On Tuesday 4 April there were reports of children and other civilians killed by chemical poisoning in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Syria. There were contradictory reports, some saying they smelled the gas; others claiming it caused immediate death like odorless sarin.
On Wednesday 5 April, President Trump blamed the Syrian government despite conflicting reports and contradictory information and accusations. He said, “Yesterday’s chemical attack in Syria [was] against innocent people including women, small children and even beautiful little babies. Their deaths was an affront to humanity. These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated … my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
On Thursday, 6 April, Trump ordered a ‘targeted military strike’ on Syria with 50 tomahawk missiles attacking the primary Syrian air base near Homs. This base is used to support the combat with ISIS in eastern Syria and Nusra/Al Qaeda in Idlib province.
As I will show below, it is likely the deaths in Khan Sheikhoun were caused by an armed opposition faction, not the Syrian government. The goal was precisely what has happened: a media firestorm leading to direct U.S. aggression against Syria.
What Happened and How?
On April 4 news broke of a ‘chemical weapon’ attack in Syria. Western media and governments quickly blamed the Syrian government. Just as quickly, neoconservatives such as Sen. John McCain recalled the 2013 crisis when Pres Obama ultimately decided not to attack Syria. Israeli PM Netanyahu chimed in with a not-too-subtle renewed call for war on Syria. He tweeted that it’s time for the international community to “fulfill its obligations from 2013.”
Basic facts include:
– On 22 March, the government controlled town of Khattab was over-run by militants with some civilians kidnapped and taken to the nearby opposition controlled town of Khan Sheikhoun.
– On 4 April, up to 80 persons, including many children, died at Khan Sheikhoun. Some showed signs of chemical poisoning. Photographs, videos, analyses and other sources are documented at “A Closer Look At Syria”.
– one of the videos features a UK born and raised Dr. Shajul Islam. He received his UK medical license in 2012 but had the license suspended due to reports he was involved in the kidnapping in Syria of journalist John Cantlie.
– Many of the video scenes depict an area set into a limestone quarry with apparent caves and storage depots. There are flat bed trucks with bodies scattered on the ground in this semi-industrial area. Other videos show scenes in medical clinic.
– Photographs show “White Helmet” individuals handling bodies without gloves which is very strange if they died or were dying from chemical poison.
Who is responsible?
There are three theories about what happened:
– The western government narrative is that the Syrian “regime” is responsible. They fired illegal chemical weapons into the town, primarily killing innocent civilians and many children.
– The Syrian army acknowledges firing air strikes but deny using chemical weapons at this or any time. This area was the base for militant attacks against government areas in Hama province in the preceding weeks. The Russian Ministry of Defense says that militants had a weapons production factory including chemical weapon ingredients, and that may have been hit and caused the chemical weapon deaths.
– A third theory is the kidnapped civilians from Khattab were killed or poisoned by the militants as part of a staged event.
Evidence Pointing to the Militants
Looking at the facts, history and overall circumstances, it is far more likely the armed opposition is responsible for this event. Here is why:
(1) The incident and publicity help the opposition and hurt the government.
Crime investigations usually begin with the question: Who has a motive? In this case, it’s strikingly clear that the armed opposition and their supporters benefit from this event. They have used the story to further demonize the Assad government and make renewed calls for US and “the world” to intervene.
The Syrian government is making steady advances in many parts of the country. They have no reason to use chemical weapons; they have every reason to NOT use chemical weapons. They know very well that the armed opposition has immediate access to major media.
Accusations that the Syrian government intentionally attacks civilians is contradicted by their policies and actions. As demonstrated last December in Aleppo, civilians are welcomed from opposition areas into government controlled areas. Even Syrian militants are welcomed after they sign an agreement to lay down arms.
It is also relevant to consider timing. There is a pattern of sensational events helpful to the armed opposition occurring simultaneous with critical international meetings or actions. In this case, the events in Khan Sheikhoun occurred the day before an important conference on Syria in Brussels. The conference titled “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” has been effectively sidetracked by news about the chemical weapons attack and the Syrian government being blamed.
(2) Extremists were responsible for the August 2013 Chemical Weapon attack in Damascus.
Western supporters of the armed opposition were quick to blame the Syrian government for the chemical attack in Ghouta on 21 August 2013. However, subsequent investigations by the most credible investigative journalists and researchers concluded the Syrian government was probably NOT responsible. Seymour Hersh and Robert Parry concluded the attack was most likely carried out by militants with support from Turkey. The in-depth examination titled Who Ghouta concluded “The only plausible scenario that fits the evidence is an attack by opposition forces.” An MIT study made a detailed trajectory analysis, concluded that the missile could not have been fired from government territory and warned “Faulty intelligence could have led to an unjustified US military action.”
(3) Armed Opposition Groups have a history of Staging Incidents
From the start, the Syrian conflict has included an information war. Hillary Clinton boasted of “training for more than a thousand activists, students and independent journalists.” In December 2012, NBC journalist Richard Engel was reportedly kidnapped and abused by “shabiha” supporters of the Syrian government. Engel and his film crew were “liberated” by Free Syrian Army rebels after a gunfight with the Assad supporting kidnappers. In reality, the entire episode from kidnapping to rescue was a hoax designed to demonize Assad supporters and glorify the “rebels”. The true story emerged years later after the actual events were leaked. When it was going to be made public, Engel finally admitted the truth.
(4) Supporters of the armed opposition have a history of fabricating stories which demonize the Syrian Government.
In February 2014, it was announced that a defecting Syrian military photographer, who was anonymous but code named “Caesar”, had 55 thousand photos showing the torture and murder of 11 thousand innocent Syrian civilians. This news received sensational media attention with live interviews on CNN and front page coverage throughout the western world. The news relied on the judgment of legal prosecutors who “verified” the story and produced a “Caesar Report”. This was released the day before the start of Geneva negotiations. It effectively disrupted the talks and facilitated the “rebels” refusal to negotiate and walk away. In reality, the “verification” and report were commissioned by the government of Qatar which has been a major funder of the armed opposition. Since then it has been discovered that nearly half the 55 thousand photos show the opposite of what was claimed: they show dead Syrian soldiers and victims of explosions NOT tortured civilians. That is just one of the findings confirming the fraud involved in this sensational story. A concise expose of “Caesar” is here.
How the Public has been Misinformed on Syria
Historian and journalist Stephen Kinzer has said, “Coverage of the Syrian war will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press.” Here are a few examples showing the bias, half-truths and outright false statements regarding the events at Khan Sheikhoun:
– The PBS Newshour typically features two guests who are questioned by the host. The problem is that their guests consistently share the same basic viewpoint. On 4 April, one guest was from the Soros funded Physicians for Human Rights. She claimed, “We know that sarin has been used before by the Assad regime.” In fact that has NOT been confirmed by any credible organization. On the contrary, the most thorough investigations point to sarin being used by the armed opposition NOT the Syrian government. The other guest was Andrew Tabler from the neoconservative Israeli associated “Washington Institute”. His editorial from last Fall makes clear what he wants: “The case for (finally) bombing Assad.” The discussion on Syria at PBS Newshour is consistently biased.
– The New York Times feature story on 4 April was “Worst Chemical Attack in Years in Syria; U.S. Blames Assad“. One of the authors, Michael Gordon, was an influential proponent for “weapons of mass destruction in Iraq” that justified the 2003 invasion. But that has apparently not hurt his career. In this story on Syria, he and co-author Anne Barnard claim that “American intelligence agencies concluded” the 2013 attack was carried out by the Syrian government. That is false. The intelligence agencies did NOT agree and the “assessment” came from the White House not the intelligence agencies. It is astounding that they either do not know this or they are intentionally misleading the public. Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity explained the significance in their memorandum “A Call for Syria – Sarin Proof”.
– DemocracyNow! is a popular television/radio show. It is widely considered to be “progressive” but is also highly biased in its presentation on Syria. It almost solely promotes the perspective of those who support the armed opposition and/or western intervention in Syria. On April 5, they interviewed Dr. Rola Hallam. She is infamous for being the key player in the documentary “Saving Syria’s Children” which purports to show a chemical weapon attack in Aleppo but was actually staged. The “documentary” was then broadcast at a critical time trying to influence the 2013 vote in British parliament for an attack on Syria. On April 6, DemocracyNow! interviewed another “Syrian” who lives in the West and promotes western intervention: Lina Sergie Attar. Viewers of DemocracyNow! have no idea that the majority of Syrians support the government and especially the national Army in their struggle against invasion and terrorism.
Public understanding about what’s happening in Syria has been seriously confused by the bad analysis of prominent analysts. Some have suggested that Israel was content to live with Assad. Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren clarified the truth as he said “we always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to those who were backed by Iran.” In short, Israel prefers Al Qaeda or ISIS or, better yet, the conflict to continue so that both sides are destroyed.
Before the conflict began, in 2010, Secy of State Hillary Clinton made demands to Damascus that all revolved around Israeli interests. She wanted Syria to end its alliance with Hezbollah, to reduce its interactions with Iran and to come to an agreement with Israel. In contrast with what some analysts have said, Israeli interests have been a major factor driving and maintaining the conflict. With the liberation of Aleppo and prospect of a victory by Syria and allies, Israeli demands to escalate the war have probably increased.
Some of the world’s most famed political analysts have contributed to the confusion and lack of resistance as the war on Syria has continued. For example, Noam Chomsky on Democracy two days ago said “The Assad regime is a moral disgrace, the Russians with them.” Evidently he believes all or most of the accusations which have been said about the ‘regime’. In sharp contrast with Chomsky’s assessment, it’s remarkable that Syria has held together as well as it has in the face of attack by some of the most powerful and richest countries on earth. Over 100,000 Syrians have given their lives defending their country against the onslaught. Russia has supported their ally in compliance with international law, continually trying to work with the U.S. coalition as a “partner” against terrorism. Evidently Chomsky is unaware or does not believe the extent of lies that have been created around Syria. Evidently he does not recognize the distorted and shameful media coverage mentioned by Kinzer. Everyone makes mistakes but Chomsky’s poor analysis here is a whopper. If he was to visit Syria and talk with real Syrians I think his perception would be dramatically changed just as described by the PBS Frontline crew here. With consummate hypocrisy, both Syrian and Russian governments are now demonized by western neoconservatives and liberals who have done little or nothing to stop their own government’s collusion with terrorists raining havoc and destruction in Syria.
The need to restore International Law
International law has been undermined and replaced by “humanitarian law”. This has contributed to the current disastrous situation whereby the U.S. and NATO are waging aggression under a humanitarian pretext.
International law regarding attacks on sovereign states is clear: it is illegal unless authorized by the UN Security Council or in legitimate self defense. It is clear that Syria poses no threat to any of its neighbors or any other nation. It is also clear that Syria has been the victim for six long years of aggression by foreign states which have funded and promoted a proxy army of fanatics and mercenaries from around the world.
As the former Nicaraguan Foreign Minister and President of the UN General Assembly, Father Miguel D’Escoto, has said: “What the U.S. government is doing in Syria is tantamount to a war of aggression, which, according to the Nuremberg Tribunal, is the worst possible crime a State can commit against another State.”
There has been a sustained attempt to derail Trump’s campaign pledge to stop the US “regime change” policy. This has been accompanied by a semi-hysterical demonization of Syria’s ally Russia. Liberals have been willing accomplices in this campaign which serves the interests of the U.S. military security complex, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
It looks like the foreign policy hawks and neocons have succeeded. Yesterday’s attacks on Syria mark an escalation in the war of aggression and violation of international law against Syria. This could lead to WW3 unless there is sufficient outcry and opposition.
Rick Sterling is an investigative journalist. He lives in the SF Bay Area and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Biased and Misleading Analysis on Syria, Russia, Turkey
PBS Newshour is considered high quality journalism by many North Americans. But is it? A test case is their report on November 24 when a Russian jet was shot down and one pilot killed as he descended in parachute.
This was a significant international event and the situation is still dangerous. The conflict in Syria could get even worse. PBS Newshour presented a discussion/analysis of the event with two guests: Nicholas Burns and Angela Stent. The PBS Newshour host was Judy Woodruff.
This critique applies to the PBS Newshour broadcast on November 24 but the essential points apply to the present. The assumptions and bias regarding the Syrian conflict are pervasive and persistent. How can US foreign policy change if the public is continually fed biased and false information?
Here are specific points:
PBS Newshour selected two analysts with essentially the same viewpoint – U.S. Government and military/security establishment
Nicholas Burns is a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO. In early 2003 he urged the “unity” of NATO as some NATO allies expressed doubts about the U.S. the invasion of Iraq. In 2006 he urged punishing sanctions on Iran. In 2011 Burns wrote, “President Obama was surely right to commit the United States, however reluctantly, to the NATO campaign [to overthrow Libyan President Gaddafi].” Burns has a track record supporting Western aggression against other countries. He evidently has learned nothing from the resulting chaos, devastation and death.
Angela Stent is associated with conservative think tanks. She is a former State Dept and National Intelligence Officer. She is also author of the 2015 book The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the 21st Century. Written in non-academic prose, the book explores what she considers four efforts by the US to reset or start new relations with Russia following the Cold War. Unfortunately the bias of the author is apparent and inconvenient history is not mentioned. For example, the Project for a New American Century and aggressive U.S. foreign policy under its influence have been “disappeared”. It’s a biased history which ignores or white-washes examples of US collusion and support of violent coups- from Venezuela to Honduras to Ukraine and Libya.
The analysts make false or exaggerated claims.
- Burns says the Russians “did violate Turkish air space” but he offers no evidence, and it now appears the Russian jet was shot down over Syrian air space.
- Both Burns and Stent claim the Russians violated Turkish air space “several” times or “repeatedly”. Woodruff refers to them as “invasions”. Contrary to the allegations, the only confirmed Russian violation of Turkish air space was on September 3 in bad weather when they were beginning the campaign.
The analysts failed to include relevant information
- Air space violations occur frequently and Turkey is a major perpetrator.
- The normal practice is to usher an intruding plane out of the air space not shoot it.
The program fails to consider Putin’s comments that the action was “a stab in the back, carried out by the accomplices of terrorists”
Why wasn’t this comment discussed? A Columbia University researcher lists proof of Turkish collaboration with ISIS here. Another lengthy list is here. American Lebanese journalist Serena Shim documented Turkey’s pivotal role in this video . She was killed the day after publicly expressing fear of the Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT). Why did the guests not mention any of this?
The analysts also ignore Turkey’s economic support of ISIS
For example, the son of the Turkish President, Bilal Erdogan, has been implicated in purchasing ISIS oil from Syria, mixing it with Iraqi Kurdish oil and shipping it abroad. Bilal is co-owner of BMZ oil and chemicals shipping company which has been buying additional ships. Burns talks about the importance of “history and context” but he leaves out essential facts and history about the conflict.
The analysts distort facts to support their biases
Analyst Burns claims “The Russians have been bombing Syrian Turkmen, ethnic Turkmen villages” Evidence indicates the Russians are not bombing random villages; they are bombing specific terrorist groups in the area. We know that terrorists are in the area because they have been raining missiles into Latakia city, killing 23 students and civilians on November 10. We know the terrorists are there because they video recorded themselves. Other video shows the downing of the aircraft, the pilots descending, the “rebels” shooting at the parachutists, and then the captured dead Russian pilot. Article 42 of Geneva Convention says, ““No person parachuting from a plane in distress shall be made the object of attack during his descent.” Why should Russia and Syria be criticized for attacking these terrorists? It has since emerged that the most vocal “rebel” leader in the video is a Turkish citizen.
Analyst Burns conflates a sectarian extremist fringe with an entire religious branch.
When he refers to “Sunni” groups he actually means the Wahabi/Takfiri opposition such as Jabhat al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham, ISIS, etc. Most Sunni Muslims in the world oppose the bastardization of their religious faith by the fanatic Wahabi element. Characterizing the jihadis as being “Sunni groups” is comparable to identifying the Ku Klux Klan as representing the “Christian group”. It’s additionally false and misleading because the majority of Syrian Army soldiers are Sunni.
The analysts are hypocritical about air space violations.
Burns claims that Russia’s alleged 17 second violation of Turkish air space “is clearly illegal under international law”. Yet the analysts say nothing about the frequent and much longer violations of Syrian air space by American jets and bombers that have NOT been authorized by the Syrian government.
The analysts ignore the fact that Syria has been the victim of severe violations of international law for over four years
Turkey, USA, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France and UK have been training plus supplying weapons, logistics and salaries to armed opposition groups trying to violently overthrow the Syrian government. As confirmed by the International Court at the Hague in their ruling filed by Nicaragua against the United States, this is in breach of international law.
The analysts convey the confusion and contradiction of Western policy toward Syria
Stent says, “We disagree with the Russians on the fate of Assad and we disagree on who the enemy is.” In short: Stent and Burns think the West should be able to dictate who can be President of Syria; they also think Russia should refrain from bombing any group except ISIS. They want Russia to refrain from bombing Nusra/Al Qaeda, Ahrar al Sham and other terrorist groups. It is a duplicitous strategy.
The Russian position is much more logical. They have been clear from the start: They are there to oppose sectarian terrorists threatening the Syrian people and state. ISIS is one of these groups but there are many others. What is common among them is sectarianism and reliance on outside funding. One group consists of Uighurs of Chinese nationality. They are part of the “Army of Conquest” that made a big advance in northern Syria in Spring 2015. The idea that these sectarian terrorist groups should be allowed to roam free is illogical if your goal is to overcome terrorism. There are tens of thousands of sectarian fighters who are not in ISIS. Some of these groups threaten major population areas including Latakia and government controlled Aleppo. Other groups control border zones which allow for inflow of more weapons and jihadis. It is logical that the Russian Air Force and Syrian Army would prioritize attacks on these groups near major population centers and controlling border zones.
Regarding the “fate of Assad”, the Russians believe the Syrian Presidency should be determined by Syrians not foreigners. They have indicated they would accept internationally supervised elections. That policy is in keeping with international law. The policy of the West trying to dictate who can or cannot be President of Syria is a violation of the UN charter and International Law.
Stent engages is amateur psychology instead of policy analysis.
She speculates that Russia is intervening in the Syrian conflict because “they want the U.S. to come to them, they want to be the leader … There is some reckless behavior obviously.” It’s a silly analysis that ignores serious issues such as the US policy of “regime change”, the historic links between Syria and Russian, and the credible belief that the attack on Syria is a step toward attacking Iran.
Analyst Burns concludes with call for war via “No Fly Zone”
If the Russians don’t restrain the Syrian government from firing barrel bombs into civilian neighborhoods the US ought to consider a No Flight (sic) Zone with Turkey and other countries to shut down the Syrian Air Force. That’s what Secretary Clinton has been advocating and I think she’s right…. The way to save civilians and reduce the number of refugees is to shut down air traffic in the northern part of Syria. That’s an idea that the administration has to consider now given these events.
Thus Ambassador Burns goes from criticizing Russia for a 17 second intrusion into Turkish air space to calling for the take-over of northern Syrian air space. It’s a call for more war masquerading as a call for peace.
We can see where his call would lead by looking at consequences of the “No Fly Zone” in Libya. It has resulted in vastly more conflict, deaths, displaced persons and refugees. Since the NATO driven “regime change” in Libya, terrorism has exploded into neighboring countries.
Does Burns really want to take the US into a potential war with Syria and Russia by trying to take over northern Syria? What is wrong with following international law and letting the Syrian people determine their leader?
With Russian air support the Syrian Army is advancing on nearly all fronts. Is that what Turkey and other enemies of Syria are concerned about?
The US has been invading or surreptitiously overthrowing governments around the globe for the past 65 years. The US aggression has usually ended badly, especially for the target country but also for the US economy and population.
Why do these wars keep happening? To some extent it is media failure to expose what’s going on and encourage serious debate.
The PBS Newshour program on November 24 is an example of why the US public is confused about Syria.
PBS Newshour could have presented one of the analysts, Burns or Stent. They could have presented another analyst who would give a different analysis and challenged the biased perspective. It could have been someone from Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity like Ray McGovern or someone from Russia or someone from Syria like the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations. Instead we had a propaganda presentation, biased and misleading.
PBS Newshour is failing the public.
If you agree, consider letting the Ombudsman know. His email and phone contact is at here
Rick Sterling is a retired engineer and co-founder of Syria Solidarity Movement. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.
A recent article in FAIR reviewed the findings of its latest study on the quality of political “debate” being aired on the mainstream networks. It studied the run-up to the military interventions in both Iraq and Syria. Perhaps the arbiters of the study intended to illustrate what we’ve learned since the fraudulent Iraq War of 2003. Well, it appears we’ve learned nothing.
FAIR spent hours painfully absorbing the misinformation peddled by such soporific Sunday shows as CNN’s State of the Union, CBS’s Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press, and ABC’s This Week, plus some of the more popular weekly political programming including ADHD-inducing CNN’s Situation Room, Fox News Channel’s Special Report, the venerable sedative PBS NewsHour, and MSNBC’s Hardball. You know the cast of characters: glib George Stephanopoulos, forthright Candy Crowly, harrowing Wolf Blitzer, and stentorian Chris Matthews. Images of their barking maws are seared into the national hippocampus.
Overall, 205 mostly government mouthpieces were invited to air their cleverly crafted talking points for public edification. Of them, a staggering sum of three voiced opposition to military action in Syria and Iraq. A mere 125 stated their support for aggressive action.
Confining its data to the Sunday shows, 89 guests were handsomely paid to educate our benighted couch-potato populace. One suggested not going to war. It stands to reason that considered legal arguments against these interventions got the short shrift, too.
The media consensus on Syria and Iraq isn’t an isolated instance of groupthink. Far from it. It conforms to a consistent pattern, one that has at its core a deliberate disregard for international law and efforts to strengthen transnational treaties and norms regarding military action. (Although transnational law regulating trade is highly favored, for obvious reasons.)
Here the New York Times uncritically repeats Israel casualty figures from the recent attack on Gaza. The journalist, Jodi Rudoren, gives equal legitimacy to sparsely defended claims from Tel Aviv and “painstakingly compiled research by the United Nations, and independent Palestinian human rights organizations in Gaza.” She adopts a baseless Israeli definition of “combatant”, ignoring broad international consensus that contradicts it. She dubiously conflates minors with adults, and under-reports the number of children killed. And so on. All in the service of the pro-Israel position of the paper.
In 2010 Israel assaulted an aid flotilla trying to relieve Palestinians under the Gaza blockade. Author and political analyst Anthony DiMaggio conducted Lexis Nexus searches that demonstrate how U.S. media and the NYT in particular scrupulously avoid the topic of international law when discussing Israeli actions. In one analysis of Times and Washington Post articles on Israel between May 31st and June 2nd, just five out of 48 articles referenced international law relating to either the flotilla raid or the blockade. DiMaggio dissects several of the methods by which Israel flaunts the United Nations Charter. He adds that Israel has violated more than 90 Security Council resolutions relating to its occupation. You don’t get this story in the American mainstream. But this is typical. U.S. media reflexively privileges the Israeli narrative over Arab points of view, and barely acknowledges the existence of dozens of United Nations resolutions condemning criminal actions by Israel.
It’s the same with Iran. For years now, Washington has been theatrically warning the world that Iran wants to build a bomb and menace the Middle East with it. That would be suicidal. It is common knowledge among American intelligence agencies, and any others that have been paying attention, that Iran’s foreign policy is deterrence. But this doesn’t stop the MSM from portraying Tehran as a hornet’s nest of frothing Islamists.
Kevin Young has done a telling survey of articles on nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. Some 40 editorials written by the Times and the Post were vetted. Precisely zero editorials acknowledged international legal implications of U.S. public threats and various subversions led by Israel, such as assassinating scientists and conducting cyber-attacks, both innovations on standard violations of sovereignty. However, 34 of the pieces “said or implied” that Iran was seeking a nuclear weapon. Forget that 16 American intelligence agencies stated that Iran had no active nuclear weapons program. These papers of record prefer to trade in innuendo and hearsay, despite assessments to the contrary. More than 80% of the articles supported the crippling U.S. sanctions that are justified by the supposed merit of the bomb-building claim.
Prior to Young’s work, Edward Hermann and David Peterson looked at 276 articles on Iran’s nuclear program between 2003 and 2009. The number itself is staggering, more so when stacked against the number of articles written over the same period about Israel’s nuclear program: a mighty three.
This is interesting considering the posture of both countries in relation to international treaties. Israel freely stockpiles nuclear weapons and maintains a “policy of deliberate ambiguity” about its nuclear weapons capacities, despite frequent efforts by Arab states to persuade it to declare its arsenal (which is estimated by some to be in the hundreds). Also, it has yet to sign the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that has been signed by 190 nations worldwide. This intransigent stance has marooned the broadly embraced idea of working to establish a nuclear weapons free zone in the region.
Contrast Israel’s behavior with that of Iran itself, which has permitted extensive inspections of its nuclear facilities. The Times recently noted the country’s main nuclear facilities were “crawling with inspectors.” Iran is also a party to the NPT and is a full member of the IAEA. It continues to try to work toward a reasonable solution with the West despite debilitating sanctions levied on it by the United States. America has unduly pressured the IAEA to adopt additional protocols that would require prohibitively stringent demands on Iran, rendering the possibility of a negotiated solution comfortably remote from an American standpoint. (These additional demands reportedly include drone surveillance, tracking the origin and destination of every centrifuge produced anywhere in the country, and searches of the presidential palace. All of this passes without comment from our deeply objective journalist class.)
Coverage of Iraq is no different, particularly in advance of periodic illegal war of aggression against it. Former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Palestine Richard Falk and author Howard Friel conducted a survey in 2004 assessing the New York Times’ pre-war coverage of Iraq in 2003. In more than 70 articles on Iraq, the Times never mentioned “UN Charter” or “international law.” The study also found “No space was accorded to the broad array of international law and world-order arguments opposing the war.” But such arguments only exist outside of Western corridors of power in Washington, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv.
This isn’t debate. Real debate is pre-empted by internal bi-partisan consensus on some basic issues: maintain a giant garrison state, shrink the state everywhere else, preference corporations over populations, restrict civil liberties to secure status quo power structures. So when it comes to Iran, Iraq, Syria and the like, the question isn’t whether to go to war, but what kind of war to fight. Hawks want bombs. Doves want sanctions. Publicans want Marines. Dems want a proxy army of jihadis. They both want Academi mercenaries. (Obama hired out the gang formerly known as Blackwater to the CIA for a cool $250 million.) And when we’ve finished off ISIS, the question won’t be about an exit strategy, but whether to head west to Damascus or east to Tehran.
The question isn’t whether to cut aid to Israel given its serial criminality in Gaza and the West Bank, but how fast settlements can annex the Jordan Valley without attracting more international opprobrium. (International law, again, set aside.)
On the domestic front, the question isn’t whether to have single payer or private healthcare, but whether citizens should be forced to purchase private schemes or simply admonished to do so. The question isn’t whether or not to keep or strengthen New Deal entitlements, but how swiftly they can be eviscerated. The question isn’t whether or not to surveil the body politic, but where to store the data, and whether or not to harvest two-hop or three-hop metadata. The question isn’t whether or not to hold authors of torture programs accountable, but how much of the damning torture report to redact so as to leave them unprosecutable. The question isn’t whether or not to regulate Wall Street but, as slimy oil industry lawyer Bennett Holiday put it in Syriana, to create “the illusion of due diligence.”
All this is not to say the MSM isn’t aware of alternative viewpoints. It is, but it only acknowledges them when they can be used to justify a foregone conclusion. In the past year, the MSM has nearly become infatuated with international law. Friel has tracked the paper of record’s response to the Ukrainian fiasco. What did he find? When Russia annexed Crimea, the Times inveighed against the bloodless “invasion” as a gross violation of international law. Eight different editorials over the next few months hyperventilated about global security, castigating Russian President Vladimir Putin for his “illegal” violation and his “contempt for,” “flouting,” “blatant transgression,” and “breach” of international law. Calls were sounded to “protect” against such cynical disregard of global consensus. Western allies needed to busy themselves “reasserting international law” and exacting heavy penalties on Russia for “riding roughshod” over such sacred precepts as “Ukrainian sovereignty.”
Quite so, as Washington supports the toppling of democratically elected governments in Kiev and Tegucigalpa, sends drones to ride “roughshod” over Yemeni, Pakistani, Somali and other poorly defended borders; and deploys thousands of troops, advisors, and American-armed jihadis to patrol the sectarian abattoirs of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But better to exonerate ourselves on those counts and chalk it up to the fog of war. After all, we follow the law of exceptionalism, clearly defined by Richard Falk as, “Accountability for the weak and vulnerable, discretion for the strong and mighty.”
Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s death yesterday brought waves of mostly flattering coverage of the divisive right-wing leader. It was striking to see the parallels between the way Thatcher was covered on the PBS NewsHour and Fox News Channel‘s most popular show, the O’Reilly Factor. Though some people like to think that PBS and Fox couldn’t be further apart, they were basically singing the same tune.
The main Thatcher segment on the PBS newscast was a discussion with two former Republican secretaries of State, George Shultz and James Baker. Of course, both were big fans of Thatcher’s foreign policy (which was closely aligned with their own priorities during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush years). It was more than that, too; as Baker put it, Thatcher “emphasized the private sector and got rid of the oppressive influence of the trade unions.” And Shultz explained that Thatcher “was a very attractive woman. So you were certainly aware of that.”
PBS had one other guest: former Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, who cheered both Thatcher’s defeat of unions but also her humanity: “It’s kind of touching to be reminded of what a lovely woman she was.”
On the O’Reilly show, the host paid tribute to Thatcher’s leadership, contrasting it with Barack Obama’s tenure. As O’Reilly declared:
Her accomplishments are many, but she was always a very controversial figure in her own country and here in America, because the British press and the American media are liberal and always have been.
Later in the show, he was joined by conservatives Brit Hume and Bernard Goldberg; ironically, the latter segment focused on the alleged hostility to Thatcher in the mainstream media. So the guest line-ups were more alike than different. But so was some of the reporting. On Fox, Thatcher rescued Britain from the clutches of an oppressive union movement, and the record speaks for itself. As O’Reilly put it:
In Britain, 13 percent unemployment…. That’s a catastrophe, 13 percent, all right. When she leaves office eight years later, 5.8 percent unemployment. But if the unemployment rate drops 7 percent, which means all those millions of people are working under this woman, give her some credit.
And he put it a different way:
In 1982, about two and a half years into her term, unemployment in Great Britain was 13 percent. It’s chaos, absolute chaos there. When she left office in 1990, she was the longest serving prime minister in British history. It was at 5.8 percent.
On PBS, meanwhile, reporter Margaret Warner declared that Thatcher “brought a free market revolution to Britain, lowering taxes and privatizing state industries…. Britain’s economy rebounded from her tough medicine.”
Neither report gives viewers a good sense of Thatcher’s economic policy. (The wording in the PBS segment about rebounding from medicine is difficult to comprehend.) The Guardian compiled a list of economic indicators during Thatcher’s tenure; the short story is that inequality increased, and so did poverty–from 13.4 percent in 1979 to 22.2 percent in 1990.
O’Reilly is correct that unemployment dropped during part of Thatcher’s time in office; it also skyrocketed the first two years. When she left office in 1990, it was, according to the Guardian‘s figures, higher than when she took office. If that’s the record, then one would imagine it would be reflected somewhere–perhaps not at Fox News, for ideological reasons. But PBS is supposed to be about giving us the views that we’re not getting from the commercial media.
The performance of the corporate media is one of the principal failures of the Iraq War. There are almost too many examples to name; but most critics agree that one of the most instrumental single pieces that made the false case for war was the front-page New York Times story (9/8/02) hyping the idea that Iraq was trying to procure special aluminum tubes for its nuclear weapons program.
Last night in its 10-years-later segment, the PBS NewsHour (3/19/13) made a rather stunning judgment: One of the two expert journalists was the guy who co-authored that piece.
New York Times reporter Michael Gordon was the lead author on that infamous tubes article, but his record goes deeper than that. A few days into the U.S. bombing (3/25/13), Gordon appeared on CNN to endorse the bombing of Iraqi TV’s offices, calling it “an appropriate target,” since “we’re trying to send the exact opposite message.”
When U.S. politicians began to seriously consider a withdrawal of U.S. troops, Gordon criticized that policy, especially in one article (11/15/06) headlined, “Get Out of Iraq Now? Not So Fast, Experts Say” (FAIR Media Advisory, 12/4/06). He went on the Charlie Rose show (1/18/07) to endorse a troop surge. (Even the Washington Post admits that the idea that the surge succeeded is a “myth”–3/15/13.) And in early 2007, Gordon wrote articles, relying heavily on anonymous U.S. sources, alleging that the Iranian government was sending weapons into Iraq (Action Alert, 2/16/07).
So why would Gordon be someone you’d want to listen to about the Iraq War? That’s hard to say, really. But Gordon had plenty to tell PBS viewers. He complained that the Obama White House wasn’t interested enough in Iraq–leading to “the decline of American influence.” As he put it:
I think they view Iraq as just another country. They don’t have the same emotional or psychological or even foreign policy stake in it that the previous administration had.
Gordon added that the U.S. military “see a lot of early mistakes in the first years” of the war, but that “I do think the surge, as a military operation and military strategy, was effective and was essential.”
When one of the hosts, Judy Woodruff, asked about the war’s legacy, he replied: “Well, I think the military learned how to do counterinsurgency. The public opinion may no longer support that, but forever is a long time. And I think you can’t say we won’t have to do that again at some point in the future.”
And if there is ever another moment that requires reporters to faithfully record the views of anonymous U.S. officials as they make their case for war, it’s a safe bet that Michael Gordon will be there to do that job.
On Monday’s edition of the NewsHour (1/28/13), host Gwen Ifill referred to concerns about the “threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program,” and told viewers at the end of a Margaret Warner report that “Margaret’s next story looks at the debate in Israel over how to deal with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.”
And on last night’s broadcast (1/30/13), Warner explained that countries like the U.S., Israel and Turkey “are concerned about Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
To reiterate an obvious point: There is no proof of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. There are allegations that Iranian’s enrichment of uranium for its nuclear power program is hiding a military component, but weapons inspectors have not uncovered any such diversion.
The NewsHour has made this mistake before, as FAIR noted in a recent action alert:
In an October 22 discussion of the foreign policy presidential debate, the PBS NewsHour‘s Jeffrey Brown stated that “Iran’s nuclear weapons program has been a particular flash point.”
A few weeks earlier (10/5/12) on the NewsHour, Ray Suarez said that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez had
continued to thwart American efforts on a range of international issues, such as Washington’s attempt to convince Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to halt his country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
If there’s one thing media want you to know about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, it’s that he doesn’t like the United States. On the PBS NewsHour (1/10/13), Ray Suarez told viewers that Chavez
antagonized Washington, it seemed, whenever he could, forging friendships with Iran’s Mahmoud Abbas (sic), Syria’s embattled Bashar al-Assad, and he formed an especially close bond with Cuban Presidents Fidel and Raul Castro.
“Chavez has made a career out of bashing the United States and allied himself with Iran and Syria.”
While it’s hard to say Chavez has made a “career” out of U.S.-bashing–he does have, after all, a full-time job as president of Venezuela–you, too, might be excused for harboring some hard feelings towards a government that helped to try to overthrow your own. Which may be why U.S. reports rarely bring up the 2002 coup attempt–and when they do, treat Washington’s involvement in it as another nutty Chavez conspiracy theory.
Here’s Juan Forero in the Washington Post (1/10/13):
A central ideological pillar of Chavez’s rule over 14 years has been to oppose Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington, which he accuses of trying to destabilize his government.
“I think they really believe it, that we are out there at some level to do them ill,” said Charles Shapiro, president of the Institute of the Americas, a think tank in San Diego.
As ambassador to Venezuela from 2002 to 2004, Shapiro met with Chavez and other high- ranking officials, including [Vice President Nicolas] Maduro. But the relationship began to fall apart, with Chavez accusing the United States of supporting a coup that briefly ousted him from power. U.S. officials have long denied the charge.
Shapiro recalled how Maduro made what he called unsubstantiated accusations about CIA activity in Venezuela, without ever approaching the embassy with a complaint. He said that as time went by, the United States became a useful foil for Chavez and most Venezuelan officials withdrew contact.
“A sure way to ruin your career, to become a backbencher, was to become too friendly with the U.S. Embassy,” Shapiro said.
So Venezuela has a strange political culture where being friendly with the U.S. government gets you in trouble.
The Post airs Chavez’s charge–and then the U.S. denial. But the United States had all sorts of contact with the coup plotters before they made their move against Chavez in 2002. According to the State Department (7/02):
It is clear that NED [National Endowment for Democracy], Department of Defense (DOD) and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government.
And the CIA, as was reported by Forero himself (New York Times, 12/3/04), knew of the coup plotting.
The Central Intelligence Agency was aware that dissident military officers and opposition figures in Venezuela were planning a coup against President Hugo Chávez in 2002, newly declassified intelligence documents show. But immediately after the overthrow, the Bush administration blamed Mr. Chávez, a left-leaning populist, for his own downfall and denied knowing about the threats.
Scott Wilson, who was the Washington Post foreign editor at the time, told Oliver Stone for his film South of the Border:
Yes, the United States was hosting people involved in the coup before it happened. There was involvement of U.S.-sponsored NGOs in training some of the people that were involved in the coup. And in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the United States government said that it was a resignation, not a coup, effectively recognizing the government that took office very briefly until President Chavez returned.
And we know that the United States made quick efforts to have the coup government recognized as legitimate. The Bush government, immediately after the coup, blamed it on Chavez. And some of the coup plotters met with officials at the U.S. embassy in Caracas before they acted.
But the important thing for readers to know, according to Wilson’s successors at the Washington Post, is that U.S. officials deny they supported anything.
NewsHour botches basic fact about Iran
In an October 22 discussion of the foreign policy presidential debate, the PBS NewsHour‘s Jeffrey Brown stated that “Iran’s nuclear weapons program has been a particular flash point.”
A few weeks earlier (10/5/12) on the NewsHour, Ray Suarez said that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez had
continued to thwart American efforts on a range of international issues, such as Washington’s attempt to convince Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to halt his country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
As most people following this story should know, there is no intelligence that shows Iran has a nuclear weapons program. The country has long denied the accusation, and regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency have failed to turn up evidence that Iran’s enriched uranium is being diverted for use in a weapon (Extra!, 1/12).
Some governments claim otherwise, but journalists are supposed to convey the evidence that is available–not to make claims that are unsupported by the facts. If there was one clear lesson from the Iraq War, it was that reporters need to carefully distinguish between what is known for certain and what some government leaders claim.
There have been questions about the NewsHour‘s Iran reporting before (FAIR Blog, 1/10/12). On January 9 the broadcast reported that Iran’s denial that it is pursuing a nuclear weapon was “disputed by the U.S. and its allies.” The show turned to a clip from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to bolster that point — but edited out the part of his statement in which he said: “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.” A NewsHour editor (FAIR Blog, 1/17/12) agreed that “it would have been better had we not lopped off the first part of the Panetta quote.”
By the tone of some of the media coverage, you might have thought Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a plan to slash military spending yesterday. On the front page of USA Today (1/27/12), under the headline “Panetta Backs Far Leaner Military,” readers learn in the first paragraph:
The Pentagon’s new plan to cut Defense spending means a reduction of 100,000 troops, the retiring of ships and planes and closing of bases–moves that the Defense secretary said would not compromise security.
The piece quotes critics of the cuts like Sen. Joe Lieberman and an analyst at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. And the article talks about the most commonly cited figure of $487 billion in cuts over 10 years. As economist Dean Baker writes about such coverage–“Military Budget Cuts: Denominator Please”–there is no way people can assess the significance of what sounds like a lot of money if they don’t know how much the Pentagon is planning to spend over the same 1o-year period–roughly $8 trillion.
The PBS NewsHour did little to clarify the issue. The broadcast began with Jeffrey Brown announcing, “The Pentagon today outlined almost half a trillion dollars in budget cuts that would shrink the size of the U.S. military by trimming ground forces, retiring ships and planes, and delaying some new weapons.” PBS aired clips from Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich denouncing the budget cuts, and then interviewed a Pentagon official.
Even coverage of the Pentagon’s new “austerity” that managed to include some helpful context didn’t make things very clear. “The Pentagon took the first major step toward shrinking its budget after a decade of war” was how a New York Times story by Elisabeth Bumiller (1/27/12) begins. In the fourth paragraph, readers found this:
Even though the Defense Department has been called on to find $259 billion in cuts in the next five years–and $487 billion over the decade–its base budget (not counting the costs of Afghanistan or other wars) will rise to $567 billion by 2017. But when adjusted for inflation, the increases are small enough that they will amount to a slight cut of 1.6 percent of the Pentagon’s base budget over the next five years.
So the “first major step” in cutting the military budget… isn’t really a cut?
A Washington Post piece by Craig Whitlock (1/27/12) had a more accurate lead–“The Pentagon budget will shrink slightly next year”– but later tries to make a 1 percent cut sound more significant: “While the difference may sound small, it represents a new era of austerity for the Defense Department.”
To make matters even more confusing, the Post points out later that
Although the defense budget will decline next year, to $525 billion from this year’s $531 billion, under Obama’s current projections it will inch upward in constant dollars between 1 percent and 2 percent annually thereafter.
Kudos to Nancy Yousef of McClatchy for writing a piece (1/26/12) that took a different tack. Under the headline “Defense Budget Plan Doesn’t Cut as Deeply as Pentagon Says,” Yousef led with this:
Pentagon officials on Thursday announced the outlines of what they called a pared-down defense budget, but their request would increase baseline spending beyond the projected end of the war in Afghanistan, even as they plan to reduce ground forces.
To Yousef, the Pentagon was ” employing a definition of the term ‘reduction’ that may be popular in Washington but is unconventional anywhere else.”
And activist/writer David Swanson pointed out that the first question at Panetta’s briefing got right at this question of whether the cuts are really cut. From the transcript:
Mr. Secretary, you talked a little bit on this, but over the next 10 years, do you see any other year than this year where the actual spending will go down from year to year? And just to the American public more broadly, how do you sort of explain what appears to be contradictory, as you talk about, repeatedly, this $500 billion in cuts in a Defense Department budget that is actually going to be increasing over time?
Yeah, I think the simplest way to say this is that under the budget that was submitted in the past, we had a projected growth level for the Defense budget. And that growth would’ve provided for almost $500 billion in growth. And we had obviously dedicated that to a number of plans and projects that we would have. That’s gotta be cut, and that’s a real cut in terms of what our projected growth would be.
See the new release from the Institute for Public Accuracy for more of the context largely missing from the Pentagon budget coverage.
- Humans Lose, Robots Win in New Defense Budget (wired.com)