repeated much in the MSM as Syrians are not given voice:

    Q: During the beginnings of the revolution, were there ever people waving American flags, hoping that America would help to free oppressed Syrians?

    A: No, during the beginning we thought America was going to help us and Europe was going help us. Not because we raised their flags but because we thought they believed in democracy and human rights. Now we know they don’t believe in it. They just believe, “What can I get from this?”

    Q: Why do you think America and the rest of the West haven’t offered any military or logistical support?

    A: Because Syria is a very important country, and we border Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey. It’s a very important place in the world. So they don’t want us to be strong. They don’t want the FSA to be strong. They don’t want us to have heavy weapons or medium weapons.

    And here, he describes the nature of the regime succinctly:

    Q: What was it like living under the Assad regime?
    A: It’s like being in Iran. You have everything, but not for you. Everything’s around you, but not for you.

    Q: Who is it for?
    A: Assad’s family. His group, his mafia.

    In an interview with TheRealNews, Max Blumenthal described the regime essentially the same way, but with more words:

    “…a regime that’s ideologically hollow, that represents nothing beyond a fascistic security apparatus married to…a rich neo-liberal business class…”

    December 6, 2012
  7. emp #

    Here is an Reuters interview with Michael Weiss* from August 20 (coincidentally the day that Obama made his “red line” warning about chemical weapons). He had gotten into northern Syria around that time. Conditions have worsened across the country since then, but he describes a lot about the situation and what Syrians think and have to say about it. He describes the weapon situation at the time regarding what they can get and how they get some, among other details.

    * I do not know who Weiss is and at least one person said that he is a neo-con.

    December 6, 2012
  8. emp #

    “…has made it unsafe for journalists to report from inside Syria…”

    Two outside reporters in Aleppo, Syria at this time are Arwa Damon* of CNN and Jenan Moussa** of Arabic Al Aan TV.

    * twitter: @arwacnn

    See also: https://twitter.com/jeremyscahill/status/270576092505571330

    ** twitter: @jenanmoussa

    December 6, 2012
    • Thanks for all the info you have provided. I agree with most of what you are saying but I am always skeptical of military intervention by the west, which is how the media should approach these chemical weapon claims.

      Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator, but we can’t let that blind us to the fact that US allied countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey) are exploiting a horrific situation to further their own geopolitical agendas and its adding to sectarian bloodshed. In the end my concern is with truth, justice and an end to the violence.

      December 6, 2012
      • David M #

        This is a good and balanced appraisal of the situation facing Syria at the moment, in contrast to the reports you cite in US media. However, I am very concerned that one poster has been able to effectively hijack the balance in the article by posting a collection of unsubstantiated allegations about the nature of the Syrian government and the Syrian people. He does NOT represent a large portion of the Syrian people, those who are opposed to the violent sectartian insurgency backed by the West that threatens to destroy their country, and against which the Syrian government is struggling to fight. This other portion of Syria, which may be a majority, do not consider that this is a ‘civil war’ either – it is the struggle of a legitimate and sovereign government against a foreign backed insurgency masquerading as a ‘pro-democracy revolution’, in which the vilest of lies and crimes are being used to enlist the backing of the governments and media of the West.
        While we do need to remember Iraq in the context of the chemical weapons, it is more important to look at Libya, where the very same forces were at work, and the chaos that now exists is a direct result of it. The presence of Libyan fighters in Syria, coordinated by Abdul hakim Belhaj with the assistance of the CIA, is just one pointer to the reality.
        Lastly I don’t see the need to acknowledge the record of human rights abuses of the Syrian government in this affair; ever since Syrian soldiers and police started dying, which is from the very start of the ‘uprising’, actions taken against armed opponents of the government could be considered as ‘legitimate to maintain civil order’ – and would have been in any other context; our own governments habitually do far worse things on such a basis.

        December 7, 2012
  9. emp #

    “…but I am always skeptical of military intervention by the west…”

    Yes, Syrians are highly skeptical, too. Beyond skeptical, many have repeatedly said that they do not want intervention and that intervention, especially at this point would be an attempt to hijack the country. At the same time, they are ambivalent (some suggest a no-flight zone) because of their desperation. A NFZ, as carried out by the US in the past, is not something I would favor because the US and NATO militaries have shown that they are more concerned with their pilots and airplanes safety than they are about civilians’ lives. Past history is that putting in a NFZ would kill a lot of people. But providing defensive weapons, or not preventing Syrians from getting them themselves would likely have prevented many places from being shelled and many people from being killed.

    It is not a simple matter. People are being killed by the hundred every day, and about 100 children every week. It is a near statistical certainty that 100 people who are alive right now will have been killed before midnight, Syria time. Here are the number of people confirmed by one activist group to have been killed in the past seven days alone. This is an under count because it only includes people that can be confirmed and so does not include, for example, regime deaths because the regime does not make their dead available to the activists:

    Thursday: 89, Wednesday: 107, Tuesday: 184, Monday: 239, Sunday: 202, Saturday:165, Friday:138

    People should know there are severe consequences to not acting. At this point, the consequence of months of the international community not acting is that there is no good choice. Along with the people who are killed by weapons, there is increasing risk of people dying from starvation and exposure. See recent messages from @arwacnn and @jenanmoussa, for example.

    By one activists group’s count, over 17000 people have been confirmed killed since the “red line” warning that Obama gave on August 20. More than 30000 people killed since the beginning of February.

    December 7, 2012

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