Deceiving the US Public on Syria

Exclusive: The United States nearly went to war with Syria last summer after a rush to judgment over a mysterious sarin attack. Now, several months later, reporter Seymour Hersh shows how the case was spun, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has confirmed that President Barack Obama misled the American people over the Aug. 21 Syrian chemical attack by cherry-picking evidence about the Syrian government’s presumed guilt and excluding suspicions about the rebels’ capability to produce their own sarin gas.

Hersh also reported that he discovered a deep schism within the U.S. intelligence community over how the case was sold to pin the blame on President Bashar al-Assad. Hersh wrote that he encountered “intense concern, and on occasion anger” when he interviewed American intelligence and military experts “over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on Syria at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 30, 2013. [State Department photo]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on Syria at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 30, 2013. [State Department photo]

According to Hersh, “One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration’s assurances of Assad’s responsibility a ‘ruse’. The attack ‘was not the result of the current regime’, he wrote.

“A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information in terms of its timing and sequence to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening.

“The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of the early bombings of North Vietnam. The same official said there was immense frustration inside the military and intelligence bureaucracy.”

Despite Hersh’s legendary reputation dating back to the My Lai massacre story during the Vietnam War and revelations about CIA abuses in the 1970s, his 5,500-word article appeared in the London Review of Books, a placement that suggests the American media’s “group think” blaming the Assad regime remains hostile to any serious dissent.

Much of the skepticism about the Obama administration’s case on the Syrian sarin attack has been confined to the Internet, including our own Indeed, Hersh’s article dovetails with much of what we reported in August and September as we questioned the administration’s certainty that Assad’s regime was responsible.

Our skepticism flew in the face of a solid consensus among prominent opinion leaders who joined in the stampede toward war with Syria much as they did in Iraq a decade earlier.

Hostility Toward Dissent

Another parallel with the Iraq War was the hostility that any dissent over the rush to judgment received. In 2003, my articles challenging President George W. Bush’s claims about Iraqi WMD meant that whenever the U.S. invading force stumbled upon a barrel of chemicals and Fox News touted the discovery as proof that Bush was right I’d get bombarded with e-mails demanding that I admit I was wrong and apologize to Bush.

There has been a similar tone in some of the criticism of our articles on Syria, when we have noted that the Obama administration’s case against Syria over the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack was stunningly lacking in any verifiable proof, only a series of assertions framed as “we assess” this and “we assess” that.

Beyond questioning the fragility of the “evidence,” our articles cited a split within the U.S. intelligence community, a division that the administration sought to conceal by avoiding a National Intelligence Estimate, which would have had to include footnotes about why many analysts were skeptical of the Assad-did-it scenario.

Instead of an NIE, the White House issued something called a “Government Assessment,” which dumped all the doubts and pumped up the certainty. Once the “Government Assessment” was posted on Aug. 30 by the White House press office, Secretary of State John Kerry was put forward to present the case for launching a military strike against Syria.

War was only averted because President Obama abruptly decided to seek congressional approval and then reached a diplomatic accord, with the help of the Russian government, in which the Syrian government agreed to dispose of its chemical weapons arsenal (while still denying that it was responsible for the Aug. 21 attack).

Obama’s last-minute reversal spared the United States another war in the Middle East, a conflict that could have easily spread into a regional conflagration. Many thousands of people could have died and the possible disruption of oil supplies could have thrown the world into an economic depression.

The “happy” outcome of a diplomatic solution surely is welcome. But it also has obscured a troubling reality that Official Washington and the mainstream U.S. news media have learned little from the Iraq War debacle. Timely skepticism on matters of war or peace remains marginalized in small-circulation Web sites with very few financial resources.

The unsettling message from Hersh’s detailed exposé as it was published in December in the United Kingdom is that the story could very well have appeared three months after the United States blundered into another war.

[Here is some of our earlier reporting on the Syrian crisis: “A Dodgy Dossier on Syrian War”; “Murky Clues From UN’s Syria Report”; “Obama Still Withholds Syria Evidence”; “How US Pressure Bends UN Agencies”; “Fixing Intel Around the Syria Policy.”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

9 comments for “Deceiving the US Public on Syria

  1. Joe Tedesky
    December 10, 2013 at 02:18

    My comments are not meant to demonize any nation. All these countries including America leave a lot to consider when it comes to their integrity, especially when we recount all of their pass transgressions toward each other.

    I have stated this before that this Iran getting a nuke scare is out of hand. My whole life starting out as a baby boomer was growing up knowing we could get nuked at ant time via Russia. We didn’t bomb Russian centrifugals, or any of their missile sites. For that reason I say what is the big deal.

    What should be happening, and isn’t, is we should be negotiating a nuclear reduction program world wide. Israel if they do have nukes would be included. I will stand with the Jewish people, as I will stand with my fellow Americans, but does that mean I will agree with their/our leaders on every policy? I think not.

    Iran may have what seems to us a medieval style government, but who am I to change that. I can’t get my own government to do everything I believe needs done.
    Recyclable’s go out in blue bins every other Wednesday…okay!

    After all of that I love diverse comments to my post, as much as I like when people agree with me. This is America boys and girls and that to me means we are not all the same.

    WhoRa! Go team America!

  2. Joe Tedesky
    December 9, 2013 at 23:40

    This article mentions how this website did post notices of suspicion to who may have used chemical weapons in Syria this pass year. Good for this website, and this is one reason why I donate here. I have put on my list of must read ever since I found this website.

    The story about who was behind the chemical attacks in Syria has been out there since august of 2013. The other story about the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been out there since may 2012. What I am trying to figure out is why these 2 stories have surfaced together on the same day. (Both stories were breaking news on a very popular liberal ‘supportive of the president’ website). I am not making excuses for this administration, but could the emergence of these 2 big stories be a ‘hit job’? I mean who did this administration piss off? What do you think?

    We as a country need to have a discussion on all these matters, but we won’t. Everything is a cover story. Remember one lie leads to another lie! We have an industry devoted to spin! This arrogant class deems you ‘a conspiracy nut’ if you are caught not buying their spin!

    I have said this before how the United States would be so much better off using our soft diplomacy to win the hearts and mines of the world. Apparently that doesn’t make enough profit, so we end up buying and dumping more bombs. Ignore any blowback, because we will work that out in the mix!

    I think the whole idea of the sarin gas use is despicable. I think the underhand ness of this whole thing should be addressed.

    This Trans-Pacific Partnership is just another scheme to increase the profits of that ever famous 1%!

    Power to the People!

  3. Daniel
    December 9, 2013 at 23:15

    Absent the efforts of Mr. Parry and his colleagues (among others), one could hardly be expected to understand why the war drums were pounded so loudly earlier this year. But we read here, and understand.

    I do hope more people wake up to the value of the real journalism being practice here and elsewhere. We need less TV watching in this country and more blood boiling.

  4. Paul Surovell
    December 9, 2013 at 22:17

    Hersh confirms what Consortium has published on the lack of evidence that Assad launched the CWs and that rebels also had access to sarin. Nothing really new here, just confirmation.

    What Hersh doesn’t explain is who inside and outside the White House snookered Obama into going forward with the assessment and whether they may be the same people who are now providing this information to discredit Obama at a time when he is pursuing peace on all fronts.

    • F. G. Sanford
      December 10, 2013 at 03:16

      I think that’s pretty clear: John Brennan “waving the bloody shirt” kinda sums it up. All that’s left is to decide where his loyalties really lie.

  5. Gretchen Robinson
    December 9, 2013 at 19:35

    I was alone among many trusted friends and associates in not wanting the US to go to war against Syria. I remember how then Sen. Kerry reverted to his military self when we first prepared to go to war in Iraq. He listened to the deluded (repeatedly self-deluded Bush apologist) Colin Powell and voted with the Senate resolution for war. As I watched the debate, my mouth hung open as Kerry spoke. How could he fall for this tripe, I asked myself. No, I am not surprised at all.

  6. George Colllins
    December 9, 2013 at 17:19

    Without getting into a moral or madness equivalency debate, can there be much doubt that Democrats in power are as subject to war criminal propensity as the GOP? There were many clues that Kerry and Obama drank the kool-aid and fit the evidence to their mission a la mode 10 Downing Street memo’s report.

    If Obama is the Comander, Kerry has incomparable credibility, “let me be absolutely clear…” as the prevaricator in chief

    “Assuming” that Sy Hersh’s report endures scrutiny, as I think it will, what possible moral or political credence could those in power muster to avoid what years ago might be a cry for impeachment? My guess: they will survive the news cycle, the country is too big to fail…graciously.

  7. F. G. Sanford
    December 9, 2013 at 16:37

    It’s no surprise that Hersh’s article was initially published by The London Review of Books rather than The New Yorker, The New York Times or The Washington Post. I wonder how long it will take American mainstream media to paint this as a “conspiracy theory”?

    Reminds me of the Broward Bulldog article about the “Sarasota Saudis”. No less a figure than former Florida governor/U.S. Senator Bob Graham has been snubbed by the mainstream too. The story is shocking, but remains willfully ignored. There appears to be a flaw in public awareness that conflates that story with the mass exodus of Saudi nationals from U.S. airports immediately after 9/11. Both episodes involve fleeing Saudis and the complicity of Saudi Royals. But that’s where the similarity ends. The Sarasota story has grave implications which should have been thoroughly investigated. They weren’t. The Feds withheld it from the commission, and mainstream media won’t touch it with a ten foot pole. Only “looney tunes conspiracy theorists” like The Real News Network are interested. (N.B.: tongue-in-cheek regarding TRN should be obvious.)

    The feature length drama, “The Last War Crime”, is also getting the “ignore it and it’ll go away” treatment. I don’t know anything about its cinematic merit, but it’s apparently an honest antidote to “Zero Dark Thirty” Hollywood mythology. I guess they didn’t let John Brennan vet the script, so the result is a media conspiracy of silence about the film. They get awful touchy when anybody mentions war crimes. Kinda makes that whole Samantha Powers wet-dream about “humanitarian intervention” sound like a ticket to Nuremberg. Hey, by the way – has anybody seen George Clooney’s commercial inciting Ukrainians to riot? (George Soros probably paid for it, and the Hungarian Stazi wrote the script.) Clooney looks pretty bad. That steady diet of wine and Viagra is definitely taking a toll. He could play Moammar Qaddafy in a remake of “Scirocco”, and he wouldn’t even need make-up. How about the New Regency Films producer Arnon Milchan bragging that he helped steal American uranium for a foreign government? Betya think I’m makin’ this up, don’t ya. Hooray for Hollywood!

    Hats off to Mr. Parry – we did indeed hear it here first.

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