Manufacturing consent for war on Syria

30 Jun

Jonathan Cook is a former Guardian columnist, author of several books on Palestine and, like me, disgusted by media coverage of the war on Syria. In an April post – French Intelligence, Monbiot’s silliness – I call him ‘the most lucid and informed of all middle east commentators’.

Seymour Hersh was the young journalist who broke the story of one of America’s atrocities in Vietnam, that at My Lai in 1968. (See my post of March 2016, 48 years ago today.) It took him eighteen months to overcome mainstream media reluctance to publish his findings. Indeed, they only did so when fringe media coverage gained too much traction to ignore. Decades later, now a seasoned investigative reporter with many contacts in military circles, Hersh broke the Abu Ghraib horror show. Ring any bells? A grinning Lynndie England posing thumbs-up behind naked men in plastic cuffs, stacked in a grotesque pyramid? The hooded prisoner standing on a box with electrodes – or what he’s been told are electrodes – to his fingers?

(On Abu Ghraib I recommend Morris & Gourevitch’s Standard Operating Procedure: a War Story, which I’ll review when I get the time. Its banal title comes from the banal guilelessness with which England – Myra Hindley to lover Charles Graner’s Ian Brady – spoke of her deeds. Eschewing sensationalism, the authors let England, Graner and the other bit players damn themselves in their own words and – astonishingly – images, without ever letting the major players, headed by Bush and Rumsfeld, off the hook for their dog-whistle instructions that abuse should indeed be standard operating procedure. Nor does this brief but important book overlook the career oriented lawyers, those recruiting sergeants for salafism whose sophistries stripped thousands of innocents of Geneva Convention protection.)

I mention these things as intro to Cook’s post today on the blog from Nazareth. In a moment I’ll replicate it in full but first want to share my experience this week of Guardian coverage of Syria. Today we have ‘confirmation’ the chemical attack in April involved sarin. I use inverted commas not because I doubt this, but because we already knew it: though not at whose hand. I’ll leave it to Cook, below, to suggest a motive for the Guardian, cheerleader to the liberal intelligentia for the west’s wars on the middle east, seeing fit to publish such ‘confirmation’ today.

Earlier in the week, two other Guardian stories caught my eye. The better known showed the Assad ‘regime’ as not only so senselessly evil as to use chemical weapons (yes, ‘again’) for no discernible military reason, but courteous enough to let the CIA in on its plans. Now we’re told that Washington’s promises of punishment – further righteous carnage – have scared off the cowardy custard evildoers and there won’t after all be any chemical attack at 14:30 on July 3rd.

OK, I made date and time up but you get the idea.

Then there was an anonymous piece allegedly by a survivor of a Syrian gaol. The hell it depicts may or may not be real, and may or may not be salafist propaganda. As with so many claims against Syria there’s just no way of telling. Do some of us err too far on the side of scepticism, in respect of unsubstantiated allegations and anonymous reports whose servicing of a bigger agenda would be abundantly clear if the media actually did their job? Or are we just less prone to amnesia when it comes to ‘intelligence reports’ used to justify more death in the middle east?

Then again, maybe there’s a touch of the Hercules Poirrot in our curmudgeonly insistence on following the money. As I say in my blog post, Syria: what we know and what we don’t:

The west has strong material  motives … for overthrowing Ba’athism in Syria. In sum they include: privatisation, securing its preferred oil pipeline, locking out Russia and China, preserving and expanding Zionism as regional policeman for the west.

But this week’s drip feed on Assad may have an unusually specific purpose, over and above the regular task of filling us with such loathing of his ‘regime’ that we’ll jump for joy at the next cruise missile strike, or whatever other weaponry it suits America’s $10 trillion for-profit arms sector to try out next on Syria. That specific purpose leads us directly to the two men I opened with. Here then, in his own words – taken from his blog post today – is Cook on Hersh.

Media’s propaganda war on Syria in full flow

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.

These two stories, given such prominence in the western media, are clearly intended to serve as “spoilers” to his revelations, even though none of these publications have actually informed their readers of his original investigation. We are firmly in looking-glass territory.

So what did Hersh’s investigation reveal? His sources in the US intelligence establishment – people who have helped him break some of the most important stories of the past few decades, from the Mai Lai massacre by American soldiers during the Vietnam war to US abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2004 – told him the official narrative that Syria’s Bashar Assad had dropped deadly sarin gas on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 was incorrect. Instead, they said, a Syrian plane dropped a bomb on a meeting of jihadi fighters that triggered secondary explosions in a storage depot, releasing a toxic cloud of chemicals that killed civilians nearby.

It is an alternative narrative of these events that one might have assumed would be of intense interest to the media, given that Donald Trump approved a military strike on Syria based on the official narrative. Hersh’s version suggests that Trump acted against the intelligence advice he received from his own officials, in a highly dangerous move that not only grossly violated international law but might have dragged Assad’s main ally, Russia, into the fray. The Syrian arena has the potential to trigger a serious confrontation between the world’s two major nuclear powers.

But, in fact, 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.

There are a couple of possible, even if highly improbable, reasons all English-language publications ignored Hersh’s story. Maybe they had evidence that his inside intelligence was wrong. If so, they have yet to provide it. A rebuttal would require acknowledging Hersh’s story, and none seem willing to do that.

Or maybe the media thought it was old news and would no longer interest their readers. It would be difficult to sustain such an interpretation, but at least it has an air of plausibility – except for everything that has happened since Hersh published last Sunday.

His story has spawned two clear “spoiler” responses from those desperate to uphold the official narrative. Hersh’s revelations may have been entirely uninteresting to the western media, but strangely they have sent Washington into crisis mode. Of course, no US official has addressed Hersh’s investigation directly, which might have drawn attention to it and forced western media to reference it. Instead Washington has sought to deflect attention from Hersh’s alternative narrative and shore up the official one through misdirection. That alone should raise the alarm that we are being manipulated, not informed.

The first spoiler, made in the immediate wake of Hersh’s story, were statements from the Pentagon and White House warning that the US had evidence Assad was planning yet another chemical attack on his people and that Washington would respond extremely harshly if he did so.

Here is how the Guardian reported the US threats:

The US said on Tuesday that it had observed preparations for a possible chemical weapons attack at a Syrian air base allegedly involved in a sarin attack in April following a warning from the White House that the Syrian regime would ‘pay a heavy price’ for further use of the weapons.

And then on Friday, the second spoiler emerged. Two unnamed diplomats “confirmed” that a report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had found that some of the victims from Khan Sheikhoun showed signs of poisoning by sarin or sarin-like substances.

There are obvious reasons to be mightily suspicious of these stories. The findings of the OPCW were already known and had been discussed for some time – there was absolutely nothing newsworthy about them.

There are also well-known problems with the findings. There was no “chain of custody” – neutral oversight – of the bodies that were presented to the organisation in Turkey. Any number of interested parties could have contaminated the bodies before they reached the OPCW. For that reason, the OPCW has not concluded that the Assad regime was responsible for the traces of sarin. In the world of real news, only such a finding – that Assad was responsible – should have made the OPCW report interesting again to the media.

Similarly, by going public with their threats against Assad, the Pentagon and White House did not increase the deterrence on Assad, making it less likely he would use gas in the future. That could have been achieved much more effectively with private warnings to the Russians, who have massive leverage over Assad. These new warnings were meant not for Assad but for western publics, to bolster the official narrative that Hersh’s investigation had thrown into doubt.

In fact, the US threats increase, rather than reduce, the chances of a new chemical weapons attack. Other, anti-Assad actors now have a strong incentive to use chemical weapons in false-flag operation to implicate Assad, knowing that the US has committed itself to intervention. On any reading, the US statements were reckless – or malicious – in the extreme and likely to bring about the exact opposite of what they were supposed to achieve.

But beyond this, there was something even more troubling about these two stories. That these official claims were published so unthinkingly in major outlets is bad enough. But what is unconscionable is the media’s continuing blackout of Hersh’s investigation when it speaks directly to the two latest news reports.

No serious journalist could write up either story, according to any accepted norms of journalistic practice, and not make reference to Hersh’s claims. They are absolutely relevant to these stories. In fact, more than that, the intelligence sources he cites are are not only relevant but are the sole reason these two stories have been suddenly propelled to the top of the news agenda.

Any publication that has covered either the White House-Pentagon threats or the rehashing of the OPCW report and has not mentioned Hersh’s revelations is writing nothing less than propaganda in service of a western foreign policy agenda trying to bring about the illegal overthrow the Syrian government. And so far that appears to include every single US and UK mainstream newspaper and TV station.

4 Replies to “Manufacturing consent for war on Syria

  1. A very good article – I have read and shared the Jonathan Cook, Von Seymour M. Hersh & Scott Ritter articles this week while the mainstream media has remained silent

    • Not that important. England herself referred to Graner, as did others including junior officers who outranked him, as unusually charismatic. The book I refer to doesn’t labour the point but depicts a young and impressionable woman, a small townee with minimal life experience, who fell for Graner’s charms. That in no way excuses her, of course, any more than Hindley’s youth and beguilement by Brady excuse her.

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