Media Lens: Trump’s Tomahawks – The Instant Certainty Of The ‘Mainstream’ Press
12 April 2017 — Media Lens
As ever, it didn’t take long for them to make up their minds. Roy Greenslade reports in the Guardian on the media reaction to Donald Trump’s bombardment of Syria in ‘retaliation’ (USA Today) for the alleged chemical weapons attacks on Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, Syria:
‘There was an identifiable theme in almost every leading article and commentary: “Well done Donald, but … ” The “buts” amounted to eloquent judgments on the president’s character, conveying explicit messages of disquiet and distrust.’
In other words, almost every leading article and commentary in every UK newspaper supported Trump’s blitz.
Much the same was true in the United States where Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) found that of 46 major editorials, only one, in the Houston Chronicle, opposed the attack. FAIR’s Adam Johnson reported:
‘83% of major editorial boards supported Trump’s Syria strikes, 15% were ambiguous and 2% – or one publication – opposed.’
The support for Trump’s attack was of course based on instant certainty that Assad had deployed chemical weapons in Idlib. Barely two days after the alleged attacks, a leader in The Times commented:
‘Assad’s latest atrocity, the dropping of several hundred kilograms of toxic sarin gas on civilians, including children, is a breach of international law…’
An Independent leader one day later titled, ‘The US strike against Assad was justified’, explained:
‘The use of chemical weapons is a special crime. It is prohibited by international law. It follows that the sarin gas attack in Idlib, Syria, on Tuesday, ought to have consequences.’
The editors noted that ‘we are not in a position to be completely certain about Mr Assad’s complicity in this case’ – but the attack was ‘justified’ anyway.
A confused leader in the Sunday Telegraph observed that ‘the alleged use of chemical weapons last week demanded a reaction’. Does an allegation demand a reaction? In reality, the paper waved away any doubts:
‘Inaction against Assad would mean tolerance of a war crime.’
This near-universal support came despite the fact, as Elizabeth Jackson noted on Australia’s ABC website, that ‘international law experts today are warning that the US strikes were, in fact, illegal’. Ben Saul, professor of international law at the University of Sydney, commented:
‘It’s pretty clear that the strikes are illegal under international law, because they’re not a use of force in self-defence, or with the authorisation of the Security Council, which are the only two circumstances in which the use of military force is legal under the United Nations Charter of 1945.’
‘So, international law very tightly regulates the use of military force, and using violence to punish another country is simply not permitted under international law. Syria hasn’t attacked another country.’
We looked in vain for scepticism about the pretext for bombing from the handful of dissidents at the ‘liberal left’ of the corporate ‘spectrum’. The Guardian’s Owen Jones wrote of ‘the gassing of little kids who suffered unbearable torture as they were murdered by the Assad regime’. No doubt there, then. Jones’s dissident colleague at the Guardian, George Monbiot, tweeted:
‘We can be 99% sure the chemical weapons attack came from Syrian govt’
Senior Guardian columnist and former comment editor Jonathan Freedland wrote:
‘And we almost certainly know who did it. Every sign points to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.’
Freedland dismissed alternative explanations with the familiar mixture of certainty and contempt that is such a feature of Western warmongering:
‘Sure, Damascus blamed the rebels who hold the town of Khan Sheikhoun, as they always do. And, yes, Assad’s enablers and accomplices in Moscow offered a variation on that theme, saying that Syrian planes had struck a rebel stockpile of nerve agents, accidentally releasing them into the atmosphere.’
On April 5, the day after the alleged attack, Democracy Now! led with a headline that appeared to endorse the ‘mainstream’ view:
‘”The Assad Regime is a Moral Disgrace”: Noam Chomsky on Ongoing Syrian War’
Chomsky doubtless had nothing to do with a headline that flew in the face of his astute observation on the need for caution in criticising Official Enemies:
‘Suppose I criticise Iran. What impact does that have? The only impact it has is in fortifying those who want to carry out policies I don’t agree with, like bombing.’
That was certainly true on April 5, two days before Trump bombed Syria at a time when US-UK media were executing a classic propaganda blitz.
The day before Trump’s attack, the Stop the War Coalition, no less, affirmed that there had indeed been a chemical weapons attack in Idlib ‘which appears to have been carried out by Assad’s forces’.
Remarkably, given the extent to which the media’s ‘pussy-grabbing’ bete orange has been damned as an existential, Hitlerian threat to the world, corporate journalists actually egged Trump on to wage war. A Guardian piece by Warren Murray noted:
‘A military intervention would mean going directly up against Vladimir Putin, who is fighting on the side of Assad, and probably killing Russians. But failing to act [violently] would look weak.’
Julian Borger and Spencer Ackerman wrote:
‘Trump has consistently argued that the failure to deliver on the “red line” threat projected US weakness. But it was far from clear on Wednesday what action his own administration would take now that Assad had crossed “many, many lines”.’
Also in the Guardian, former Spectator editor, Matthew d’Ancona went even further in making ‘a strong [sic], principled [sic] case for Britain to offer every form of assistance: diplomatic, humanitarian and – yes – military’ to Trump’s attack on Syria.
Ironically, the only real scepticism on the case for war came from conservative commentators in the Tory press: Peter Oborne and Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail. Hitchens was asked if he had been invited by the BBC or Sky to share his views. He replied:
‘My phone grows more silent, the more I oppose foreign wars.’
Deleting Dissent – The BBC Help To Manufacture A False Consensus
Immediately after the alleged chemical weapons attack, US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, commented:
‘While we continue to monitor the terrible situation, it is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal unabashed barbarism… Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack his own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable.’
If Tillerson was certain, then the same UK media that has been so very sceptical of the Trump administration, was certain, too.
The BBC cited Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer of the British Armed Forces Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment [CBRN], who said Russia’s assertion that conventional bombs had hit rebel chemical weapons was ‘pretty fanciful’:
‘Axiomatically, if you blow up Sarin, you destroy it.’
‘It’s very clear it’s a Sarin attack. The view that it’s an al-Qaeda or rebel stockpile of Sarin that’s been blown up in an explosion, I think is completely unsustainable and completely untrue.’
This was very emphatic, powerful testimony that reached a wide audience – the BBC appeared to be offering an expert view completely discrediting the Russian and Syrian version of events.
But the BBC had earlier published and then deleted the view of Jerry Smith, the official who had led the UN-backed operation to remove Syria’s chemical weapons in 2013-2014. Smith told Channel 4 News that the Russian version of events could not be discounted:
‘If it is Sarin that was stored there and conventional munitions were used, there is every possibility that some of those [chemical] munitions were not consumed and that the Sarin liquid was ejected and could well have affected the population.’
The News Sniffer website finds that the BBC allowed these comments to appear in several updates of the article before permanently deleting both them and comments made by de Bretton-Gordon. If this appeared even-handed, political analyst Charles Shoebridge noticed that the BBC then created a new article only containing comments by de Bretton-Gordon.
In the past week, the BBC’s preferred expert, de Bretton-Gordon, has been a key presence in media coverage. He has published opinion pieces in the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday; and has been cited, often in several articles, by the Guardian, The Times, the Independent, the New Statesman and the New York Post. By contrast, Jerry Smith, has had one op-ed in the Guardian and been mentioned only once in UK newspapers, again in the Guardian.
The website Military Speakers comments:
‘Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is Chief Operating Office of SecureBio Ltd a commercial company offering CBRN Resilience, consultancy and deployable capabilities. Hamish set up SecureBio in 2011 after 23 years’ service in the British Army. SecureBio have an impressive list of blue chip clients globally and look after 90% of the World’s media operating in Syria from a CBRN resilience perspective… Hamish advises UK Government at the very highest level on CBRN…’
The extent of de Bretton-Gordon’s impartiality is indicated by this comment in the Guardian:
‘The US airstrikes to neutralise President Assad’s ability to conduct chemical attacks – like those we saw in Idlib this week, Aleppo before Christmas and East Ghouta last August – are most welcome.’
In addition to supporting Trump’s airstrikes, de Bretton-Gordon openly supports the ‘rebels’. He has discussed the need to provide ‘advice on the ground to the FSA [‘rebels’], which I have constantly called for after I have visited them, [which] will make them a much more effective fighting force’.
He has lobbied for the creation of ‘safe havens’ and a ‘no-fly zone’, which would most likely lead to regime change, as happened in Libya. In an article titled, ‘Syria’s Halabja – Why we must act’, de Bretton-Gordon wrote:
‘Every senior politician I have lobbied in the last 6 months, except Jo Cox and Andrew Mitchell, told me this No Fly Zone is not possible because of the Russians.’
Like most ‘mainstream’ commentators, de Bretton-Gordon asserts that the ‘WMD “redline” was crossed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons’ in Ghouta, Damascus, on August 21, 2013, killing hundreds of people, just as weapons inspectors arrived in the city.
However, in January 2014, a report on the attacks was published by Richard Lloyd and Theodore Postol, described by the New York Times as ‘leading weapons experts’. Postol in particular has an impressive track record in debunking Pentagon claims, for example on the efficacy of the Patriot missile system.
Lloyd and Postol’s report found that the range of the rocket that delivered sarin in the largest attack on Ghouta was too short for the device to have been fired from Syrian government positions, as claimed by the Obama administration. Postol commented:
‘I honestly have no idea what happened. My view when I started this process was that it couldn’t be anything but the Syrian government behind the attack. But now I’m not sure of anything. The administration narrative was not even close to reality. Our intelligence cannot possibly be correct.’
Lloyd, who had carefully studied weapons capabilities in the Syrian conflict, rejected the claim that rebels were less capable of making these rockets than the Syrian military:
‘The Syrian rebels most definitely have the ability to make these weapons. I think they might have more ability than the Syrian government.’
By contrast, in supporting Trump’s attacks, ‘mainstream’ media have had no doubts at all about Ghouta. This month, Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian:
‘In 2013, Obama hesitated and havered over Syria’s use of chemical weapons…’
BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus wrote this month:
‘Sarin has been used before, in Syria in 2013. [The Syrian government] crossed a “red line” drawn by President Barack Obama – but nothing happened.’
The Essential Narrative Is A Sham
Unreported by almost all ‘MSM’, there has been credible, expert dissent challenging the US-UK view of what happened in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib.
Hans Blix, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who served as the head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission in Iraq, commented:
‘I don’t know whether in Washington they presented any evidence, but I did not see that in the Security Council. Merely pictures of victims that were held up, that the whole world can see with horror, such pictures are not necessarily evidence of who did it.’
Blix said it was natural to jump to the conclusion that the regime was far more likely than the rebels to have the means to carry out an attack of such a magnitude, but that it was far from proven that it did so:
‘If you had a murder and you strongly suspect one fellow, do you go to judgment and execution straight away? Three days after the murder?’
‘Early on, the anti-Assad opposition media outlets were labeling the Khan Sheikhoun incident as a “Sarin nerve agent” attack; one doctor affiliated with Al Qaeda sent out images and commentary via social media that documented symptoms, such as dilated pupils, that he diagnosed as stemming from exposure to Sarin nerve agent. Sarin, however, is an odorless, colorless material, dispersed as either a liquid or vapor; eyewitnesses speak of a “pungent odor” and “blue-yellow” clouds, more indicative of chlorine gas.’
Indeed, in a much-discussed article, Guardian reporter Kareem Shaheen wrote:
‘All that remains of the attack on the town in rebel-held Idlib province is a faint stench that tingles the nostrils and a small green fragment from the rocket.’
But as the BBC reports:
‘Sarin is almost impossible to detect because it is a clear, colourless and tasteless liquid that has no odour in its purest form.’
‘The lack of viable protective clothing worn by the “White Helmet” personnel while handling victims is another indication that the chemical in question was not military grade Sarin; if it were, the rescuers would themselves have become victims (some accounts speak of just this phenomena, but this occurred at the site of the attack, where the rescuers were overcome by a “pungent smelling” chemical – again, Sarin is odorless.)’
‘Mainstream American media outlets have willingly and openly embraced a narrative provided by Al Qaeda affiliates whose record of using chemical weapons in Syria and distorting and manufacturing “evidence” to promote anti-Assad policies in the west, including regime change, is well documented.
‘History will show that Donald Trump, his advisors and the American media were little more than willing dupes for Al Qaeda and its affiliates, whose manipulation of the Syrian narrative resulted in a major policy shift that furthers their objectives.’
‘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.’
‘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. Now bear in mind, Assad had no motive for doing this. If anything, he had a negative motive. Trump said there was no longer any reason to remove him from office, well, this was a big win for him [Assad]. To turn around and use chemical weapons 48 hours later, does not fit any reasonable scenario, although I’ve seen some floated out there, but they are quite ridiculous.’
Our search of the Lexis press database found no mentions of Blix, Giraldi or Ritter in any UK newspaper since the alleged attack in Syria.
The Art Of ‘Humanitarian’ Warmongering
Is it conceivable that the entire corporate political and media system could be using an unproven, even fraudulent, atrocity claim to justify a case for war?
In October 1990, in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, as the US worked hard to build a case for war, it was claimed that Iraqi stormtroopers had smashed their way into a Kuwait City hospital, ripped hundreds of babies from their incubators and left them on the floor to die. In their book, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton described how the most powerful and heart-rending testimony came from a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, initially known only as Nayirah:
‘Sobbing, she described what she had seen with her own eyes in a hospital in Kuwait City… “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital,” Nayirah said. “While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where… babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”‘
In fact, Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. Her father was Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait’s Ambassador to the US. Stauber and Rampton noted that Nayirah had been coached by US PR company Hill & Knowlton’s vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado ‘in what even the Kuwaitis’ own investigators later confirmed was false testimony’. The story of the 312 murdered babies was an outright lie. Journalist John MacArthur, author of The Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War, commented:
‘Of all the accusations made against the dictator [Saddam Hussein], none had more impact on American public opinion than the one about Iraqi soldiers removing 312 babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on the cold hospital floors of Kuwait City.’
In December 1998, Unscom arms inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq at a sensitive time in US politics, as Bill Clinton faced impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Clinton launched a 4-day series of strikes, Operation Desert Fox, the day before his impeachment referendum was scheduled, and called them off two hours after the vote. Scott Ritter, then chief weapons inspector, noted that just prior to the strikes, ‘Inspectors were sent in to carry out sensitive inspections that had nothing to do with disarmament but had everything to do with provoking the Iraqis.’ (Scott Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, War on Iraq, Profile Books, 2002, p.52)
In a report published on the second day of bombing, Ritter was quoted as saying:
‘What [head of Unscom] Richard Butler did last week with the inspections was a set-up. This was designed to generate a conflict that would justify a bombing.’
Ritter said US government sources had told him three weeks earlier that ‘the two considerations on the horizon were Ramadan and impeachment’. (Quoted, New York Post, December 17, 1998)
As another war loomed in March 2003, in an article titled, ‘See men shredded, then say you don’t back war’ (Ann Clwyd, The Times, March 18, 2003), Labour MP Ann Clwyd claimed that Saddam Hussein’s goons were feeding opponents into a machine ‘designed for shredding plastic’ and dumping their minced remains into ‘plastic bags’ for use as ‘fish food’. As Brendan O’Neil commented in the Guardian, Clwyd had based her story on the uncorroborated claims of ‘one individual from northern Iraq. Neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch, in their numerous investigations into human rights abuses in Iraq, had ever heard anyone talk of a human-shredding machine’.
In 2011, Western governments and media were united in demanding action to halt a massacre that Muammar Gaddafi was said to be intending to commit in Benghazi. In 2016, a UK parliamentary committee report found:
‘Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence… Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians. More widely, Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year record of appalling human rights abuses did not include large-scale attacks on Libyan civilians.’
We could cite numerous similar examples. If we had a free press, a central focus would be to consider any and all new atrocity claims in the light of this remarkable track record of gross deception serving state violence.
This Alert is Archived here:
The first Media Lens book, ‘Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media’, was published in 2005 by Pluto Press.
The second Media Lens book, ‘NEWSPEAK in the 21st Century’, was published in 2009, also by Pluto Press.
In 2012, Zero Books published ‘Why Are We The Good Guys?’ by David Cromwell.
In July 2016, we reached our 15th anniversary. We would like to thank all those who have supported and encouraged us along the way. Media Lens relies on donations for its funding. If you currently support the corporate media by paying for their newspapers, why not support Media Lens instead?