Syria and Sarin: Skepticism Still Warranted

David Gregory (cc photo: CSIS)

David Gregory (cc photo: CSIS)

At the top of Sunday’s Meet the Press (6/16/13), host David Gregory declared, “Confirmation this week that chemical weapons were used.”

That’s the kind of language you’re likely to hear in the corporate media when it comes to Syria. And while  it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what the word “confirm” means, it also betrays a lack of skepticism when it comes to government claims about the WMDs of “enemy” countries. 

If you thought any lessons should have been learned from the Iraq War debacle, then it might make sense to look at an outlet that got that right: McClatchy (which was Knight-Ridder back then).  On Friday (6/14/13), the wire service’s Matthew Schofield reported a useful piece, headlined “Chemical Weapons Experts Still Skeptical About U.S. Claim that Syria Used Sarin.” His lead: 

Chemical weapons experts voiced skepticism Friday about U.S. claims that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad had used the nerve agent sarin against rebels on at least four occasions this spring, saying that while the use of such a weapon is always possible, they’ve yet to see the telltale signs of a sarin gas attack, despite months of scrutiny.

One expert explained:

Philip Coyle, a senior scientist at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, said that without hard, public evidence, it’s difficult for experts to assess the validity of the administration’s statement. He added that from what is known, what happened doesn’t look like a series of sarin attacks to him.

The piece also explains that a detailed report of a suspected chemical attack published by the French paper Le Monde was questioned by chemical weapons expert Jean Pascal Zanders:

Only one detailed independent report of a chemical attack has surfaced in that time, however–a lengthy report in the French newspaper Le Monde last month that triggered both French and British letters to the United Nations.

Zanders, however, said that much about that report bears questioning. Photos and a video accompanying the report showed rebel fighters preparing for chemical attacks by wearing gas masks. Sarin is absorbed through the skin, and even small amounts can kill within minutes.

He also expressed skepticism about the article’s description of the lengthy route victims of chemical attacks had to travel to get to treatment, winding through holes in buildings, down streets under heavy fire, before arriving at remote buildings hiding hospitals.

Zanders, who also has headed the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and was director of the Geneva-based BioWeapons Prevention Project, noted that had sarin been the chemical agent in use, the victims would have been dead long before they reached doctors for treatment.

And it should be noted that the administration curiously did not make spokespeople available to ABC‘s This Week or the PBS NewsHour to discuss the new Syria policy. 

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.