Propaganda Deja Vu? Media Uncritically Echoes Unnamed US Officials on Syria's Chemical Weapons

"All governments lie." -- I.F. Stone

"All governments lie." -- I.F. Stone

The mainstream media is at it again, uncritically regurgitating the vague and unverified claims of anonymous American intelligence officials who say that Syria's Bashar al-Assad has readied chemical weapons to use on his people.

There's no doubt that Assad, whose family has passed down authoritarian rule of Syria like an heirloom, appears to have committed war crimes for which there is no excuse.

That being said, the mainstream media is so invested in villainizing the Assad regime, they have neglected to report accurately on certain factions of the armed opposition who have committed atrocities as well. This is partly due to the brutal escalation in violence that has made it unsafe for journalists to report from inside Syria (even the United Nations was forced to pull out its staff), leaving media outlets reliant on information from people on the ground. Since Syria has long been designated as "evil" by the west (an arbitrary label that need not apply to the repressive government's of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain), the media has followed suit, unquestioningly publishing rebel claims as fact, a trend meticulously documented in an October article by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

In this context, the media's willingness to parrot unverified claims by unnamed officials about Assad's alleged plans to use chemical weapons should come as no surprise. That doesn't mean it can't be true. After all, Assad is no angel and has a track record of unleashing indiscriminate violence. But so did Saddam Hussein when anonymous American officials (better known as Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Condoleezza Rice) deliberately spread the lie that he was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Media outlets were happy to take the bait, setting the stage for a war that should have never happened.

That's not to say that present-day Syria is identical to Iraq 2002, but the mainstream media certainly hasn't changed, sticking to their preferred and simplistic narrative (Assad is bad, rebels are good, west is a benevolent savior) no matter the cost, which brings us to the latest round of journalist malpractice (re: chemical weapons).

It all started on December 1, when the New York Times 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."

The Times went on to quote a somewhat incoherent and vaguely worded statement by an unnamed source speculating on the Syrian regime's intentions:

"It's in some ways similar to what they've done before," a senior American official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. "But they're doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons. It's not just moving stuff around. These are different kind of activities."

The official said, however, that the Syrians had not carried out the most blatant steps toward using the chemical weapons, such as preparing them to be fired by artillery batteries or loaded in bombs to be dropped from warplanes.

So the US is understandably concerned about what Syria might do with its chemical weapons stockpile given the current civil war. Fair enough. But the same unnamed official admits that this is basically speculation on their part and that they're only guessing what the Assad regime might be thinking of doing. Nevertheless, mainstream outlets ran with the story, which quickly changed from "Syria might be considering using these weapons" to "Assad has the bombs laced with chemicals on fighter jets and ready to go," in less than a week. Based on what evidence? The unchallenged claims of even more unnamed US intelligence officials, of course.

While the Associated Press, and Wired'sDanger Room wasted no time in granting anonymity to intelligence people pushing the same story, the worst coverage of all came from NBC News whose articles more closely resembled stenography than journalism:

The Syrian military is prepared to use chemical weapons against its own people and is awaiting final orders from President Bashar Assad, U.S. officials told NBC News on Wednesday.

The military has loaded the precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs that could be dropped onto the Syrian people from dozens of fighter-bombers, the officials said.

As recently as Tuesday, officials had said there was as yet no evidence that the process of mixing the "precursor" chemicals had begun. But Wednesday, they said their worst fears had been confirmed: The nerve agents were locked and loaded inside the bombs.

NBC failed to challenge a single claim while granting anonymity to those making them. Sound familiar?

McClatchy, one of the few news outlets to question the allegations, reported, "Administration officials...offered no public evidence justifying their heightened fears, citing classified intelligence."

The only intelligence official to publicly lend his voice to the chorus of anonymous warnings was Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. "The intelligence we have raises serious concerns," declared Panetta, providing no evidence.

Meanwhile, NATO has deployed Patriot missiles and troops along Turkey's southern border with Syria in an attempt to de-escalate the situation, though it's unclear how adding more bombs to an already violent war will decrease hostilities.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have repeatedly and very publicly threatened Syria, warning the chemical warfare will provoke serious "consequences". White House spokesman Jay Carney echoed the sentiment, indicating that the administration is considering military intervention as an option.

On November 28, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was "considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar al-Assad from power." Earlier that month, the Pentagon told Obama that 75,000 troops would be needed to neutralize Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, an estimate initiated by Obama's "extensive contingency planning for how the United States would respond if the chemical weapons were on the move or appeared vulnerable," reported the Times.

The Syrian government says chemical weapons accusation are just a pretext for US intervention, a charge that has been downplayed in the western media. But given all that we know about the Obama administration's increased desire to bring down Assad, is it really that absurd that his administration might use this as an excuse?

Prior to December 1, most reports citing Syria's chemical weapons focused on the regime moving its stockpile to safety to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands. Last month, the New York Times, once again quoting anonymous American officials, reported on US concerns that Lebanon's Hezbollah might try to acquire Syria's chemical weapons.

The Times ultimately admitted, "there is no evidence that making any effort to gain control over the chemical weapons." Yet, in just a matter of days, these anonymous officials changed their tune from militants and terrorists using chemical weapons to Assad, who they just said had moved the weapons to safety. Wouldn't it be great if we had institutions willing to investigate these claims?

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.