U.S. suggestions that the Syrian government could have used chemical weapons have been treated as fact by some media outlets, and are helping to fuel the case for greater U.S. military involvement. But subsequent reporting has called into question these early, credulous reports--and highlighted the continuing media failure to treat WMD claims with the skepticism they deserve.
The claims, detailed in a White House letter to the U.S. Senate Armed Services committee, were highly qualified. As McClatchy's Jonathan Landay reported (4/26/13), one official described the intelligence assessment as being of "low to moderate" confidence:
In U.S. intelligence analytical parlance, “moderate confidence” generally means that information lacks sufficient corroboration, while low confidence usually means that it’s too fragmented, it isn’t authenticated and there are major concerns about the credibility of the sources.
But many media accounts were more definitive. "U.S. Now Says Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons" was on the front page of USA Today (4/26/13), though a subhead inside told readers that the U.S. was "Still Assessing Chemicals' Use in Attacks." On ABC World News (4/25/13), Martha Raddatz declared, "It is a stunning assessment: American intelligence now believing that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale on its own people."
On CBS Evening News (4/26/13), anchor Scott Pelley said: "The president said today that the United States cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of chemical weapons on civilians. He said it in the Oval Office, the day after his administration confirmed evidence of nerve gas in the Syrian civil war."
Given the tentative nature of official claims, the media's confidence seemed misplaced, to say the least. But rather than spending time skeptically examining evidence, pundits seem far more interested in arguing that the chemical weapons allegations demanded a military escalation, based on criteria President Obama established last August, when he said that if the United States saw "a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," that would cross a "red line."
In much of the press coverage since the sarin stories broke, that "red line" has been transformed into a promise that any intelligence that suggests any Syrian use of chemical weapons would prompt a U.S. attack.
"The president has doubled-down on this notion several times, that if Syria uses chemical weapons, he will take action," said ABC This Week anchor George Stephanopoulos (4/28/13). "He's kind of put himself in a box."
On CBS's Face the Nation (4/28/13), pundit David Gergen declared:
Having said there's a red line, having said he would take action, I think it's baffling why, when the evidence comes in, we'll say, "Well, let's take it to the UN and let them sort this out." Take it to the UN? I'm sorry? It implies a lack of seriousness.
But more serious journalism has revealed real doubts about whether the Syrian government has, in fact, used sarin gas against its opponents. A compelling article from the online news site GlobalPost's Tracey Shelton and Peter Gelling (4/30/13) reported:
A closer analysis, however, raises doubts and highlights the challenge of confirming whether the Syrian government--or anyone else--is using chemical weapons.... Looking at video and photos obtained by GlobalPost at the scene, experts say the spent canister found in Younes’ house and the symptoms displayed by the victims are inconsistent with a chemical weapon such as sarin gas, which is known to be in Syria’s arsenal.
The piece raises the possibility that the observed symptoms could have been the result of any number of chemicals, including tear gas. A subsequent GlobalPost dispatch (5/5/13) reported, "Doctors in Turkey say initial tests of blood samples from victims of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria last month are negative for sarin gas."
In addition, Reuters (5/5/13) reported that United Nations team of investigators heard from victims and medical personnel who claim that sarin has been used by anti-government rebels.
Of course, many American observers of the tragedy in Syria reflect on the lessons of the Iraq War, when intelligence claims about Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction was cited as a justification for a U.S. military attack and invasion. Some pundits are now warning not to be too swayed by that lesson.
In the New York Times, Bill Keller (5/6/13) warned, "Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq"--the lesson apparently is that the two are not alike enough to worry about a similar catastrophe.
On ABC's This Week (5/5/13), Cokie Roberts observed that the public seems unwilling to start another war. When host George Stephanopoulos remarked that "the public's not rushing," she replied:
Right, and that is a huge problem... with the public being so completely disillusioned with American wars abroad that have gone on for so long--you know, these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost every American family something like $45,000, not to mention, of course, the lives. And it really takes a whole foreign policy option off the table when Americans say that they don't want to have our troops engaged in another war. And that's a problem, because we need to have every single option available in a very dangerous world.
Seeing public reticence for another war as a "problem" provides a revealing glimpse into the mindset of so many pundits, who are once again rallying in support of U.S. military action based on sketchy reports about weapons of mass destruction.