Obama, the Media, and the Truth about Ghouta

In early December, Seymour Hersh, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, wrote a piece for the London Review of Books in which he lays bare the deceptions involved in the Obama Administration’s campaign for war with Syria this past August and September, on the pretext of retaliation for the sarin attack on Ghouta.[1] Just as remarkable and disturbing as the White House’s failed propaganda drive is the media’s near-total silence following the article’s publication.

Hersh shows conclusively that in manufacturing the case for war, Obama “omitted important intelligence,” “presented assumptions as facts,” and “failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin,” and is in fact very unlikely to have been the culprit. US intelligence had produced a series of classified reports in the months leading up the sarin attack that showed that the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front had acquired the capability to manufacture large amounts of sarin. As Hersh points out, “When the attack occurred, al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify an attack against Assad.”

Moreover, at the time of the gassing, Assad’s forces were handing the rebels defeat after defeat, a development surely welcomed by the Christian, Shiite and Alawite sections of Syrian society which had become targets of rebel theft and murder. Also highly suspicious was the fact that the attack took place while UN weapons inspectors were in the vicinity at Assad’s invitation to investigate previous chemical weapons attacks that the UN had strongly linked to the Western-backed rebels. Far more plausible is that certain elements within the “Free Syrian Army” carried out the attack in order to provoke a Western invasion and thus save their faltering insurgency.

And yet Obama went on national television on September 10th and claimed that the government knew that Assad had ordered the attack and that US intelligence had been monitoring regime forces as they prepared for it. But Hersh cites anonymous intelligence and military sources who flatly contradict this assertion. According to these officials, the administration took the intelligence it had received about what turned out to be a sort of dress rehearsal by a regime unit for a real chemical attack and cobbled together the sequence of events to make it seem as if it presented a picture of government forces preparing for and launching a sarin attack. One of Hersh’s sources compared this duplicity with Lyndon Johnson’s exploitation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

The push for war in Syria followed the same basic program as the build-up to the 2003 Iraq War, during which the Bush Administration relied on highly selective and manipulated intelligence to conjure up a prima facie unanswerable case for the invasion. One White House aide was famously quite candid about the creation of “facts” out of thin air. After journalist Ron Suskind had written an unflattering 2002 piece for Esquire about a senior Bush administration official, Suskind met with the aide who told him that guys like [him] were

“‘…in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality.’ I nodded [writes Suskind] and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”[2]

In this connection, recall also that in 2001 Colin Powell selected as Under Secretary of for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs not a foreign service veteran but Madison Avenue advertising executive Charlotte Beers.[3]

But such instances of the government’s management of public opinion and democracy would be impossible without the complicity of the news media. As private, for-profit businesses, American news services find it easier to take the path of least resistance and simply act as uncritical relays of the issuances of government and corporate public relations efforts. In this way, they get the story in a cost-effective manner, maintain access to key sources, and avoid calling into the question the legitimacy of the US power elite.[4]

The American news media were no less subservient with respect to the Obama administration’s desire for war with Syria. Once again, they were falling all over themselves to accommodate the basic White House line. Out of the woodwork came the same sober-faced experts and sophistical moralists to build the case and prepare public opinion for war. As Hersh shows, the media totally disregarded any evidence that would cast doubt on the administration’s narrative. (And, not surprisingly, the media have completely blacked out Hersh’s stunning revelations.)

This time around, though, public support for the attack refused to budge beyond about ten percent. This is traceable, I think, to a general loss of confidence in US institutions following the fiasco of the Iraq War, and all the lies surrounding it, as well as to the ongoing world economic crisis, which has thrown the entire system and its rulership into question.

Doran Hunter

[1] Seymour Hersh, “Whose Sarin?” London Review of Books, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n24/seymour-m-hersh/whose-sarin.

[2] Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html?_r=0.

[3] “Secretary Colin Powell’s State Department: An Independent Assessment,”  http://www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/archives_roll/2003_04-06/fac/fac.html.

[4] For a powerfully compelling account of the performance of the U.S. news media, see Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).