Anonymous government sources speaking to the New York Times, along with intelligence based on satellite imagery, tell a frightening story: The brutal leader of an unfriendly Arab country is preparing to unleash chemical weapons.
There are significant differences between the allegations about Syria’s WMDs today and Iraq’s nonexistent weapons in 2003. But the similarities are notable for what they reveal—not about U.S. foreign policy plans, but about the corporate media’s ability to churn out a stream of alarmist coverage based on the thinnest of evidence.
Now, as then, the New York Times drove the initial storyline. On December 2, Michael Gordon (co-author of some of the faulty Times coverage in the lead-up to the Iraq War) and several others 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.
A “senior American official” told the Times that the new intelligence was “in some ways similar to what they’ve done before,” but then added that “they’re doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons.”
The next day, the Times continued to report this rather sketchy story. The media coverage intensified when Barack Obama weighed in on December 3, which the Times reported the next day:
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’s a strange standard for “confirming” a story: 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. The fact that Obama’s warning was basically the same one he issued months earlier (Arms Control Monitor, 11/12) was rarely noted, but should have made some question the importance of his statement.
Whatever caveats may have been evident in some of that Times coverage were mostly missing from the nightly newscasts, which were vigorously sounding the alarm.
On CBS Evening News (12/3/12), Pentagon correspondent David Martin declared:
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.” 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.”
Miklaszewski 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.
“A dangerous move in Syria,” explained ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer (12/6/12). “Chemicals, deadly Sarin gas, loaded onto weapons near an airfield there. One drop of Sarin can kill within minutes.”
What evidence was offered for these dramatic claims? The assertions of anonymous officials, accompanied by ambiguous satellite imagery.
Two days after the “one drop” broadcast, Sawyer (12/8/12) told viewers that “the threat of chemical weapons appears to be growing tonight.” So the crisis was getting worse—based on what? Correspondent Alex Marquardt only reported that “one of America’s closest allies, Great Britain, said that it had also seen evidence that Syria has prepared chemical weapons. But so far, no proof has been offered publicly.” Evidently no public proof is necessary before broadcasters present official allegations as facts.
But the storyline seemed to require some sense of frightening momentum. “The Assad regime, still corralling its chemical weapons,” Sawyer announced on another ABC World News broadcast (12/10/12). Correspondent Marquardt added, “American officials say they fear the likelihood of Assad using chemical weapons is rising and say they have proof they’ve been prepared.”
No officials were quoted saying anything of the sort, however; the report focused on a Syrian defector who says he worked in the chemical weapons program. If anything, the report was really about the dangers of those weapons if the Syrian government were to fall: “If the regime crumbles, the U.S. fears the weapons could be transferred to Hezbollah, or fall into the hands of groups like Al-Qaeda.”
The obvious question that one has to ask amidst all of this coverage: Haven’t I heard this before?
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (12/5/12) acknowledged as much, though he framed his question to correspondent Andrea Mitchell around the idea of how the United States would need to respond:
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 the “real credibility gap that goes back now more than a decade”—before noting that this time it’s “specific intelligence” that “explains exactly why the president and Hillary Clinton warned Bashar al-Assad so forcefully this week not to use the weapons.” Of course, many U.S. officials were confident about the “specific intelligence” they possessed about Iraq.
Hawkish former Iraq weapon inspector Charles Duelfer made an appearance on NPR’s All Things Considered (12/7/12) to say, “There is much more confidence about the Syrian case than there was about the Iraqi case.” It’s unclear why listeners—or NPR—should put faith in this assessment; during the run-up to the Iraq War, Duelfer publicly expressed confidence that Iraq had a huge secret arsenal, while privately conceding that this was a red herring (Scott Ritter, Endgame; Extra!, 7–8/03):
I think it would be a mistake to focus on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. To do so ignores the larger issue of whether or not we want this dictator to have control over a nation capable of producing 6 million barrels of oil per day.... If you focus on the weapons issue, the first thing you know, Iraq will be given a clean bill of health.
When NBC’s Meet the Press (12/9/12) needed a guest to weigh in on Syria’s WMDs, it chose Jeffrey Goldberg—the former New Yorker reporter who authored alarmist reports about Iraq’s WMDs (“Both Israel and the United States believe that, at the outset of an American campaign against Saddam, Iraq will fire missiles at Israel—perhaps with chemical or biological payloads —in order to provoke an Israeli conventional, or even nuclear, response”—10/14/02) and its equally imaginary ties to Al-Qaeda (3/25/12; see Salon, 6/27/10). The fact that he was on network television, billed as a Mideast expert, tells you all you need to know about whether the corporate press has learned a lesson from the Iraq debacle.
After this burst of coverage, the Syrian chemical weapons story went nowhere in a hurry, until the Washington Post’s David Ignatius used his December 19 column to make a startling accusation: Syria had mobile chemical weapons labs. In what almost felt like a parody of pre-war claims about Iraq, Ignatius relied on a “Syrian source” who “provided a detailed account in a telephone conversation...drawing on intelligence provided to him by a Syrian defector.”
Ignatius was aware of the obvious resemblance to the Iraq debacle:
For some historical context, readers should recall the Iraqi defector known as “Curveball,” who made allegations about Iraqi chemical weapons a decade ago that bolstered the case for war—but turned out to be fabrications.
So why is it different this time? Ignatius told readers that he “checked it with knowledgeable, independent sources, who confirmed some of the details.”
But experts were sure about Iraq, too: When one apparently “knowledgeable” expert, former weapons inspector David Kay, found what many thought were Iraq’s mobile labs, he told NBC (5/12/03), “Literally, there’s nothing else you would do this way on a mobile facility.” Except make hydrogen for weather balloons, which is what the vehicles were actually used for.
In a rare media moment of caution, McClatchy reporters Matt Schofield and Hannah Allam (12/8/12) reported that
international experts are cautioning against alarmism, saying there’s no confirmation that the Syrians are mixing weapons components or loading them into delivery systems, as some U.S. news organizations have reported.
According to their reporting, the intelligence showing movement at some chemical sites might be a case of mistaken interpretation:
That movement could be interpreted as reassuring rather than alarming, the experts said, if the intention is to keep the weapons from extremists in the anti-Assad movement who are at the forefront of recent rebel advances.
Indeed, before the rush of stories suggesting that Assad was set to deploy these weapons, reporting on Syria mostly concerned the fear that Syrian rebel groups might gain access to them. The McClatchy piece also noted that “many who study the topic worry that the hysteria has gone well beyond what the facts warrant, and there are concerns that the intelligence hasn’t really shown much change in recent months.”
Both Schofield and Allam are veterans of Knight Ridder, the newspaper company absorbed by the smaller McClatchy chain in 2006—and Knight Ridder was one of the few outlets to exercise proper skepticism about the Iraq WMD intelligence (Extra!, 3–4/06). Are its reporters right this time too? That’s, of course, impossible to determine. But they have a record of being correct, and being wary of government claims—which should be the media rule, not the exception.