The message could hardly be clearer: According to U.S. intelligence, Syrian government could very well be preparing to use chemical weapons to put down the long and bloody rebellion against ruler Bashar al-Assad. That was the signal from the TV networks and other major media. Should anyone believe they're right?
"Chemicals so deadly one drop can kill within minutes," explained ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer (12/3/12), adding that one question on the table was "whether it means the U.S. may be forced to take action." Correspondent Martha Raddatz explained:
The latest intelligence is alarming. Officials telling ABC News the U.S. is now seeing specific signs that the Syrian regime may be preparing to use the chemical Sarin against opposition forces.
On CBS Evening News (12/3/12), anchor Scott Pelley explained:
Assad has not used his chemical weapons, including nerve gas, but the possibility that he might threatens to pull the United States into that Middle East conflict.
Pelley added that Pentagon correspondent David Martin "has been talking to his sources," and indeed he had. Martin explained:
This is a commercial satellite photo of a Syrian chemical weapons base. U.S. monitoring of roughly two dozen bases like this indicates the Assad regime has begun preparing its chemical weapons for use. Orders have been issued to bring together chemical ingredients, which are normally stored separately for safety, but when combined form the deadly nerve agent Sarin.
On the NBC Nightly News (12/5/12), anchor Brian Williams led the newscast:
Chemical weapons in Syria. Suddenly, the world has an urgent situation on its hands. The fear is Syria is preparing to use them against its own people.
NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski went on:
U.S. officials tell us that the Syrian military is poised tonight to use chemical weapons against its own people. And all it would take is the final order from Syrian President Assad.
He added that "this week, U.S. intelligence detected a flurry of activity at chemical weapons sites…the alarming developments shook the world."
And on last night's CBS Evening News (12/6/12), David Martin reported:
Monitoring of Syrian bases like this one has picked up evidence engineers have loaded the chemicals, which combine to form the deadly nerve agent sarin, into bombs that could be dropped from airplanes. Satellites have seen trucks moving among the bunkers where the weapons and agents are believed to be stored. U.S. officials say the evidence is strong but circumstantial, not definitive.
So where did all of this new information come from? Anonymous government officials talking to outlets like the New York Times.
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.
"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."
That somewhat sketchy take was reiterated the next day in the Times (12/3/12), where readers learned that "what exactly the Syrian forces intend to do with the weapons remains murky, according to officials who have seen the intelligence from Syria." By December 4, the Times was reporting on Obama's explicit warning to Syria:
The White House said it had an "increased concern" that the government of President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to use such weapons, effectively confirming earlier reports of activity at chemical weapons sites.
Absent any further details, that would seem to be a strange standard for confirmation: U.S. officials make anonymous claims, and then different officials say on the record that they are concerned about what those anonymous sources are claiming. But the Times aren't the only ones exercising that kind of judgment; NBC's Miklaszewski (12/5/12) reported, "Today, while U.S. officials confirm the precursor chemicals are loaded, they must still be mixed together to create the deadly gas."
Of course, it is highly unlikely that U.S. officials can "confirm" any such thing.
But the theatrics–satellite images, anonymous sources speaking about weapons of mass destruction and so on–are obviously reminiscent of the lead up to the Iraq War. NBC Nightly News was at least aware of this fact; anchor Brian Williams said this to correspondent Andrea Mitchell:
Andrea, here we go again. The American public, not anxious to hear about any U.S. military involvement anywhere else on the planet, using terms like "weapons of mass destruction," "chemical weapons." What is the U.S. to do?
Mitchell acknowledged that "you've got a real credibility gap that goes back now more than a decade"–evidently referring to U.S. misinformation on Iraq that led to an invasion and a bloody war.
But she seemed to be stressing that this time it's different:
But the specific intelligence that Miklaszewski just reported, the movement of Syria's chemical stockpile, explains exactly why the president and Hillary Clinton warned Bashar al-Assad so forcefully this week not to use the weapons.
But is it really? U.S. officials were confident about a number of things before the invasion of Iraq–most of which were not true. The Syria stories in fact most closely resemble stories in 2003 that alleged that Saddam Hussein had established a "red line" around Baghdad: If U.S. troops were to cross that line, Iraq would deploy chemical weapons.
In fact, some of the same reporters were saying those things then. Jim Miklaszewski told Today show viewers on March 25, 2003:
Top military and intelligence officials tell NBC News that based on information that they've received from the Iraqis, the Republican Guards have been instructed that once American ground troops cross a theoretical line, sort of a red line drawn around that southern edge of Baghdad, they have the green light then to release chemical weapons.
And on CBS Evening News (3/24/03), David Martin reported:
U.S. officials say the Iraqis have drawn a red line on the map around Baghdad and once American troops cross it, the Republican Guards are authorized to use chemical weapons.
It is, of course, entirely possible that these fears are very real, and that Syria could be planning a horrific attack in the midst of what is already a horrible situation there. But U.S. officials were pretty confident that they knew what they were talking about last time.