Syria, chemical weapons, Seymour Hersh, and the utter dishonesty of the western media

1968 – My Lai

On 16th March, 1968, near the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, at least 300 (and probably over 500) unarmed Vietnamese civilians – men, women, and children – were massacred by American troops.

It took over a year for the story to make the news. That is not to say that nothing was reported. Two days after it happened, The Stars and Stripes, an American military newspaper, published a laudatory piece, entitled “U.S. troops Surrounds Red, Kill 128”. The following month, The Trident, the newsletter of the American Army’s 11th Infantry Brigade, reported that “The most punishing operations undertaken by the brigade in Operation Muscatine’s area involved three separate raids into the village and vicinity of My Lai, which cost the VC (Viet Cong) 276 killed.” In short, the U.S. Army covered up the story.

1969 – The story comes out

But information began to leak out, and on the 5th September 1969, an officer was charged with premeditated murder, and a vague press release concerning the charges was distributed. Consequently, a report on NBC on 10th September 10 mentioned the murder of a number of civilians in South Vietnam.

As a result, a soldier decided to disobey the Army’s order to withhold the information from the media. He approached a reporter who chose not to handle the scoop. Another reporter uncovered the story on his own but also decided to put it on hold. Two major national news press outlets—The New York Times and The Washington Post, received some tips with partial information but did not act on them.

On the 22nd of October someone contacted a journalist called Seymour Hersh, who investigated it. He initially tried to sell the story to Life and Look magazines; both turned it down. Hersh then went to the small Washington News Service, which sent it to 50 major American newspapers, and 30 of them accepted it for publication.

And the truth was out.

2009 – Observer profile of Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh, however didn’t stop there. An article in The Observer, published in 2009, was entitled “The man who knows too much”, which tells us that “It was Hersh who first revealed the full extent” of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American forces at Abu Ghraib, and in Hersh’s book, Chain of Command, “it became clear that Abu Ghraib was not an “isolated incident” but, rather, a concerted attempt by the government and the military leadership to circumvent the Geneva Conventions in order to extract intelligence and quell the Iraqi insurgency.'” (Needless to say, the Pentagon denied much of what Hersh reported.)

Perhaps the most significant part of the article is this:

“What really gets Hersh going – he seems genuinely bewildered by it – is the complicit meekness, the virtual collapse, in fact, of the American press since 9/11. In particular, he disdains its failure to question the ‘evidence’ surrounding Saddam’s so-called weapons of mass destruction. ‘When I see the New York Times now, it’s so shocking to me.”

Notice that the American press largely failed to question the ‘evidence” concerning allegations that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). That suggests one of two things – a press that was gullible and naive – or a press that was basically aligned with the government’s agenda.

Interestingly, the same can be said for western media coverage of the fall of Gadaffi in Libya. The 2016 Foreign Affairs Committee report, quoting Amnesty International, said:

“much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge. ”

As I commented in a previous post:

“It is worth noticing that Western media were biased in exactly the same direction as their governments. That raises an interesting question: “Were Western governments unduly influenced by the biased media, or was the media coverage biased because the media did not want to be out of step with the politically powerful, or was there a general bias in Western countries which affected both media and governments? “

Seymour Hersh’s comments about the Western media in 2009 seem to dovetail with Amnesty International’s observations a few years later. Most of the media in America and Britain seem to be remarkably unwilling to question the government’s actions in the Middle East.

And that, I think, is worth noticing.

The other thing that I think needs to be noticed is that with My Lai, Saddam’s WMDs, and the torture of Iraqi prisoners – the American government, and, in particular, the American military, have shown consistently that they cannot be believed. Seymour Hersh, by contrast, proved to be a reliable source.

2014 – Hersh on Syria (1)

Which brings us to Hersh’s article “The Red Line and the Rat Line“, published in the London Review of Books in April 2014.

In August 2013, two opposition-controlled areas in the suburbs around Damascus, Syria were struck by rockets containing the chemical agent sarin. The Syrian opposition, as well as many governments, and the European Union stated the attack was carried out by forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian and Russian governments blamed the opposition for the attack, the Russian government calling the attack a false flag operation by the opposition to draw foreign powers into the civil war on the rebels’ side.

Several countries including France, the United Kingdom, and the United States debated whether to intervene militarily against Syrian government forces and, two weeks after that attack, the United States Senate filed a resolution to authorize use of military force against the Syrian military in response. However, military intervention was averted when (and this is important) the Syrian government accepted a US – Russian negotiated deal to turn over “every single bit” of its chemical weapons stockpiles for destruction and declared its intention to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Seymour Hersh got to work researching the story, and his article published 6 months later. He reported that British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the attack and analysis at Porton Down demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. Furthermore, British and American intelligence knew that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons, and the US Defense Intelligence Agency had issued a highly classified briefing which stated that al-Nusra (the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda, and one of the main rebel groups fighting the Syrian government) maintained a sarin production cell. And there was plenty of strong evidence which suggested that Russia was indeed correct, and that the Gouta attack was a false-flag operation designed to get western governments to attack the Syrian government.

Hersh’s report got remarkably little coverage in the mainstream western media, which seems odd since the Observer / Guardian had published a profile of Hersh 5 years earlier.  The American government issued a denial.

Hersh made a lot of interesting allegations in it, and to this day, it is difficult to know how much will turn out to be true, and how much will not. But it has, on the whole, stood up pretty well.

2017, 4th April – The Khan Shaykhun chemical attack

On 4 April 2017, a chemical attack took place on the town of Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib Governorate of Syria. At the time of the attack, the town was under the control of – yes, you’ve guessed it, al-Nusra – now renamed Tahrir al-Sham. The attack was the deadliest use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war since the Ghouta chemical attack, and at least 74 people were killed, according to the Idlib health authority. As before, most western goverments blamed the Syrian government, and the Syrians denied responsiblity. Three days later, on 7 April, the United States launched 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat Air Base, which U.S. intelligence claimed was the source of the attack.

2017, 6th April – Philip Giraldi

Even before Donald Trump launched the missile attack, doubts were being raised. Philip Giraldi – a retired CIA officer who had worked in the Middle East (and who has a PhD from the University of London), who is, in my opinion, a very credible source – gave an interview, in which he said that the narrative that Assad or Russia did it is a “sham.”

“I am hearing from sources on the ground, in the Middle East, the people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence available are saying that the essential narrative we are all hearing about the Syrian government or the Russians using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham. The intelligence confirms pretty much the account the Russians have been giving since last night which is that they hit a warehouse where al Qaida rebels were storing chemicals of their own and it basically caused an explosion that resulted in the casualties. Apparently the intelligence on this is very clear, and people both in the Agency and in the military who are aware of the intelligence are freaking out about this because essentially Trump completely misrepresented what he should already have known — but maybe didn’t–and they’re afraid this is moving towards a situation that could easily turn into an armed conflict.

These are essentially sources that are right on top of the issue right in the Middle East. They’re people who are stationed there with the military and the Intelligence agencies that are aware and have seen the intelligence And, as I say, they are coming back to contacts over here in the US essentially that they astonished at how this is being played by the administration and by the media and in some cases people are considering going public to stop it. They’re that concerned about it, that upset by what’s going on.

. . . the intelligence indicates that it was not an attack by the Syrian government using chemical weapons… There was an attack but it was with conventional weapons–a bomb– and the bomb ignited the chemicals that were already in place that had been put in there by the terrorist group affiliated with al Qaida.

2017, 17th April – Theodore Postol

Ten days later, further serious doubts were thrown on the official American government story by Theodore Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Postol, like Giraldi, is a very credible source; MIT is the number 5 ranked university in the world, according to Time Higher Education.

Postol studied the evidence, and then said of the White House Intelligence Report,

I have reviewed the document carefully, and I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria at roughly 6 to 7 a.m. on April 4, 2017.

In fact, a main piece of evidence that is cited in the document points to an attack that was executed by individuals on the ground, not from an aircraft, on the morning of April 4. This conclusion is based on an assumption made by the White House when it cited the source of the sarin release and the photographs of that source. My own assessment, is that the source was very likely tampered with or staged, so no serious conclusion could be made from the photographs cited by the White House.

What I can say for sure herein is that what the country is now being told by the White House cannot be true and the fact that this information has been provided in this format raises the most serious questions about the handling of our national security.  

Postol’s contribution got almost no coverage in the mainstream media.  Again, this is slightly curious, because in 2013 the BBC carried a story about Postol, describing him as “a leading US expert on missile defence.”

2017, 25th June – Hersh on Syria (2)

In June, Hersh’s piece, Trump’s Red Line, appeared – in the German daily paper, Die Welt.

In a series of interviews, I learned of the total disconnect between the president and many of his military advisers and intelligence officials, as well as officers on the ground in the region who had an entirely different understanding of the nature of Syria’s attack on Khan Sheikhoun. I was provided with evidence of that disconnect, in the form of transcripts of real-time communications, immediately following the Syrian attack on April 4.

According to a senior adviser to the American intelligence community, who has served in senior positions in the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency,

“Russian and Syrian Air Force officers gave details of the carefully planned flight path to and from Khan Shiekhoun on April 4 directly, in English, to . . . [one of the American AWACS surveillance planes that monitor Russian and Syrian flights once airborne ], which was on patrol near the Turkish border, 60 miles or more to the north. . . .

The Syrian target at Khan Sheikhoun, as shared with the Americans at Doha, was depicted as a two-story cinder-block building in the northern part of town. Russian intelligence, which is shared when necessary with Syria and the U.S. as part of their joint fight against jihadist groups, had established that a high-level meeting of jihadist leaders was to take place in the building, including representatives of Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-affiliated group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The two groups had recently joined forces, and controlled the town and surrounding area.

Russian and Syrian intelligence officials, who coordinate operations closely with the American command posts, made it clear that the planned strike on Khan Sheikhoun was special because of the high-value target. . . . The advance intelligence on the target, as supplied by the Russians, was given the highest possible score inside the American community.

This was not a chemical weapons strike,” the adviser said. “That’s a fairy tale.

The target was struck at 6:55 a.m. on April 4, just before midnight in Washington. A Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) by the U.S. military later determined that the heat and force of the 500-pound Syrian bomb triggered a series of secondary explosions that could have generated a huge toxic cloud that began to spread over the town, formed by the release of the fertilizers, disinfectants and other goods stored in the basement, its effect magnified by the dense morning air, which trapped the fumes close to the ground.

The internet swung into action within hours, and gruesome photographs of the victims flooded television networks and YouTube.

Within hours of viewing the photos, according to the special adviser who spoke to Hersh,

“Trump instructed the national defense apparatus to plan for retaliation against Syria. “He did this before he talked to anybody about it. The planners then asked the CIA and DIA if there was any evidence that Syria had sarin stored at a nearby airport or somewhere in the area. Their military had to have it somewhere in the area in order to bomb with it.” “The answer was, ‘We have no evidence that Syria had sarin or used it,’” the adviser said. “The CIA also told them that there was no residual delivery for sarin at Sheyrat [the airfield from which the Syrian SU-24 bombers had taken off on April 4] and Assad had no motive to commit political suicide.” Everyone involved, except perhaps the president, also understood that a highly skilled United Nations team had spent more than a year in the aftermath of an alleged sarin attack in 2013 by Syria, removing what was said to be all chemical weapons from a dozen Syrian chemical weapons depots. . . “

“And yet it was impossible for the experts to persuade the president of this once he had made up his mind. “The president saw the photographs of poisoned little girls and said it was an Assad atrocity,” the senior adviser said. “It’s typical of human nature. You jump to the conclusion you want. Intelligence analysts do not argue with a president. They’re not going to tell the president, ‘if you interpret the data this way, I quit.’” “

2017, 29th June – Scott Ritter

A few days later, Scott Ritter published his thoughts. Ritter had been a US. Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, and who had served as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. Prior to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Ritter stated that Iraq possessed no significant weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities, and was described by the New York Times “the loudest and most credible skeptic of the Bush administration’s contention that Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.”  Ritter was, of course, to be proven to be correct.

In his article about the Khan Sheikhoun incident, Ritter discussed the two conflicting stories about what actually happened, and came to the conclusion that Hersh’s story was more likely to be correct than that of the White House.  He has expanded on that in a recent interview which can be watched on YouTube.

What do I think?

Well, every bit of evidence coming from the ground (e.g. photographs) comes from al-Qaeda affiliated groups or those approved by them.  In practice, these people have proved to be thugs who have a track record of mistreating Christians and members of other religious minorities.   In other words, the evidence from the ground is pretty much worthless.

And, to repeat myself, “with My Lai, Saddam’s WMDs, and the torture of Iraqi prisoners – the American government, and, in particular, the American military, have shown consistently that they cannot be believed. Seymour Hersh, by contrast, proved to be a reliable source.”

And I reckon the Phil Giraldi is an impeccable source, and that Theodore Postol knows what he is talking about.

And then there is the fact that a United Nations team had spent more than a year in the aftermath of an alleged sarin attack in 2013 by Syria, in an effort to remove all chemical weapons held by the Syrian government.

Everything suggests to me that it is extremely unlikely that there is any truth at all in the White House’s account.

But Khan Sheikhoun and Syria is not what this post is really about . . .

What about the media?

Perhaps the most significant part of Hersh’s June article, however, was not about what happened in Syria or in the corridors of power in America, but about the response – and in particular the response of the media – to Trump’s missile attack on Syria:

“The next few days were his most successful as president. America rallied around its commander in chief, as it always does in times of war. Trump, who had campaigned as someone who advocated making peace with Assad, was bombing Syria 11 weeks after taking office, and was hailed for doing so by Republicans, Democrats and the media alike. One prominent TV anchorman, Brian Williams of MSNBC, used the word “beautiful” to describe the images of the Tomahawks being launched at sea. Speaking on CNN, Fareed Zakaria said: “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.” A review of the top 100 American newspapers showed that 39 of them published editorials supporting the bombing in its aftermath, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.”

And curiously, the media in America and the UK gave Hersh’s report very little publicity. And why was the report published in a German newspaper?

John Cook is a British writer and a freelance journalist based in Nazareth, before which he was a staff journalist with the Guardian. He has worked in journalism for over 20 years. In 2011, he received the Martha Gellhorn special award for journalism for his work on the Middle East.

A few days after Hersh’s piece came out, Cook wrote an article about it.

It makes very interesting reading. Here are some of key paragraphs:

“If you wish to understand the degree to which a supposedly free western media are constructing a world of half-truths and deceptions to manipulate their audiences, keeping us uninformed and docile, then there could hardly be a better case study than their treatment of Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.

All of these highly competitive, for-profit, scoop-seeking media outlets separately took identical decisions: first to reject Hersh’s latest investigative report, and then to studiously ignore it once it was published in Germany last Sunday. They have continued to maintain an absolute radio silence on his revelations, even as over the past few days they have given a great deal of attention to two stories on the very issue Hersh’s investigation addresses.

. . . the western media were supremely uninterested in the story. Hersh, once considered the journalist’s journalist, went hawking his investigation around the US and UK media to no avail. In the end, he could find a home for his revelations only in Germany, in the publication Welt am Sonntag. “

Glenn Greenwald, another highly respected independent journalist, says much the same as Cook: “Hersh shows how someone is marginalized for dissenting from US orthodoxy despite abundant mainstream credentials.”

Yes, the story is actually the media.

In other words, this is not so much about Syria, or Donald Trump. It is about the western media.

I’ve written on this subject before. Last November, I wrote about how the Barnabas Fund, and Amnesty International, and Patrick Cockburn, an award-winning journalist who writes in the Independent, and has been described as “the best western journalist at work in Iraq today”, spoke of how biased and one-sided most western media coverage of the Middle East is.

I think the case of Seymour Hersh and his recent work on Syria shows that the western media is not just biased and one-sided. Robert Fisk, also writing in the Independent,said:we have been lying to our readers and viewers for years “. But while Fisk, rather gently, simply said “we journalists”, Cook, more accurately I think, wrote: “every single US and UK mainstream newspaper and TV station.

“Journalists” are not quite the same as the media, and they are certainly not the same as the mainstream media. There are thousands of journalists – some more honest than others. They have different perspectives and they say different things. But when it comes to reporting on the allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria – and indeed most things regarding Syria and the Middle East – every single US and UK mainstream newspaper and TV station is saying the same thing.

And they are being blatantly dishonest.

The thing that brought it home to me was the fact that they all know about Hersh’s story, and yet they don’t even mention it. They go out of their way to be silent about it – even though it is vastly more important than most of the stories that they cover.

And if the media are being blatantly dishonest about the Middle East, then they will feel free to be blatantly dishonest about any subject at all.

Those who hate the light

And I am reminded of some words in John’s gospel (John 3:19-20):

“People loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” 

Yes, I know that it talking about something quite different. And yet, somehow, it does seem to me to be quite an appropriate comment about the western mainstream media.

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