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Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

UN Report Provides Information, Not 'Intelligence'

The United Nations mission to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria has released its report on the mass deaths in Ghouta on August 21, and it presents compelling evidence that the killings resulted from a deliberate attack with the nerve gas sarin. While the report explicitly declines to attribute responsibility for what it describes as a war crime, the details it provides of the quality of the sarin, the munitions used to deliver it and the trajectory of the projectiles used point to the Syrian regime as the likely perpetrator.

FAIR criticized US media for insufficient skepticism in its coverage of the US government report on Ghouta released on August 30 by Secretary of State John Kerry (FAIR Blog, 9/1/13), which explicitly blamed the Syrian government for the attack. The contrast between the two reports is striking: While Kerry's report avoided providing specific details to back up its claims–"in order to protect sources and methods," Kerry said–the UN report strove for maximum transparency, describing, for example, where samples were taken, how they were handled to avoid contamination, how they were tested and what results were obtained.


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The UN does have the advantage in not being actively engaged in covert operations to overthrow the Syrian government, which allows it to collect evidence with a minimum of subterfuge. But the US government clearly could have shared much more information than it did (Washington Post, 9/2/13), and chose not to; this seems to reflect the priorities of the intelligence community, where secrecy is paramount. It refers to "classified assessments" based on "a substantial body of information," but what the specifics of that information are we don't have a need to know.

The UN report, on the other hand, appears designed to provide information to facilitate a public discussion. It provides detailed information to bolster its conclusions that can be both understood by laypeople and evaluated by experts. In short, it treats the global public as citizens, with a right to be informed about global events–while the US government treats its citizens as passive consumers of a predigested message.

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas is editor of EXTRA! Magazine at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website.

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