In the days after a suspected chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, media coverage was on a familiar war footing. Television screen graphics diagrammed likely attack scenarios, and the question was when, not if, the United States would attack.
“Tonight the clock is ticking on US military action in Syria,” ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer (8/27/13) told viewers. “The White House says a decision is near and US warships are in position.”
On NBC Nightly News (8/28/13), Andrea Mitchell announced: “The warships are ready. The targets are chosen, limited cruise missile strikes against airfields, artillery, and the regimes command and control.”
The media’s war footing came long before any substantial evidence was presented that the Syrian government had carried out the attack—and would soon enough be derailed by public and congressional opposition to the White House’s plan—leaving some media personalities perplexed that the White House didn’t just start bombing when it had the chance.
In his August 30 address making the US government’s case that the Syrian regime had carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21, Secretary of State John Kerry said that “our intelligence community” has been “more than mindful of the Iraq experience.”
Anyone listening to Kerry’s presentation or reading the accompanying report should have been equally mindful, because the Iraq experience informs us that secretaries of State can express great confidence when they are completely wrong (FAIR Press Release, 2/10/03), and that US intelligence assessments can be based on distortion of evidence and deliberate suppression of contradictory facts (FAIR Media Advisory, 2/27/03).
Comparing Kerry’s presentation on Syria and its accompanying document to Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003, speech to the UN on Iraq, actually, one is struck by how little specific evidence was included in the Syrian case. Particularly on the critical question of who was responsible for this attack, Kerry’s presentation was vague and circumstantial.
Kerry explained the cursory nature of the report by pointing to the need to “protect sources and methods.” It isn’t clear, however, why intelligence methods that produced evidence that could be shared with the public 10 years ago cannot be similarly utilized today.* It illustrates how the $52 billion the United States spends on surveillance annually, according to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Washington Post, 8/29/13), contributes relatively little to American democracy: The collection of information is considered so much more valuable than the information collected that it rarely if ever can be used to inform a public debate.
Instead, as the nation discussed the dreadful question of whether it should launch a military attack on another country, the citizens were offered an undemocratic “trust us” from the most secretive parts of their government—an offer that history gives every reason to be wary of.
Kerry offered precise numbers for the Ghouta attack: “The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children.” When the PBS NewsHour (8/30/13) covered his presentation, reporter Jeffrey Brown zeroed in on the death toll:
The chilling numbers stood out from the US intelligence assessment released this afternoon. And, lest anyone doubt, the secretary of State insisted, its findings are as clear as they are compelling.
On NBC Nightly News (8/30/13), anchor Lester Holt said that Kerry had “revealed that more than 1,400 people had been killed in the chemical attack, including more than 400 children.” Note: “revealed,” not “said” or “claimed” or “alleged.”
And the New York Times editorial page (8/31/13), in a piece about the need for stronger legal justification for launching an attack on Syria, wrote definitively that such action would be “in response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed more than 1,400 people.”
But where does that number come from—and why is it substantially higher than other estimates?
As the Associated Press (8/31/13) reported:
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization that monitors casualties in the country, said it has confirmed 502 deaths, nearly 1,000 fewer than the American intelligence assessment claimed.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the organization, said he was not contacted by US officials about his efforts to collect information about the death toll.
“America works only with one part of the opposition that is deep in propaganda,” he said, and urged the Obama administration to release the information its estimate is based on.
Hannah Allam and Mark Seibel of the McClatchy news service (9/2/13) noted that substantially lower death tolls were released by Britain (more than 350) and France (281). Nevertheless, Kerry’s unsubstantiated figure became the unquestioned death toll in US news accounts.
Two days after his presentation, Kerry made the rounds of the network Sunday shows. It was a perfect opportunity for journalists to challenge him on the vagueness of the government’s case and to press for more substantive evidence. But he was mostly not asked about his justifications for war.
Instead, fully 80 percent of the questions asked (FAIR Blog, 9/4/13) were concerned with President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for an attack on Syria—a notion that many of the Sunday show journalists seemed to find remarkably troubling, treating the normal, constitutionally mandated business of seeking congressional approval for war as if it were an exotic and nearly unprecedented maneuver. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace (9/1/13) asked Kerry, “Haven’t you handed Syria and Iran at least a temporary victory, sir?”
“Do you think the United States has undermined its leverage in the world, its credibility?” David Gregory asked on NBC’s Meet the Press (9/1/13). The only time Gregory brought up the intelligence that forms the case for war, it was not really a question at all: “Mr. Secretary, I just want to underline the news you made this morning. This is a sarin gas attack perpetrated by the Assad regime. This is a slam dunk case that he did it.”
George Stephanopoulos, on ABC’s This Week (9/1/13), did ask, amid seven questions about congressional approval, the only question posed by any of Kerry’s interviewers about the strength of the US case for war:
You say that the evidence is clear, but President Putin of Russia calling it utter nonsense that President Assad would authorize this kind of a chemical strike…. Your response to President Putin?
Of course, putting the skepticism in the mouth of a world leader generally antagonistic to US policy is a way of saying that questioning the evidence is something that “official enemies” do.
Veteran intelligence reporter Walter Pincus wrote a column (Washington Post, 9/2/13) arguing that “the Obama administration has to declassify more detailed intelligence on Syria’s chemical weapons usage...to maintain the administration’s integrity at home and abroad.” Associated Press reporters Zeina Aram and Kimberly Dozier (9/8/13) reported that “one week after Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the case against Assad, Americans—at least those without access to classified reports—haven’t seen a shred of his proof.”
But most prominent media figures seemed uninterested in further evidence. On Meet the Press (9/8/13), correspondent Chuck Todd rejected comparisons with the Bush administration’s Iraqi WMD claims:
But these weapons are there. I mean, this is a completely different case. The weapons were used, we have the film, we have all kinds of intelligence that suggest who used them. It’s a much different thing.
Corporate media have shown a similar credulity when it comes to other crucial issues surrounding a military strike against Syria, like the status of an attack under international law and the question of whether intervention would improve or worsen the humanitarian plight of the Syrian people.
CBS’s Bob Schieffer (Face the Nation, 9/8/13) offered an endorsement of war that might explain why so many in the press took such an unskeptical approach to these sorts of concerns:
The president of the United States drew a line in the sand, a red line. At this point, that may be the only good reason left for Congress to give him the authority he now asked for to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
When the president of the United States says something, the rest of the world, our friends and our enemies, pay attention. If we do not follow through, what impact will that have on North Korea or Iran the next time we warn them of dire consequences if they press on with their nuclear weapons programs? More important, how will it be viewed by our strong allies like Japan? We have treaties that promise we will retaliate if they are attacked by nuclear powers. Will they now question our resolve?
I don’t like anything about where we are, but in a dangerous world when the United States takes a stand, and then goes back on its word, we’re left in an even more dangerous place.
From that point of view, if you investigate any part of a case for war and it causes a president to back down from a threat, you’ve put the nation at risk. Better to unquestioningly accept the administration’s rationales—it’s the patriotic thing to do.
*The United Nations’ September 16 report on Ghouta stood in sharp contrast to the US government report by providing detailed information about its conclusion that sarin had been used at Ghouta. While it declined to explicitly blame anyone for the attack, it implicitly made a much more persuasive case for Syrian government responsibility than the US’s direct accusations did.