Exclusive: Secretary of State John Kerry is framing the Ukraine narrative to make the U.S. side – despite neo-Nazis overthrowing an elected president – the good guys and Russians the bad guys. But Kerry’s strident propaganda is a sad ending to a career that began as a truth-teller, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
As a young man, John Kerry was thrust into the Vietnam War by old men who lied to the nation out of ideological delusions, political expediency or personal pride. Now, John Kerry has become that old man, either detached from reality or believing he has a right to mislead the American people just like those old men who sent him and so many other young Americans into the bloody jungles of Vietnam nearly a half century ago.
Kerry’s strident April 24 speech about Russia and Ukraine was, in many ways, a replay of his bellicose speech last Aug. 30 about Syria and the mysterious chemical weapons attack of Aug. 21. In both cases, Kerry opted for a one-sided rant over a balanced presentation of the facts; in both cases, he made repeated assertions about what the U.S. government knows without actually providing evidence.
Indeed, it seems that whenever Kerry does cite supposed “evidence” that can be checked – like the dubious anti-Semitic fliers distributed in eastern Ukraine or the photos of alleged Russian special forces soldiers who allegedly slipped into Ukraine – the “proof” goes “poof” as Kerry once said in a different context.
For Kerry, playing fast and loose with the truth has become a pattern, so much so that he is quickly shredding the credibility he once had as a brave young naval officer who returned from Vietnam to speak out against the war and as a courageous young senator who investigated serious crimes of state by the Reagan administration, including its tolerance of cocaine trafficking by U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
There were, of course, troubling signs along the way, such as his politically motivated vote in 2002 to let President George W. Bush invade Iraq on baseless claims about hidden WMD stockpiles and Kerry’s weak-kneed 2004 presidential campaign when he let his handlers convince him to hide his honorable past.
The Syrian-Sarin Ruse
But this full-blown Kerry-as-a-neocon-style-warmonger has only emerged since he became Secretary of State on Feb. 1, 2013. It was first fully unveiled in his Aug. 30 speech calling on the nation to support a bombing campaign against Syria for a sarin attack nine days earlier.
Given what we now know about the Syrian sarin attack – that the who-done-it is a far more complex mystery than what Kerry presented as a rationalization for war – it is worth looking back at what Kerry told the American people on Aug. 30.
Kerry pretended that the U.S. government had released a trove of detailed evidence proving that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack. He even urged Americans to read the evidence for themselves. He said:
“That’s why this morning’s release of our government’s unclassified estimate of what took place in Syria is so important. Its findings are as clear as they are compelling. I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Read for yourself, everyone, those listening.
“All of you, read for yourselves the evidence from thousands of sources, evidence that is already publicly available, and read for yourselves the verdict reached by our intelligence community about the chemical weapons attack the Assad regime inflicted on the opposition and on opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods in the Damascus suburbs on the early morning of August 21st. … We have taken unprecedented steps to declassify and make facts available to people who can judge for themselves.”
The problem with Kerry’s generous offer was that the Obama administration had declassified not a shred of evidence relating to the Syrian government’s alleged guilt, nothing that could be independently checked and verified.
Its four-page white paper was simply a series of assertions that had been carefully packaged as a “Government Assessment,” a sleight-of-hand trick to avoid a more formal National Intelligence Estimate which would have had to include dissents from U.S. intelligence analysts, some of whom had grave doubts about the administration’s rush to judgment.
There were other problems with Kerry’s case, including the lack of motive for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to launch the sarin attack outside Damascus just as United Nations inspectors were arriving to investigate an earlier chemical attack that Assad was blaming on the rebels. The Aug. 21 attack was sure to divert the inspectors (as it did) and was sure to provoke the U.S. government to claim that President Barack Obama’s “red line” had been crossed, thus possibly bringing the U.S. military into the civil war on the side of the rebels (which it almost did).
But that was only the beginning of the problems with the U.S. government’s case. Though Kerry and other U.S. officials cited a Syrian government bombardment with multiple rockets carrying sarin, the UN inspectors would ultimately recover only two suspect rockets, and one, which landed in Moadimiya, was found to have no sarin or other chemical agents. Only the one rocket landing in the Zamalka area was found to contain sarin.
And, much like former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who claimed to know where Iraq’s WMD sites were located before the Iraq War, Kerry insisted that he knew where the Syrian rockets originated. He declared: “We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.”
As part of its white paper, the U.S. government distributed a map supposedly showing the areas controlled by the government and neighborhoods in rebel hands, where the multiple rockets supposedly landed. The problem with this claim was that rocket scientists later determined that the one sarin-laden rocket had a maximum range of only about two kilometers, meaning that it would likely have been fired from a rebel-controlled zone.
One of those rocket scientists, MIT’s Theodore Postol, told MintPress News that “According to our analysis, I would not … claim that I know who executed the attack, but it’s very clear that John Kerry had very bad intelligence at best or, at worst, lied about the intelligence he had.”
Postol compared Kerry’s presentation to the Bush-43 administration’s assertions about Iraq possessing WMD in 2002-03 and the Johnson administration citing the Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify escalation of the Vietnam War in 1964. Postol also noted the failure of the U.S. press to question the U.S. government’s accusations against Syria.
“To me, the fact that people are not focused on how the [Obama] administration lied is very disturbing and shows how far the community of journalists and the community of so-called security experts has strayed from their responsibility,” Postol said. “The government so specifically distorted the evidence that it presented a very real danger to the country and the world. I am concerned about the collapse of traditional journalism and the future of the country.”
Though the U.S. “Government Assessment” was largely a propaganda document, it did include one footnote that U.S. intelligence analysts embedded in the map of the Damascus area (perhaps so it couldn’t be easily removed), explaining why the initial reports of about a dozen targets may have been exaggerated. The footnote read:
“Reports of chemical attacks originating from some locations may reflect the movement of patients exposed in one neighborhood to field hospitals and medical facilities in the surrounding area. They may also reflect confusion and panic triggered by the ongoing artillery and rocket barrage, and reports of chemical use in other neighborhoods.”
The Death Toll
However, in his Aug. 30 speech, Kerry expressed his case for Syrian government guilt with such certainty that he left no room for doubt, even offering a curiously precise figure for the number of people killed.
Kerry declared, “The United States Government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children. Even the first responders, the doctors, nurses, and medics who tried to save them, they became victims themselves. We saw them gasping for air, terrified that their own lives were in danger. This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.”
But the U.S.-claimed death toll surprised those first responders who estimated the casualties in the range of several hundred. Later, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration had reached its oddly precise number by applying facial recognition software to YouTube videos showing people in bloodless shrouds and then subtracting those that appeared more than once.
The problems with this “methodology” were multiple. First, you’d have to assume that all the YouTube videos were from the aftermath of the Aug. 21 attack, not from some earlier incident. Then, you’d have to assume that the lack of blood on the shrouds was proof of death from sarin when there could be many other causes of death that would not leave a bloody shroud. Despite Kerry’s bold assertion on the 1,429 number, there were no autopsies to support that figure.
Kerry insisted, too, that the Syrian government tightly restricted where the UN inspectors could go. But that made little sense because all the alleged impact sites were in rebel-controlled areas.
When the UN inspectors issued their first report in mid-September, they revealed how dependent they were on Syrian rebels for access to the areas of the alleged sarin attacks and to witnesses. One rebel commander was even asked to take “custody” of the UN inspection.
“An elaborate information exchange took place between UNOJSR [the UN team] and key representatives of the opposition. The information gathered through these exchanges would be used to formulate an action plan for the upcoming visit, which became very critical to the success of the mission,” the UN report said.
“The point of contact within the opposition was used to ensure the security and movement of the Mission, to facilitate the access to the most critical cases/witnesses to be interviewed and sampled by the Mission and to control patients and crowd in order for the Mission to focus on its main activities.”
While at these suspected attack sites, the inspectors also detected signs that evidence had apparently been “moved” and “possibly manipulated.” In other words, contrary to Kerry’s public assertions, it was the rebels who managed the movements of the UN inspectors, not the Assad regime. [For the latest on this sarin controversy, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Was Turkey Behind Syria-Sarin Attack?”]
So, Kerry’s credibility on an issue of war or peace in Syria was right up there with President Lyndon Johnson’s on the Gulf of Tonkin or President George W. Bush’s on Iraq’s WMD. Though many lives were in the balance if the United States had launched the planned massive bombing campaign against Syria, Kerry made his case as an unscrupulous prosecutor piling up half-truths, untruths and unverified assertions.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that the principal world figure who steered President Obama away from Kerry’s hotly desired war last September was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who arranged for Syria’s Assad to agree to surrender his entire chemical weapons arsenal even as Assad continued to deny any role in the Aug. 21 attack which he blamed on the rebels as a ploy to pull the U.S. military into the conflict.
By late September, leading American neocons were angry, too, frustrated that their hope for “regime change” in Syria had been blocked by Putin, who was also helping Obama hammer out a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear dispute (and thus negate neocon hopes for another bombing campaign). The neocons began taking aim at this new adversary by targeting Ukraine, an important country on Russia’s border.
Carl Gershman, a leading neocon and longtime president of the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy, took to the op-ed page of the neocon-flagship Washington Post to urge the U.S. government to push European “free trade” agreements on Ukraine and other former Soviet states and thus counter Moscow’s efforts to maintain close relations with those countries.
The ultimate goal, according to Gershman, was isolating and possibly toppling Putin in Russia with Ukraine the key piece on this global chessboard. “Ukraine is the biggest prize,” Gershman wrote. “Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”
In furtherance of these goals, NED funded a staggering 65 projects in Ukraine, training activists, financing “journalists” and organizing business groups, according to NED’s annual report.
The Ukraine Context
In other words, the events that played out in Ukraine in fall 2013 and winter 2014 had a context. American neocons were furious at Putin for undercutting their plans for more “regime change” in the Middle East, and Kerry had ended up looking like a belligerent fool on Syria as he made the case for war but then saw Putin intervene.
Although Ukrainian citizens had legitimate beefs against their government and their elected President Viktor Yanukovych, the U.S. government – or at least Kerry’s State Department and Kerry’s neocon friends – kept up their own pressure for “regime change.” Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, a neocon from the ranks of Foreign Service officers, worked hand-in-glove with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt to encourage the anti-government protests in Kiev’s Maidan.
Nuland, the wife of neocon star Robert Kagan (a founder of the Project for the New American Century), literally passed out cookies to demonstrators and reminded Ukrainian business leaders that the U.S. government had invested $5 billion in their “European aspirations.” In an intercepted phone call, she discussed with Pyatt her desire to see Arseniy Yatsenyuk installed as the new leader once Yanukovych was removed.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, Kerry’s old chum who had shepherded Kerry’s nomination to head the State Department, also showed up at the Maidan sharing a podium with the right-wing Svoboda party under its banners honoring Stepan Bandera, a Nazi collaborator from World War II whose paramilitary force helped exterminate Jews and Poles in an effort to achieve Ukrainian ethnic purity.
The reality of the Maidan was that most of the protesters appeared to be citizens rallying against government corruption and hoping for a more European future. Kiev, after all, is in Ukraine’s west where pro-European sentiment is strongest. But an important element of the Maidan uprising was the role played by the neo-Nazi militias, who were well-organized in 100-man units and who had secured weapons from looting a government arsenal.
These neo-Nazis moved to the forefront of the protests as things turned violent and after a still-mysterious sniper shooting that killed both demonstrators and police. U.S. officials and media blamed Yanukovych but he denied issuing such an order and some suspicion has fallen on a possible neo-Nazi sniper team seeking to enflame violence.
In an effort to tamp down that violence, Yanukovych signed an agreement on Feb. 21 brokered by three European governments in which he agreed to limit his powers, accept early elections to vote him out of office, and pull back police. It was that last move, however, that opened the way for the neo-Nazi militias to seize government buildings on Feb. 22 and force Yanukovych and many of his officials to flee for their lives.
Immediately, the U.S. State Department hailed the “pro-democracy” coup and recognized the coup regime as the legitimate new leaders of Ukraine. However, the neo-Nazi storm troopers were an inconvenient reality.
A senior international diplomat who has been on scene in Ukraine told me that Western countries moved quickly to organize a new government under U.S. favorite Yatsenyuk because otherwise these unsavory far-right thugs would have been in total control. The neo-Nazis did get four ministries, including national security, and many of the neo-Nazi militias were then “legitimized” by being incorporated into the National Guard.
East Ukrainian Uprising
The installation of the coup regime in Kiev prompted resistance from Crimea and eastern Ukraine where Yanukovych had his electoral base. The Crimean parliament hastily arranged a referendum on secession and the official results showed 96 percent of the voters favoring rejoining Russia, an annexation which rapidly followed.
Pro-Russian demonstrators also rose up in eastern Ukraine seeking either a federalized state granting their regions substantial autonomy or a referendum on breaking away from western Ukraine and joining Russia.
However, Kerry, along with virtually the entire U.S. news media and officialdom, has presented the Ukrainian narrative as simply a case of Russia plotting to seize territory and acting as outside agitators to stir up the otherwise happy Ukrainian population. Yet, as with the Syrian sarin case, there has been a problem with actual evidence.
Last week, at a Geneva conference called to reduce tensions in Ukraine, Kerry instead exacerbated them with a claim about pro-Russian demonstrators in eastern Ukraine threatening local Jews.
“Just in the last couple of days, notices were sent to Jews in one city indicating that they had to identify themselves as Jews. And obviously, the accompanying threat implied is – or threatened – or suffer the consequences, one way or the other,” Kerry said.
However, in the days before Kerry spoke, the distribution of those leaflets in Donetsk had already been denounced as a black-propaganda hoax designed to discredit the pro-Russian protesters. Among those denying the legitimacy of the fliers was Denis Pushilin, the person whose name was signed at the bottom. He termed the fliers a “provocation” concocted by pro-coup operatives.
Although the authenticity of the fliers already had been publicly disputed, Kerry still cited them, without noting the denials about their authorship. He seemed to be back on message, using whatever gasoline he could throw on the fire.
Then, there was the case of Kerry’s State Department palming off photos to the New York Times that supposedly showed Russian soldiers “clearly” in Russia and then later in towns in eastern Ukraine. However, it soon turned out that a key photo, purportedly snapped in Russia, was actually taken in Ukraine, destroying the principal claim of the photo spread. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Retracts Russian Photo Scoop.”]
Sticking to His Story
Despite that embarrassment, Kerry still cited these photos in his April 24 speech as proof that Russian special forces were operating inside Ukraine. “Some of the individual special operations personnel, who were active on Russia’s behalf in Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea have been photographed in Slovyansk, Donetsk, and Luhansk,” he declared.
Much of the rest of Kerry’s tough talk also should be placed in the context of his now tattered credibility. As with his Aug. 30 call to arms against Syria, Kerry cited information that was either in serious dispute or couldn’t be verified independently.
But there was also a bombastic, propagandistic tone to almost everything coming out of his mouth, an arrogance that some of us are old enough to remember in the days of the Vietnam War when the U.S. side always wore “white hats” and the other side always wore “black hats.”
In the Ukraine context, of course, the neo-Nazi brown shirts who spearheaded the coup on Feb. 22 have been thoroughly whitewashed from the acceptable U.S. media/government narrative. The overthrow of a democratically elected president has been rehabilitated as a “pro-democracy” exercise. Yanukovych’s supporters in eastern Ukraine who are resisting the imposition of authority by the coup regime in Kiev are now dubbed “terrorists.”
And, for good measure, Kerry sneered: “Russia is actually mystified to see Ukraine’s neighbors and likeminded free people all over the world united with Ukrainians who want to build a better life and choose their leaders for themselves, by themselves.”
Much as we were told that no one should question the secret U.S. evidence on the Syrian chemical incident, Kerry continued, “Nobody should doubt Russia’s hand in this. …
“Our intelligence community tells me that Russia’s intelligence and military intelligence services and special operators are playing an active role in destabilizing eastern Ukraine with personnel, weapons, money, operational planning, and coordination. The Ukrainians have intercepted and publicized command-and-control conversations from known Russian agents with their separatist clients in Ukraine. …And we’ve seen weapons and gear on the separatists that matches those worn and used by Russian special forces.”
Though it is surely possible that Russian special forces are operating in eastern Ukraine – despite the Russian government’s denials – Kerry has presented no evidence to prove his point. Indeed, the evidence that his State Department has put forth, as in the Russian photos, turned out to be bogus.
Yet, what has gripped Official Washington and the U.S. news media is a full-blown “group think.” The facts and context of the Ukrainian events have been forgotten or bowdlerized to such an extent that the American people are being systematically misled. Whenever the fuller context is mentioned, it is dismissed as “the Russian narrative.”
We have seen this movie many times before – as has John Kerry – when the American people were snookered into the Vietnam War via the Gulf of Tonkin deception, when we were sold on Iraq’s non-existent WMD, and when we were told “facts” about the Syrian gas attack that have since proved false, just to name a few of the times propaganda has dominated American discourse around war or peace.
Sadly, John Kerry seems to be completing the circle of his public career by becoming as an old man what the young John Kerry bravely spoke against.
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 barnesandnoble.com). 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.