Trump Withholds Syria-Sarin Evidence

Exclusive: Despite President Trump’s well-known trouble with the truth, his White House now says “trust us” on its Syrian-sarin charges while withholding the proof that it claims to have, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

After making the provocative and dangerous charge that Russia is covering up Syria’s use of chemical weapons, the Trump administration withheld key evidence to support its core charge that a Syrian warplane dropped sarin on a northern Syrian town on April 4.

A four-page white paper, prepared by President Trump’s National Security Council staff and released by the White House on Tuesday, claimed that U.S. intelligence has proof that the plane carrying the sarin gas left from the Syrian military airfield that Trump ordered hit by Tomahawk missiles on April 6.

The paper asserted that “we have signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence,” but then added that “we cannot publicly release all available intelligence on this attack due to the need to protect sources and methods.”

I’m told that the key evidence was satellite surveillance of the area, a body of material that U.S. intelligence analysts were reviewing late last week even after the Trump-ordered bombardment of 59 Tomahawk missiles that, according to Syrian media reports, killed seven or eight Syrian soldiers and nine civilians, including four children.

Yet, it is unclear why releasing these overhead videos would be so detrimental to “sources and methods” since everyone knows the U.S. has this capability and the issue at hand – if it gets further out of hand – could lead to a nuclear confrontation with Russia.

In similarly tense situations in the past, U.S. Presidents have released sensitive intelligence to buttress U.S. government assertions, including John F. Kennedy’s disclosure of U-2 spy flights in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and Ronald Reagan revealing electronic intercepts after the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983.

Yet, in this current case, as U.S.-Russian relations spiral downward into what is potentially an extermination event for the human species, Trump’s White House insists that the world must trust it despite its record of consistently misstating facts.

In the case of the April 4 chemical-weapons incident in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which reportedly killed scores of people including young children, I was told that initially the U.S. analysts couldn’t see any warplanes over the area in Idlib province at the suspected time of the poison gas attack but later they detected a drone that they thought might have delivered the bomb.

A Drone Mystery

According to a source, the analysts struggled to identify whose drone it was and where it originated. Despite some technical difficulties in tracing its flight path, analysts eventually came to believe that the flight was launched in Jordan from a Saudi-Israeli special operations base for supporting Syrian rebels, the source said, adding that the suspected reason for the poison gas was to create an incident that would reverse the Trump administration’s announcement in late March that it was no longer seeking the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.

If indeed that was the motive — and if the source’s information is correct — the operation would have been successful, since the Trump administration has now reversed itself and is pressing Russia to join in ousting Assad who is getting blamed for the latest chemical-weapons incident.

Presumably, however, the “geospatial intelligence” cited in the four-page dossier could disprove this and other contentions if the Trump administration would only make its evidence publicly available.

The dossier stated, “Our information indicates that the chemical agent was delivered by regime Su-22 fixed-wing aircraft that took off from the regime-controlled Shayrat Airfield. These aircraft were in the vicinity of Khan Shaykhun approximately 20 minutes before reports of the chemical attack began and vacated the area shortly after the attack.”

So, that would mean – assuming that the dossier is correct – that U.S. intelligence analysts were able to trace the delivery of the poison gas to Assad’s aircraft and to the airfield that Trump ordered attacked on April 6.

Still, it remains a mystery why this intelligence assessment is not coming directly from President Trump’s intelligence chiefs as is normally the case, either with an official Intelligence Estimate or a report issued by the Director of National Intelligence.

The White House photo released late last week showing the President and a dozen senior advisers monitoring the April 6 missile strike from a room at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida was noteworthy in that neither CIA Director Mike Pompeo nor Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was in the frame.

Now, it is the White House that has released the four-page dossier supposedly summing up the assessment of the “intelligence community.”

An Argumentative Dossier

The dossier also seems argumentative in that it assumes that Russian officials – and presumably others – who have suggested different possible explanations for the incident at Khan Sheikdoun did so in a willful cover-up, when any normal investigation seeks to evaluate different scenarios before settling on one.

It is common amid the “fog of war” for people outside the line of command – and even sometimes inside the line of command – to not understand what happened and to struggle for an explanation.

On April 6, before Trump’s missile strike, I and others received word from U.S. military intelligence officials in the Middle East that they, too, shared the belief that the poison gas may have resulted from a conventional bombing raid that ruptured containers stored by the rebels, who – in Idlib province – are dominated by Al Qaeda’s affiliate and its allies.

Those reports were cited by former U.S. intelligence officials, including more than two dozen who produced a memo to President Trump urging him to undertake a careful investigation of the incident before letting this crisis exacerbate U.S.-Russia relations.

The memo said “our U.S. Army contacts in the area” were disputing the official story of a chemical weapons attack. “Instead, a Syrian aircraft bombed an al-Qaeda-in-Syria ammunition depot that turned out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the chemical-laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died,” the memo said.

In other words, to suggest possible alternative scenarios is not evidence of a “cover-up,” even if the theories are later shown to be erroneous. It is the normal process of sorting through often conflicting initial reports.

Even in the four-page dossier, Trump’s NSC officials contradicted what other U.S. government sources have told The New York Times and other mainstream news outlets about the Syrian government’s supposed motive for launching the chemical-weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

According to the earlier accounts, the Syrian government either was trying to terrorize the population in a remote rebel-controlled area or was celebrating its impunity after the Trump administration had announced that it was no longer seeking Assad’s removal.

But the dossier said, “We assess that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to an opposition offensive in northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure.” Although Khan Sheikhoun was not near the fighting, the dossier presented the town as an area of support for the offensive.

Assuming this assessment is correct, does that mean that the earlier explanations were part of a cover-up or a propaganda operation? The reality is that in such complex situations, the analyses should continue to be refined as more information becomes available. It should not be assumed that every false lead or discarded theory is proof of a “cover-up,” yet that is what we see here.

“The Syrian regime and its primary backer, Russia, have sought to confuse the world community about who is responsible for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people in this and earlier attacks,” the dossier declared.

But the larger point is that – given President Trump’s spotty record for getting facts straight – he and his administration should go the extra mile in presenting irrefutable evidence to support its assessments, not simply insisting that the world must “trust us.”

[In a separate analysis of the four-page dossier, Theodore Postol, a national security specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concluded that the White House claims were clearly bogus, writing:

“I have reviewed the document carefully, and I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria at roughly 6 to 7 a.m. on April 4, 2017. 

“In fact, a main piece of evidence that is cited in the document points to an attack that was executed by individuals on the ground, not from an aircraft, on the morning of April 4. This conclusion is based on an assumption made by the White House when it cited the source of the sarin release and the photographs of that source. My own assessment, is that the source was very likely tampered with or staged, so no serious conclusion could be made from the photographs cited by the White House.”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).




To Russia with More Russia-Bashing

Now that President Trump is bashing Russia, not resetting relations, the mainstream U.S. media has gone from pushing “Russia-gate” conspiracies to decrying doubts about U.S. government anti-Russia claims, notes Nat Parry.

By Nat Parry

After several months of pushing the “Russia-gate” conspiracy theory – a wild-eyed, all-encompassing but somewhat nebulous narrative involving U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, WikiLeaks, the Russian mob, assassinations and certain indiscretions with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel – the U.S. mainstream media is now reverting to its traditional role of downplaying conspiracy theories, particularly those raising questions about the intelligence surrounding the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria last week.

On Monday, the New York Times published an article titled “Syria Conspiracy Theories Flourish, at Both Ends of the Spectrum,” which lamented the fact that websites on the left and the right have raised doubts about the casus belli for U.S. military action against Syria.

Noting that some alternative news sites have called the chemical attack a “false flag” operation and others have raised the question of whether Trump’s military action was a “wag the dog” diversion tactic, the Times pointedly attempts to “debunk” the internet memes that have been raising doubts about the chemical attack or calling into question the justification for the U.S. military action.

With an aggressiveness not seen at all when it comes to the unsubstantiated “Russian election-hacking” allegations, the Times fires back forcefully on matters such as whether President Bashar al-Assad had reason to use chemical weapons in the first place or whether anti-Assad forces may have had advance knowledge of the sarin attack. The Times article uses curt, all-caps responses to rebut these claims, such as flatly stating, “FALSE,” “NO EVIDENCE,” or “MISLEADING.”

The Times, for example, points out that Information Clearing House has argued that Assad lacked an obvious tactical or strategic reason to use chemical weapons, and therefore the attack may have actually been carried out by one of the terrorist groups operating in Syria such as Al-Nusra Front. As the Times responds, however, “THIS IS MISLEADING.”

Floating a few reasons that Assad’s forces might have conceivably been motivated to conduct a chemical attack, the Times argues that the attack was “consistent with Mr. Assad’s calculated strategy of attempting to drive out the civilian population in rebel strongholds through bombing neighborhoods and civilian targets.” The Syrian leader may have also “felt emboldened” by perceived shifts in U.S. foreign policies and priorities under Trump, the Times speculates.

Of course, this is simply guesswork on the part of the Times, which is not presenting any facts to counter doubts over the official story, but just responding to the doubts with more conjecture. The Times also seems to be cherry-picking some of the more easily “debunked” stories surrounding the Syria case, failing to address legitimate concerns over the lack of proof of Assad’s culpability. These include doubts raised by the former British ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, who told BBC Radio last week that there is “no proof that the cause of the explosion was what they said it was.”

It would not make sense for Assad to launch such an attack, Ford said, claiming that it would be “totally self-defeating.” He also objected to the veracity of claims made by eyewitnesses who claimed that they saw chemical bombs dropping from the air. “Well, you cannot see chemical weapons dropping from the air,” he said. “Such testimony is worthless.”

Question of Possession

There are also serious doubts as to whether Syria even possesses the chemical weapons in question, with the United Nations’ Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons noting that since 2013, “all of the chemical weapons declared by Syria were removed and destroyed outside of Syrian territory.”

While some governments have claimed that Syria’s declaration about its chemical weapons program may have been incomplete, the OPCW stresses that it has adapted itself “in unprecedented ways” in efforts “to remove, transport and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile in the midst of an active conflict zone.”

With this in mind, Sacha Llorenti, the Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations, last Friday blasted the United States for unilaterally attacking Syria, saying that it recalls the decision 14 years earlier to attack Iraq based on equally questionable intelligence.

It is “vital to remember what history teaches us,” Llorenti said, citing the 2003 invasion of Iraq and holding up a photo of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell delivering false testimony to the U.N. Security Council on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

“Whereas an investigation would have allowed us to establish in an objective manner who is responsible for the [chemical] attacks [in Syria], this is an extreme, extreme violation of international law,” he said.

In addition to the doubts that have been raised at the United Nations, a number of the U.S.’s closest G7 allies have refused to implement additional sanctions against Syria without proof of Assad’s guilt.

As the BBC reported on Tuesday, “Sanctions against Russian and Syria will not be put in place until after an investigation into last week’s apparent chemical attack, British government sources said. Members of the G7 group of leading industrialized nations agreed to delay implementing sanctions until there was ‘hard and irrefutable evidence’ over the alleged chemical attack.”

Yet the New York Times and other mainstream U.S. outlets continue to report as undisputed fact that Assad’s government intentionally carried out this attack, and furthermore, that Moscow knew about it in advance.

The sorts of unequivocal retorts that the Times uses against journalists and bloggers for raising doubts about the official stories could, of course, just as easily be applied to the official stories themselves. When the Associated Press, for example, reported on Tuesday that “The United States has made a preliminary conclusion that Russia knew in advance of Syria’s chemical weapons attack last week,” the Times could have responded with an emphatic all-caps retort such as “NO EVIDENCE.”

These retorts could also be used against the accusations of the Russian government engaging in a convoluted conspiracy to undermine Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s electoral chances by hacking John Podesta’s and the DNC’s emails in order to expose the Democratic establishment’s undermining of Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign while simultaneously “elevating” Trump’s candidacy in the media through the so-called “pied piper” strategy, with the evil geniuses of the Kremlin somehow knowing beyond a doubt that this information would sway voters in favor of voting for the least popular major-party nominee in a generation.

Just as the New York Times has denounced theories surrounding the Syria chemical attack as lacking evidence, so too could the entire Russia-gate narrative be picked apart as lacking any foundation in fact. All that one needs to do is actually read the U.S. intelligence assessment that dubiously concluded that Russia “interfered” in the election without offering anything approaching hard proof of this claim – spending seven full pages instead bashing the Russian network RT for its perceived biases.

Going through the Director of National Intelligence report from last January, the reader is left with few details as to how the extraordinary conclusion was reached that Russia “hacked” the election, which Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and others have called an “act of war.”

The closest thing to evidence that could be found in the DNI report was regarding so-called Russian fingerprints on the hacking attacks of Podesta’s and the DNC’s emails, including malware associated with Russian hackers, as well as some Cyrillic letters and the phrase “Felix Edmundovich,” a reference to the founder of the Soviet Union’s secret police.

However, as revealed in subsequent WikiLeaks’ disclosures of the so-called Vault 7 documents, the CIA has developed numerous tools, including a library of foreign malware, that can be used to falsely implicate a foreign intelligence service in a cyber-attack.

These revelations called into question the entire basis for Washington’s case against Moscow for allegedly interfering in the U.S. election, but besides a few articles in the alternative press, including at Consortiumnews, the revelations received scant attention.

Apparently, the disclosures of CIA hacking activities – including new revelations of the CIA deploying malware in Samsung televisions as covert listening devices to spy on unwitting Americans – were not the sort of conspiracy theory considered worthy of sustained media coverage in the United States. In contrast to the months of wall-to-wall coverage of Russia-gate, the Vault 7 leaks were largely treated as a one-day story by the mainstream press.

The disparity in coverage speaks to a longstanding aversion of the mainstream media to what it considers illegitimate “new media” encroaching on its territory and peddling conspiracy theories and what is today called “fake news.” This hostility can be traced to the earliest days of the internet.

‘Conspiracy Freaks’

Twenty years ago, responding to a proliferation of alternative news sites on the World Wide Web – or what was called back then the “information superhighway” – Newsweek magazine ran a 1,800-word article entitled “Conspiracy Mania Feeds Our Growing National Paranoia.” In the piece, Newsweek denounced what it called “conspiracy freaks.”

Explaining a growing acceptance of conspiracy theories as evidence of “mass psychosis,” the article warned that the “ranks of the darkly deluded may be growing” as “conspiracism has become a kind of para-religion.”

It took particular aim at the African-American community, which it described as “a hotbed of this kind of suspicion and mistrust,” for believing that “the CIA had spread the crack epidemic by backing Nicaraguan drug dealers whose profits went to the contras.”

Newsweek also criticized Oliver Stone, director of “Platoon” and “JFK,” and Chris Carter, the creator of the popular “X-Files” television series, for promoting dangerous ideas that had the effect of eroding trust in the government. “On ‘The X-Files,’ everything from who killed JFK to why the Buffalo Bills lose so many Super Bowls is traceable to a single master plan,” Newsweek sneered.

Of course, Newsweek wasn’t alone in scoffing at popular conspiracy theories in the 1990s. In fact, it was conventional wisdom among “respectable” media that government leaders simply do not cross certain lines, and that certain stories, for example, regarding CIA involvement in the cocaine trade – no matter how much evidence backed them up – were off-limits. Those who failed to get on board with this groupthink, for example Gary Webb who wrote a widely disseminated series for the San Jose Mercury News about the CIA-crack cocaine connection, had their careers destroyed.

This trend continued into the 2000s, with millions of angry Americans still seething over the stolen election in 2000 told to “get over it,” and then called crazy for doubting the basis for George W. Bush’s case for invading Iraq in 2003.

A couple years later, those who raised questions about the government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina were accused by the Washington Post of “racial paranoia” and hawking “conspiracy theories,” such as the widespread belief that New Orleans’ levees may have been intentionally blown up to protect rich neighborhoods at the expense of poorer ones, or to drive low-income African Americans out of town.

But skip ahead a decade, and oddly, this same media that historically has been so hostile to conspiracy theories was seen eagerly pushing conspiracy theories surrounding Clinton’s loss to Trump. Headlines of “Russian election hacking” were freely used by the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times, despite the fact that there is zero evidence that Russia manipulated any voting machines in any state to alter the outcome of the election, or even any substantial proof offered to support the claims that the Kremlin attempted to influence voters’ decisions by exposing private emails between DNC officials.

Russia, Russia, Russia!

Nevertheless, the Democrats and the media have coalesced around the conventional wisdom that the election was lost due to a Russian plot, which conveniently absolves the national Democratic Party of any responsibility for losing the election – for example by writing off the white working-class vote or nominating a deeply flawed establishment candidate during a decidedly anti-establishment year – while simultaneously calling into question the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency.

It also feeds into the rallying cry that the Democrats have embraced since losing the election, which has been variations of the theme “This is not normal,” expressed by the hashtag #NotNormal on social media. This theme laments the loss of a more “normal” time, presumably personified by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Typically, the slogan refers to Trump’s controversial dealings with Russia, his unconventional communication style and his extensively documented conflicts of interests, as well as perceived misogyny, nepotism, racism and incompetence in his administration.

Clearly, there is very little that can be considered “normal” about this administration, including the strange role of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who has moved into the White House while the First Lady, Melania Trump, lives in New York. The First Daughter reportedly was instrumental in convincing the President to carry out the unilateral attack on Syria.

“Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence. I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff,’” Ivanka’s brother Eric Trump told the Telegraph.

While that is certainly not normal, what the Democrats and the media are revealing through their #NotNormal campaign and the official conspiracy theories that they are promoting – while downplaying other theories or doubts about government claims – is how much they actually consider “normal.”

In today’s America, what is normal, according to the bipartisan consensus, are unilateral strikes against countries without evidence and in violation of international law. It is also apparently normal for televisions to spy on law-abiding citizens, and with drone strikes shooting up 432 percent under the Trump presidency so far, it is apparently quite normal to use flying robots to bomb suspected terrorists (and their eight-year old daughters) half-way around the world. Indefinite detention at the legal black hole of Guantanamo is also rather normal.

After all, these are all policies that have been in place for a decade and a half under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and hope seems to be dwindling for returning to a period of actual normalcy.

Nat Parry is co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush. [This article first appeared at https://essentialopinion.wordpress.com/2017/04/11/notnormal-democrats-and-mass-medias-double-standards-on-conspiracy-theories/ ]

 




Russia’s Disdain for Tillerson and Trump

With Russia’s hopes for détente with President Trump dashed by his missile strike on Syria, the Kremlin looks askance at visiting Secretary of State Tillerson who it feels played the Colin Powell role for his boss, says Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow was supposed to prepare the way for a Trump-Putin summit either as a self-standing event or on the sidelines of the next G-20 meeting in Germany. The hope was that the summit would consolidate the turn toward normalization of relations that President Trump had promised in his electoral campaign.

But the 180-degree reversal in the foreign policy of the Trump administration marked by the launch of a missile strike on Syria last week changed the expectations for Tillerson’s visit dramatically, to the point that one of the most widely respected Russian political observers, Director of the Near East Institute Yevgeny Satanovsky, questioned why Tillerson’s visit is still on.

“It is not clear why Tillerson is coming,” Satanovsky said. “There is no reason at all for him to be received by Putin. Maybe it’s enough for him to talk to Maria Zakharova [spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs], perhaps with [Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov.”

Satanovsky’s pessimism was largely shared by other experts and officials who appeared on the most popular Russian TV news programs, including the talk shows Sixty Minutes, Evening and Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, News on Saturday with Sergey Brillyov, and News of the Week with Dmitry Kiselyov. Always popular with their Russian audiences, these shows drew in remarkably high visitor rates on the internet as posted on youtube.com, between a quarter million and half a million visits each.

Following President Trump’s missile strike on a Syrian air base on April 6, pressure grew on President Putin to respond with his own muscle-flexing. However, the Kremlin’s immediate response was restrained. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs simply announced the suspension of the 2015 Memorandum of Understanding with the United States on deconfliction. That agreement put in place communications channels within the region and rules for conduct meant to prevent and/or resolve incidents between the Russian and U.S.-led coalition forces operating in Syria.

By the evening of April 7, the popular Russian state television talk show Sixty Minutes informed its audience about two essential facts regarding the U.S. missile strike. First, the level of damage inflicted on the Syrian air base at Shayrat turned out to be minimal, totally out of keeping with what one might have anticipated from 59 Tomahawks launched by U.S. naval vessels in the Mediterranean.

Rossiya 1 war correspondent Yevgeny Poddubny presented footage he and his camera crew had taken at Shayrat just hours after the strike. It was clear that the landing strip itself was undamaged, that many hangars were similarly intact, and that the structural losses were limited to six out-of-date MIG23s that were being reconditioned and to some roadways and buildings of minor significance. The report also noted that a relatively small number of Syrian military personnel and civilians were killed and wounded.

Poddubny noted that not all of the cruise missiles seemed to have reached the target. Later news broadcasts clarified that only 23 of the 59 Tomahawks reached Shayrat.

The second fact, which tempered Russian anger about the attack, was news that the United States had given two hours advance warning to the Russians. This would have enabled them to withdraw any of their military personnel on the site and to avoid casualties that would call for retribution and spark a direct military confrontation.

But if the sting of the attack and its anti-Russian message were attenuated, there was from the outset some confusion among Official Russia over what message the strike was intended to deliver and to whom. There was also a great deal of interest in exploring the reasons for Donald Trump’s policy reversal on Syria and on Russia and interest in identifying the influencers behind the move so as to better understand what might come next and what to do about that.

Already in Sixty Minutes, the first authoritative view on what happened was put forward by Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party. For political reasons, i.e., policy disagreements with the current government, Zyuganov is a rare guest on Rossiya 1 and was likely invited on to rally unity among the Russian people in the face of the new threats and dangers coming from Washington.

His reading of Trump’s TV appearance announcing the missile strike was that the President looked “broken,” now in the thrall of the mafia that had been running the U.S. before his accession to power. Zyuganov noted that for once Trump was reading his text from a teleprompter and his voice seemed to be unsteady, highly emotional.

What Drove Trump

The discussion of what motivated Trump to act on Syria expanded later in the evening on a special edition of the Vladimir Solovyov talk show. The microphone was offered first to Vyacheslav Nikonov, chairman of the Duma Committee on Education who is better known in international circles for his years at the head of the NGO Russian World, sponsors of the Russian diaspora.

Since the U.S. presidential election in November 2016, Nikonov has appeared regularly on Rossiya 1 as a consistent advocate of Donald Trump in the expectation of very positive changes in U.S. foreign policy. But he was now caught out.

Nikonov said Trump was responding to popular outrage over pictures of children gassed to death that were featured on U.S. mass media so it appeared to Americans that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was poisoning his own people. However, if the villain in the piece was the media for an exploitative presentation, Nikonov acknowledged that there were aspects that were more generally disturbing, in particular, that Russian servicemen could have been on the base under attack. It seemed as if the right hand in America did not know what the left was doing and these contradictions do not bode well.

Igor Morozov, member of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, reminded the Solovyov audience that the idea of attacking Syrian military infrastructure was not something dreamed up at the last second by the Trump administration. Its author was General James Mattis when he was U.S. Commander in the Middle East in 2013 and was removed for promoting policies that contradicted President Obama’s desire to withdraw from war operations in the region, taking down the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now Mattis is the Secretary of Defense and the cruise missile attack on the Shayrat air force base comes from his playbook.

In News on Saturday, host Sergey Brilyov remarked how ineffective the U.S. missile strike was in military terms, suggesting that it must be seen as a “signal” And that raised the question of a signal to whom? By process of exclusion, Brilyov recommended to his audience two possible addressees: China and the United States itself.

For Chinese President Xi, news of the American strike on Syria was delivered by Trump in the course of the state visit at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. The blunt warning was that if Xi does not help to rein in the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, the United States would act on its own as it had just done in Syria.

But in Brilyov’s view the more important audience for Trump’s gesture was within the United States, within the political establishment, where he was fighting a desperate rearguard battle for his domestic policies against resistance from both hardline Republicans opposed to his foreign policy objectives and the whole of the Democratic Party.

Dmitry Kiselyov, Russia’s most senior news presenter, characterized Trump as a “tabula rasa,” without any experience in international politics who was now using America’s vast military potential to create a very dangerous situation. On his News of the Week program on Sunday evening, Kiselyov featured war correspondent Yevgeny Poddubny reporting again from the Shayrat air base and explaining how it was once again operational.

Poddubny also showed off the piles of canisters at the base which appeared in previous telecasts from the air field and were claimed by some Western media to represent the chemical warfare munitions stored there by the Assad regime. He carefully explained that these containers are standard issue and are used to load all kinds of munitions onto fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, so that they have no relation whatsoever to chemical weapons which were nowhere to be seen at the base.

Kiselyov detailed at length the about-face of U.S. foreign policy on Syrian “regime change” and the reversal on efforts to join with Russia to fight terrorism. Now, objectively, the United States was fighting on the side of the terrorists. All of this meant that Trump would fail as a “deal maker” with Russia, that it was improbable he could patch things up with Russia.

Kiselyov called the U.S. President’s action “impulsive” and unsupported by facts. It was done in the context of U.S. domestic political warfare. Trump’s entourage was changing, with strategic political adviser Steve Bannon being shunted to one side and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner rising in prominence.

Kiselyov reserved special scorn for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nicki Haley. He pulled up on screen both her accusations against Assad and the riposte from Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. Vladimir Safronkov that the United States was afraid of an independent investigation into the chemical incident in Idlib because it would not support their narrative.

Kiselyov concluded his reportage on the U.S. attack with harsh words, condemning what he called a prima facie case of U.S. aggression. It was not a reaction to any concrete event but was taken “due to the total failure of Donald Trump’s policies at home.”

But he said Russia would react with reason and caution: “It is clear no one intends to declare war on the U.S. But we cannot let this whole affair pass without practical response.”

Specifically, he called for the U.N. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the situation in Syria. They are the people who oversaw the removal and destruction of Assad’s chemical arsenal and production facilities, for which they won a Nobel Prize for Peace. Now they should be put back to work, he said.

Finally, Kiselyov ran a short interview with Yevgeny Satanovsky that summed up nicely the thinking of his peers: “All U.S. foreign policy actions are based on domestic political considerations. That is why they are so idiotic.”

The discussion of Trump’s missile strike continued on the Sunday Evening show of Vladimir Solovyov. After pointing to rumors of U.S. plans to destroy the North Korean regime with a similar attack, the host kicked off the discussion with a neat summary for his panel of how the U.S. is approaching world governance today: “The U.S. by itself decides which countries can exist, which cannot; which leaders will rule and who must be liquidated. The U.N. Security Council is not needed. The U.S. decides on its own what to do.”

A Cornered Trump

Alexei Pushkov, who was until September 2016 the chairman of the Duma Committee on Foreign Relations and is now chairman of the upper chamber’s Committee on Information, delivered a programmatic statement to explain what he believed happened:

“Trump is operating in a specific set of circumstances. The harder it is for the U.S. to manage the world, the more it tends to throw international rules to the wind. Trump has little opportunity to escape from the existing policies.

“The key question [regarding the chemical gas event at Idlib]: why would Assad use chemical weapons against this small town? He is winning the war. No one in the West has asked this question. Whose interests were served by this chemical event? It is good for American hawks, for [Sen. John] McCain, for the neighboring states which want to overthrow Assad. But it holds no advantages for Assad.

“We have not long ago heard [former National Security Adviser] Susan Rice and [former Secretary of State] John Kerry say that all of Assad’s chemical weapons were destroyed. So where did Assad get these bombs?

“Per The New York Post, Tillerson is coming to Moscow to deliver an ultimatum on removal of Assad. If he comes here with an ultimatum, then the talks will head into a dead end. The experience of the last three years shows that the language of ultimatum does not work with Russia.”

The microphone was then turned over to Yevgeny Satanovsky, a leading expert on the Near East who was more specific in his recommendations on what Russia must do now:

–Clean up the province of Idlib, or at least the city of Idlib, driving out the Al Qaeda fighters who are now installed there so that an independent investigation can begin into what happened leading to the poison gas deaths.

–Since the U.S. clearly wants to take the Assad government’s sole remaining enclave in Eastern Syria at Dar Ezzor and turn it over to the terrorists, Russia must do its best now to break the blockade there

–Tillerson must be approached very carefully. See whether he has come to negotiate or just to conclude with a press conference at which he tells the media that Russia is hopeless, that the U.S. cannot work with Moscow, and that the U.S. will now deal with North Korea and everywhere else on its own.

Among the other panelists on the Sunday Evening show, retired Lt. General Yevgeny Buzhinsky dealt with the question of the forewarning which the Russians received from the United States before the missile launch, saying:

“Trump is sitting on two stools. This is very sad. Yes, the U.S. gave us one and a half hours, maybe two hours of advance warning of the attack. But how?

“There are several lines of communication between us. There is a Chief of General Staff to Chief of General Staff line, which is very fast. This was not used. Instead they used a line of communications set up by the 2015 Deconfliction Memorandum of Understanding, at the regional level, between Americans in Jordan and Russians in Syria.

“The message on the impending attack was sent to the U.S. command in Jordan in the middle of the night and the duty officer was in no rush to forward it to his Russian counterpart in Syria. The duty officer there sent it to Moscow, to the Ministry of Defense, which also did not rush to respond or to pass the message to the Syrians. Net result: the two hours was barely enough for the Russians to take necessary precautionary measures. The Russian Ministry was furious.”

No doubt this explains why the first Russian reaction to the whole affair was to suspend the Deconfliction Memorandum.

The Chemical Canard

Yakov Kedmi, another panelist on Skype from Tel Aviv, offered insights into why the allegations of a Syrian government chemical weapon attack was nothing more than a canard, an unfounded rumor.

Kedmi is a former Soviet citizen, one of the first Soviet Jews to demand and finally receive permission to leave the country for Israel at the end of the 1970s. In Israel he joined the intelligence services where he had a full career. Until three years ago, he was persona non grata in Russia but has since established a niche on Russian television as a valued expert on Middle East security questions.

He said: “What is strange here is that if the Syrians used this [air] base to attack Idlib with chemical weapons, then there should be a bunker of such weapons at the base. That would be very easy to detect using the intelligence means available – satellite images, drones, etc.

“Israel follows all movements of munitions to and in Syria going to Hezbollah. We know which trucks are carrying what and where. The United States surely knows the same about what interests it. Yet when speaking of the attack on the base the Americans did not identify any bunker or location for such weapons. Supposedly they are still looking. This shows it is a canard.

“As for the Israeli government, they say Amen to whatever stupidities the Americans say. That is the situation in our country.”

Overall, Official Russia seems to have calmly adopted the cynical interpretation that Donald Trump bombed the Syrian air base on the basis of a manufactured pretext in order to gain the upper hand in his bitter fight with hardline Republicans and the entire Democratic Party over Russia-gate and to advance his domestic political agenda.

If this interpretation is true and is eventually revealed to the American people, they are not likely to appreciate Trump’s cynicism. If he launched a missile attack on Syria based on a lie, Trump would have squandered his political capital with those who voted for him and for his promised pro-détente foreign policy. It is now improbable that he will win them back.

At the same time, Trump has not shed for long the dogs that have been snarling and nipping at his heels. Already Sen. McCain has blamed the supposed chemical attack on Trump’s earlier repudiation of “regime change” in Syria.

Donald Trump’s moral standing was never very high, even among his supporters. But the recruitment of former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson was seen as a victory for decency. Tillerson’s prepared remarks delivered at the opening of his confirmation hearings were crystal clear and bracing. He alluded to his training as an engineer who always followed the facts where they led him.

However, by loyally carrying the water for his boss on the alleged Syrian chemical attack, Tillerson has also damaged his credibility, drawing comparisons to Secretary of State Colin Powell who presented President George W. Bush’s bogus case for invading Iraq to the United Nations.

Patently, in this current matter of state importance, indeed a matter that bears on war and peace, Tillerson did nothing to establish the facts. Now, he brings his tattered credibility to Moscow where he will face Russian officials who no longer believe that they can trust the Trump administration.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015




Trump’s Syria Attack Trampled Many Laws

Exclusive: As the U.S. mainstream media hails President Trump’s missile strike on Syria, there has been almost no attention to either the truth about its justification or the myriad of laws violated in its execution, writes Marjorie Cohn.

By Marjorie Cohn

With 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, each armed with over 1,000 pounds of explosives, Donald Trump went from scoundrel-in-chief to national hero, virtually overnight. The corporate media, the neoconservatives and most of Congress hailed Trump as strong and presidential for lobbing bombs into Syria, reportedly killing seven civilians and wounding nine.

“The instant elevation of Trump into a serious and respected war leader was palpable,” wrote Glenn Greenwald. This sends Trump a frightening message: bombing makes you popular.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. The use of chemical weapons is illegal, immoral and intolerable. If it was an intentional attack, it constitutes a war crime. Anyone responsible for the horrific April 4 events in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed over 80 people, including at least 20 women and 30 children, should be brought to justice. But Trump’s bombing of Syria, a sovereign nation, was illegal, under both U.S. and international law.

Trump and the prevailing U.S. national discourse rushed to judgment about who was responsible for the chemical attack – the Syrian government. An investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, was ongoing when Trump launched his missiles into Syria two days after the incident. The OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission was already “in the process of gathering and analysing information from all available sources.”

As former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter pointed out, “chemical attacks had been occurring inside Syria on a regular basis . . . with some being attributed to the Syrian government (something the Syrian government vehemently denies), and the majority being attributed to the anti-regime fighters, in particular those affiliated with Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.”

The Assad government has denied responsibility for the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, and some U.S. experts are also skeptical of the Trump administration’s supposed certainty that the Syrian military was responsible.

Philip Giraldi, former CIA officer and director of the Council for the National Interest, stated on the Scott Horton show that “military and intelligence personnel” in the Middle East, who are “intimately familiar” with the intelligence, call the allegation that Assad or Russia carried out the attack a “sham.”

Giraldi said the intelligence confirms the Russian account, “which is that they [attacking aircraft] hit a warehouse where al-Qaeda rebels were storing chemicals of their own and it basically caused an explosion that resulted in the casualties.” Moreover, Giraldi noted, “Assad had no motive for doing this.”

Journalist Robert Parry concurs: “Assad’s military had gained a decisive advantage over the rebels and he had just scored a major diplomatic victory with the Trump administration’s announcement that the U.S. was no longer seeking ‘regime change’ in Syria. The savvy Assad would know that a chemical weapon attack now would likely result in U.S. retaliation and jeopardize the gains that his military had achieved with Russian and Iranian help.”

Regardless of who is responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun chemical deaths, however, Trump’s response violated both U.S. and international law.

Trump’s Missile Attack Was Illegal

Two days after Trump’s bombing occurred, the President sent a letter to congressional leaders informing them of his attack on Syria. The War Powers Resolution, passed in the wake of the Vietnam War, requires that the President report to Congress within 60 days of initiating the use of military force.

The resolution, however, allows the President to introduce U.S. Armed Forces into hostilities or imminent hostilities in only three situations: First, after Congress has declared war, which has not happened in this case; second, in “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” which has not occurred; third, when there is “specific statutory authorization,” which there is not.

The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) authorized the President to use force only against those groups and countries that had supported the 9/11 attacks. The bombing in Syria was not authorized by any other act of Congress. Thus, Trump’s missile attack violated the War Powers Resolution. 

Regarding international law, the United Nations Charter prohibits the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” There are only two exceptions: when conducted in self-defense after an armed attack, or with the approval of the Security Council.

Syria had not attacked the United States or any other country before Trump ordered the missile strike. “The use of chemical weapons within Syria is not an armed attack on the United States,” said Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell. And the Security Council had not approved Trump’s attack. It therefore violated the Charter. In fact, under the U.N. Charter, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have a valid self-defense claim since the U.S. initiated an armed attack on Syria.

So, Trump committed an illegal act of aggression against Syria when he lobbed his missiles. According to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 3314, an “act of aggression” is the use of armed force by a state against the sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence of another state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter. As stated above, Trump’s attack constituted an unlawful use of force under the Charter.

Moreover, treaties the United States has ratified, including the Charter, are part of domestic U.S. law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. That means a violation of the Charter also violates U.S. law.

In his report to Congress, Trump wrote that he directed the attack to avert “a worsening of the region’s current humanitarian crisis.” So-called “humanitarian intervention” is not a settled norm of international law. As stated above, to be lawful, military force can only be conducted in self-defense or with the blessing of the Security Council. Neither was present in this case.

Trump’s humanitarian claim also does not pass the straight face test, in light of his Muslim Ban excluding all Syrian refugees from entry into the United States (halted by the courts, for now). Since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed. Five million people are refugees. If Trump were indeed motivated by humanitarian concerns, Trump would embrace those seeking to escape the carnage in Syria, which he has emphatically not done.

The 1980 Refugee Act grants the President authority to determine how many refugees may be admitted to the United States. The President must consider whether “the admission of certain refugees in response to the emergency refugee situation is justified by grave humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.”

When, during the presidential campaign, Trump said he wanted to ban all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., he was asked if he could then “look children aged five, eight, ten, in the face and tell them they can’t go to school here.” Without skipping a beat, Trump replied, “I can look in their faces and say, ‘You can’t come’. I’ll look them in the face.” Spoken like a true humanitarian.

Trump’s new-found humanitarian concerns, including his lament about the terrible fate of Khan Sheikhoun’s “small children and even beautiful little babies,” also stand in contrast to the horrific death toll from other U.S.-allied bombings in recent weeks. The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria killed nearly 1,000 non-combatants in March alone, “a record claim,” according to Airwars.org, a non-profit organization that monitors civilian casualties from airstrikes in the Middle East. “These reported casualty levels are comparable with some of the worst periods of Russian activity in Syria,” the group said.

The coalition forces’ use of white phosphorous, a chemical weapon that burns to the bone, has been documented in Mosul, Iraq. And the U.S. Central Command confirmed that it has used depleted uranium, arguably a war crime, against ISIS in Syria.

Encouraging Trump to Use Military Force

Trump is obsessed with being liked. So, smarting from the healthcare loss and attacked by the media, the GOP’s right-wing and Democrats, Trump turned the tables. Now that he’s become Bomber-in-Chief, Trump is liked by nearly everybody – or so it seems. And what lesson will he learn from his missile attack? That being a strong, forceful leader makes people like you. And blowing things up makes you a “strong, forceful leader.”

Members of the Trump administration are sending mixed signals about whether they seek to forcibly change the Assad regime in Syria. That would violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United States has also ratified.

During the U.N. Security Council meeting following Trump’s missile attack, the ambassador from Bolivia declared, “The United States has not only unilaterally attacked . . . [it] has become that investigator, has become the prosecutor, has become the judge, has become the jury. Whereas the investigation would have allowed us to establish in an objective manner who is responsible for the attacks, this is an extreme violation of international law.”

Trump’s missile attack also has put a dangerous strain on U.S. relations with nuclear-armed Russia, which supports the Assad regime in the conflict with various opposition groups, including Al Qaeda’s affiliate and its spinoff, Islamic State or ISIS.

Following the April 6 missile strike, Russia suspended a memorandum of understanding designed to minimize collisions between U.S. and Russian aircraft over Syrian airspace. A statement issued by Russia, Iran and Assad’s forces said, “What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well.”

With his missile attack, Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place. “Make no mistake,” Norman Solomon wrote. “With 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons at the ready in the United States and Russia, pushing to heighten tensions between the two countries is playing with thermonuclear fire.”

Where Will Trump Bomb Next?

Meanwhile, Trump is taking provocative measures against nuclear-armed North Korea, deploying an aircraft carrier and several warships to the Korean Peninsula. Trump’s show of force is a response to North Korea’s recent ballistic missile test.

The Trump administration has indicated it may use pre-emptive strikes to prevent North Korea from developing a missile that could carry a nuclear warhead to the United States. Pre-emptive strikes violate the U.N. Charter, which specifies several non-forceful measures, including diplomacy, to maintain or restore international peace and security. But diplomacy doesn’t seem to be in Trump’s toolkit.

North Korea warned of “catastrophic consequences of [the United States’] outrageous actions.” Pyongyang said, “We will take the toughest counteraction against the provocateurs in order to defend ourselves by powerful force of arms.” A foreign ministry spokesman said North Korea “is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the US.”

When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” he cited the U.S. strike on Syria as a not-so-veiled warning to North Korea: “The message that any nation can take is if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point, a response is likely to be undertaken.”

By logical extension, Trump’s missile attack on Syria makes the United States vulnerable to retaliation from other countries that see the U.S. violating international law and committing acts of aggression.

What can be done to stop the Trump administration’s illegal use of military force in Syria and its dangerous provocation of Russia and North Korea?

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink, suggests doing things that will be “positive for the Syrian people.” She advocates immediately lifting the ban on Syrian refugees, providing the U.N. with its requested $5 billion to deal with the humanitarian crisis, and demanding that the Trump administration work with Russia toward a ceasefire and a political solution.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and a member of the advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Visit her website at http://marjoriecohn.com/ and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/marjoriecohn.




Trump Should Rethink Syria Escalation

More than two dozen ex-U.S. intelligence officials urge President Trump to rethink his claims blaming the Syrian government for the chemical deaths in Idlib and to pull back from his dangerous escalation of tensions with Russia.

MEMORANDUM FOR: The President

FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)*

SUBJECT: Syria: Was It Really “A Chemical Weapons Attack”?

1 – We write to give you an unambiguous warning of the threat of armed hostilities with Russia – with the risk of escalation to nuclear war. The threat has grown after the cruise missile attack on Syria in retaliation for what you claimed was a “chemical weapons attack” on April 4 on Syrian civilians in southern Idlib Province.

2 – Our U.S. Army contacts in the area have told us this is not what happened. There was no Syrian “chemical weapons attack.” Instead, a Syrian aircraft bombed an al-Qaeda-in-Syria ammunition depot that turned out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the chemical-laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died.

3 – This is what the Russians and Syrians have been saying and – more important –what they appear to believe happened.

4 – Do we conclude that the White House has been giving our generals dictation; that they are mouthing what they have been told to say?

5 – After Putin persuaded Assad in 2013 to give up his chemical weapons, the U.S. Army destroyed 600 metric tons of Syria’s CW stockpile in just six weeks. The mandate of the U.N.’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW-UN) was to ensure that all were destroyed – like the mandate for the U.N. inspectors for Iraq regarding WMD. The U.N. inspectors’ findings on WMD were the truth. Rumsfeld and his generals lied and this seems to be happening again. The stakes are even higher now; the importance of a relationship of trust with Russia’s leaders cannot be overstated.

6 – In September 2013, after Putin persuaded Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons (giving Obama a way out of a tough dilemma), the Russian President wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he said: “My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this.”

Détente Nipped in the Bud

7 – Three-plus years later, on April 4, 2017, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev spoke of “absolute mistrust,” which he characterized as “sad for our now completely ruined relations [but] good news for terrorists.” Not only sad, in our view, but totally unnecessary – worse still, dangerous.

8 – With Moscow’s cancellation of the agreement to de-conflict flight activity over Syria, the clock has been turned back six months to the situation last September/October when 11 months of tough negotiation brought a ceasefire agreement. U.S. Air Force attacks on fixed Syrian army positions on Sept. 17, 2016, killing about 70 and wounding another 100, scuttled the fledgling ceasefire agreement approved by Obama and Putin a week before. Trust evaporated.

9 – On Sept 26, 2016, Foreign Minister Lavrov lamented: “My good friend John Kerry … is under fierce criticism from the US military machine, [which] apparently does not really listen to the Commander in Chief.” Lavrov criticized JCS Chairman Joseph Dunford for telling Congress that he opposed sharing intelligence with Russia on Syria, “after the [ceasefire] agreement, concluded on direct orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama, had stipulated that the two sides would share intelligence. … It is difficult to work with such partners. …”

10 – On Oct. 1, 2016, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova warned, “If the US launches a direct aggression against Damascus and the Syrian Army, it would cause a terrible, tectonic shift not only in the country, but in the entire region.”

11 – On Oct 6, 2016, Russian defense spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov cautioned that Russia was prepared to shoot down unidentified aircraft – including any stealth aircraft – over Syria. Konashenkov made a point of adding that Russian air defenses “will not have time to identify the origin” of the aircraft.

12 – On Oct 27, 2016, Putin publicly lamented, “My personal agreements with the President of the United States have not produced results,” and complained about “people in Washington ready to do everything possible to prevent these agreements from being implemented in practice.” Referring to Syria, Putin decried the lack of a “common front against terrorism after such lengthy negotiations, enormous effort, and difficult compromises.”

13 – Thus, the unnecessarily precarious state into which U.S.-Russian relations have now sunk – from “growing trust” to “absolute mistrust.” To be sure, many welcome the high tension, which – admittedly – is super for the arms business.

14 – We believe it of transcendent importance to prevent relations with Russia from falling into a state of complete disrepair. Secretary Tillerson’s visit to Moscow this week offers an opportunity to stanch the damage, but there is also a danger that it could increase the acrimony – particularly if Secretary Tillerson is not familiar with the brief history set down above.

15 – Surely it is time to deal with Russia on the basis of facts, not allegations based largely on dubious evidence – from “social media,” for example. While many would view this time of high tension as ruling out a summit, we suggest the opposite may be true. You might consider instructing Secretary Tillerson to begin arrangements for an early summit with President Putin.

* Background on Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a list of whose issuances can be found at https://consortiumnews.com/vips-memos/.

A handful of CIA veterans established VIPS in January 2003 after concluding that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had ordered our former colleagues to manufacture intelligence to “justify” an unnecessary war with Iraq. At the time we chose to assume that President George W. Bush was not fully aware of this.

We issued our first Memorandum for the President on the afternoon of Feb. 5, 2003, after Colin Powell’s ill-begotten speech at the United Nations. Addressing President Bush, we closed with these words:

No one has a corner on the truth; nor do we harbor illusions that our analysis is “irrefutable” or “undeniable” [adjectives Powell applied to his charges against Saddam Hussein]. But after watching Secretary Powell today, we are convinced that you would be well served if you widened the discussion … beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.

Respectfully, we offer the same advice to you, President Trump.

*  *  *

For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

Eugene D. Betit, Intelligence Analyst, DIA, Soviet FAO, (US Army, ret.)

William Binney, Technical Director, NSA; co-founder, SIGINT Automation Research Center (ret.)

Marshall Carter-Tripp, Foreign Service Officer and former Office Director in the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, (ret.)

Thomas Drake, Senior Executive Service, NSA (former)

Bogdan Dzakovic, Former Team Leader of Federal Air Marshals and Red Team, FAA Security, (ret.) (associate VIPS)

Robert Furukawa, Capt, CEC, USN-R, (ret.)

Philip Giraldi, CIA, Operations Officer (ret.)

Mike Gravel, former Adjutant, top secret control officer, Communications Intelligence Service; special agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps and former United States Senator

Matthew Hoh, former Capt., USMC, Iraq and Foreign Service Officer, Afghanistan (associate VIPS)

Larry C. Johnson, CIA & State Department (ret.)

Michael S. Kearns, Captain, USAF (Ret.); ex-Master SERE Instructor for Strategic Reconnaissance Operations (NSA/DIA) and Special Mission Units (JSOC)

John Brady Kiesling, Foreign Service Officer (ret.)

John Kiriakou, former CIA analyst and counterterrorism officer, and former senior investigator, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Linda Lewis, WMD preparedness policy analyst, USDA (ret.) (associate VIPS)

Lisa Ling, TSgt USAF (ret.) (associate VIPS)

Edward Loomis, NSA, Cryptologic Computer Scientist (ret.)

David MacMichael, National Intelligence Council (ret.)

Ray McGovern, former US Army infantry/intelligence officer & CIA analyst (ret.)

Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Near East, CIA and National Intelligence Council (ret.)

Torin Nelson, former Intelligence Officer/Interrogator, Department of the Army

Todd E. Pierce, MAJ, US Army Judge Advocate (Ret.)

Coleen Rowley, FBI Special Agent and former Minneapolis Division Legal Counsel (ret.)

Scott Ritter, former MAJ., USMC, and former UN Weapon Inspector, Iraq

Peter Van Buren, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Officer (ret.) (associate VIPS)

Kirk Wiebe, former Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA

Sarah G. Wilton, Commander, US Naval Reserve (ret), DIA (ret.)

Robert Wing, former Foreign Service Officer (associate VIPS)

Ann Wright, U.S. Army Reserve Colonel (ret) and former U.S. Diplomat




Neocons Have Trump on His Knees

Exclusive: The Democrats’ Russia-made-Hillary-lose hysteria has pushed a weakened President Trump into the arms of the neocons who now have a long list of endless-war ideas for him to implement, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

After slapping Donald Trump around for several months to make him surrender his hopes for a more cooperative relationship with Russia, the neocons and their liberal-interventionist allies are now telling the battered President what he must do next: escalate war in the Middle East and ratchet up tensions with nuclear-armed Russia.

Star neocon Robert Kagan spelled out Trump’s future assignments in a column on Sunday in The Washington Post, starting out by patting the chastened President on the head for his decision to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at an airstrip in Syria supposedly in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack blamed on the Syrian government (although no serious investigation was even conducted).

Trump earned widespread plaudits for his decisive action and his heart-on-the-sleeve humanitarianism as his voice filled with emotion citing the chemical-weapons deaths on April 4 of “small children and even beautiful little babies.” The U.S. media then helpfully played down reports from Syria that Trump’s April 6 retaliatory missile strike had killed about 15 people, including nine civilians, four of whom were children.

However, for Kagan, the missile strike was only a good start. An advocate for “regime change” in Syria and a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century which pushed for the Iraq War, Kagan praised Trump “for doing what the Obama administration refused to do,” i.e. involve the U.S. military directly in attacks on the Syrian government.

“But,” Kagan added, “Thursday’s action needs to be just the opening salvo in a broader campaign not only to protect the Syrian people from the brutality of the Bashar al-Assad regime but also to reverse the downward spiral of U.S. power and influence in the Middle East and throughout the world. A single missile strike unfortunately cannot undo the damage done by the Obama administration’s policies over the past six years.”

Kagan continued: “Trump was not wrong to blame the dire situation in Syria on President Barack Obama. The world would be a different place today if Obama had carried out his threat to attack Syria when Assad crossed the famous ‘red line’ in the summer of 2013. The bad agreement that then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry struck with Russia not only failed to get rid of Syria’s stock of chemical weapons and allowed the Assad regime to drop barrel bombs and employ widespread torture against civilian men, women and children. It also invited a full-scale Russian intervention in the fall of 2015, which saved the Assad regime from possible collapse.”

A Seasoned Propagandist

Kagan, who cut his teeth in the Reagan administration running a State Department propaganda shop on Central America, has never been particularly interested in nuance or truth, so he wouldn’t care that Obama pulled back from attacking Syria in summer 2013, in part, because his intelligence advisers told him they lacked proof that Assad was responsible for a mysterious sarin attack. (Since then, the evidence has indicated that the attack was likely a provocation by Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate with help from Turkish intelligence.)

But groupthinks die hard – and pretty much every Important Person in Official Washington just knows that Assad did carry out that sarin attack, just like they all knew that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was hiding WMDs in 2003. So, it follows in a kind of twisted logical way that they would build off the fake history regarding the 2013 Syria-sarin case and apply it to the new groupthink that Assad has carried out this latest attack, too. Serious fact-finding investigations are not needed; everyone just “knows.”

But Kagan is already looking ahead. Having pocketed Trump’s capitulation last week on Syria, Kagan has shifted his sights onto the much juicier targets of Russia and Iran.

“Russia has … greatly expanded its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean,” Kagan wrote. “Obama and Kerry spent four years panting after this partnership, but Russia has been a partner the way the mafia is when it presses in on your sporting goods business. Thanks to Obama’s policies, Russia has increasingly supplanted the United States as a major power broker in the region. Even U.S. allies such as Turkey, Egypt and Israel look increasingly to Moscow as a significant regional player.

“Obama’s policies also made possible an unprecedented expansion of Iran’s power and influence. … If you add the devastating impact of massive Syrian refugee flows on European democracies, Obama’s policies have not only allowed the deaths of almost a half-million Syrians but also have significantly weakened America’s global position and the health and coherence of the West.”

Trump’s Probation

Yes, all that was Obama’s fault for not invading Syria with a couple of hundred thousand U.S. troops because that’s what would have been required to achieve Kagan’s “regime change” goal in Syria. And there’s no reason to think that the Syrian invasion would have been any less bloody than the bloody Kagan-advocated invasion of Iraq. But Kagan and the neocons never take responsibility for their various bloodbaths. It’s always someone else’s fault.

And now Kagan is telling Trump that there is still much he must do to earn his way back into the good graces of the neocons.

Kagan continued, “Trump, of course, greatly exacerbated these problems during his campaign, with all the strong rhetoric aimed at allies. Now he has taken an important first step in repairing the damage, but this will not be the end of the story. America’s adversaries are not going to be convinced by one missile strike that the United States is back in the business of projecting power to defend its interests and the world order. …

“The testing of Trump’s resolve actually begins now. If the United States backs down in the face of these challenges, the missile strike, though a worthy action in itself, may end up reinforcing the world’s impression that the United States does not have the stomach for confrontation.”

And confrontation is surely what Kagan has in mind, adding:

“Instead of being a one-time event, the missile strike needs to be the opening move in a comprehensive political, diplomatic and military strategy to rebalance the situation in Syria in America’s favor. That means reviving some of those proposals that Obama rejected over the past four years: a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians, the grounding of the Syrian air force, and the effective arming and training of the moderate opposition, all aimed at an eventual political settlement that can bring the Syrian civil war, and therefore the Assad regime, to an end.

“The United States’ commitment to such a course will have to be clear enough to deter the Russians from attempting to disrupt it. This in turn will require moving sufficient military assets to the region so that neither Russia nor Iran will be tempted to escalate the conflict to a crisis, and to be sure that American forces will be ready if they do. …

“Let’s hope that the Trump administration is prepared for the next move. If it is, then there is a real chance of reversing the course of global retreat that Obama began. A strong U.S. response in Syria would make it clear to the likes of Putin, Xi Jinping, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Kim Jong Un that the days of American passivity are over.”

On His Knees

To put this message in the crude terms that President Trump might understand, now that the neocons have forced him to his knees, they are demanding that he open his mouth. They will not be satisfied with anything short of a massive U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and a full-scale confrontation with Russia (and perhaps China).

This sort of belligerence is what the neocons and liberal hawks had expected from Hillary Clinton, whom Kagan had endorsed. Some sources claim that a President Hillary Clinton planned to appoint Kagan’s neocon wife, Victoria Nuland, as Secretary of State.

As Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs under Obama, Nuland oversaw the U.S.-backed putsch that overthrew Ukraine’s elected President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, replacing him with a fiercely anti-Russian regime, the move that touched off civil war in Ukraine and sparked the New Cold War between the U.S. and Russia. [For more on Kagan clan, see Consortiumnews.com’s “A Family Business of Perpetual War.”]

Clinton’s defeat was a stunning setback but the neocons never give up. They are both well-organized and well-funded, dominating Official Washington’s think tanks and media outlets, sharing some power with their junior partners, the liberal interventionists, who differ mostly in the rationales cited for invading other countries. (The neocons mostly talk about global power and democracy promotion, while the liberal hawks emphasize “human rights.”)

In dealing with the narcissistic and insecure Trump, the neocons and liberal hawks conducted what amounted to a clever psychological operation. They rallied mainstream media personalities and Democrats horrified at Trump’s victory. In particular, Democrats and their angry base were looking for any reason to hold out hope for Trump’s impeachment. Hyping alleged Russian “meddling” in the election became the argument of choice.

Night after night, MSNBC and other networks competed in their Russia-bashing to boost ratings among Trump-hating Democrats. Meanwhile, Democratic politicians, such as Rep. Adam Schiff of California, saw the Russia-gate hearings as a ticket to national glory. And professional Democratic strategists could evade their responsibility for running a dismal presidential campaign by shifting the blame to the Russians.

However, besides creating a convenient excuse for Clinton’s defeat, the anti-Russian hysteria blocked Trump and his team from any move that they might try to make regarding avoidance of a costly and dangerous New Cold War. The Russia-hating frenzy reached such extremes that it paralyzed the formulation of any coherent Trump foreign policy.

Now, with the neocons regaining influence on the National Security Council via NSC adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, a protégé of neocon favorite Gen. David Petraeus, the neocon holding action against the New Détente has shifted into an offensive to expand the hot war in Syria and intensify the New Cold War with Russia. As Kagan recognized, Trump’s hasty decision to fire off missiles was a key turning point in the reassertion of neocon/liberal-hawk dominance over U.S. foreign policy.

It’s also suddenly clear how thoroughly liberal Democrats were taken for a ride on the war train by getting them to blame Russia for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. The liberals (and even many progressives) hated Trump so much that they let themselves be used in the service of neocon/liberal-hawk endless war policies. Now, it may be too late to turn the train around.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).




How Media Bias Fuels Syrian Escalation

Exclusive: The mainstream U.S. media now reports as “flat-fact” the Syrian government’s guilt in the April 4 chemical weapons incident, but the real facts are less clear and some point in the opposite direction, says Rick Sterling.

By Rick Sterling

Historian and journalist Stephen Kinzer has said, “Coverage of the Syrian war will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press.” This past week’s coverage of the April 4 chemical-weapons incident in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun will only add to that dubious legacy.

Across the mainstream U.S. news media, there was almost no skepticism shown and virtually no differences of opinion allowed. Within hours, the rush to judgment that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was guilty had solidified into a full-scale groupthink.

For instance, the PBS Newshour, which typically on Syria has offered up on-air “debates” using two guests who share the same basic hostility toward the Assad government, did the same on April 4, allowing two harsh opponents to say basically whatever they wanted.

Susannah Sirkin from the Soros-funded Physicians for Human Rights claimed, “We know that sarin has been used before by the Assad regime.” But that has NOT been confirmed by any credible organization. On the contrary, the most thorough investigations point to sarin being used by the armed opposition, NOT the Syrian government.

The other guest was Andrew Tabler from the neoconservative Israeli-associated Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His editorial from last fall makes clear what he wants: “The case for (finally) bombing Assad.” So, the viewers of the publicly funded network got one of their usual doses of “Assad must go” propaganda.

The New York Times, for its first-day lead story entitled “Worst Chemical Attack in Years in Syria; U.S. Blames Assad,” turned to national security correspondent Michael Gordon, who somehow remains a “respected” journalist despite his influential role in promoting the WMD myth that helped justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In this instance, Gordon and co-author Anne Barnard presented the case against the Syrian government pretty much as you might expect, announcing Assad’s conviction even before there was any time for even a cursory investigation.

In reference to the 2013 sarin case, they also pronounced that “American intelligence agencies concluded” the 2013 attack was carried out by the Syrian government, but that too was false. The intelligence agencies did NOT agree with the Obama administration’s politically driven claims and that forced the White House to come up with a new genre of report, called a “government assessment” rather than the traditional “intelligence estimate.”

It is astounding that Gordon and Barnard, two supposed experts on the Middle East and national security, did not know this or, perhaps less astounding, that they would let their biases intentionally mislead the public. Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity explained the significance of the Obama administration’s sleight of hand in a memorandum, “A Call for Syria – Sarin Proof”.

But progressives might say that all that is run-of-the-mill at PBS and The New York Times. So, they switched on “DemocracyNow” looking for a thoughtful alternative. Except that, “DemocracyNow” has been highly biased in its presentation on Syria. It almost solely promotes the perspective of those who support the armed opposition and/or Western intervention in Syria.

On April 5, the show’s hosts interviewed Dr. Rola Hallam, infamous for being the key player in the documentary “Saving Syria’s Children” which purports to show a napalm or chemical weapon attack in Aleppo but which has come under criticism as apparently staged. On April 6, “DemocracyNow” interviewed another “Syrian” who lives in the West and promotes Western intervention: Lina Sergie Attar.

Not to surprise anyone, but the media’s performance on CNN, MSNBC and other networks was no better. Across the U.S. mainstream media spectrum, there was virtually no diversity in opinion regarding what may or may not have happened in Khan Sheikhoun. Everyone just knew that Assad was guilty.

It also should not be too surprising that President Trump – after months of getting bashed for seeking better relations with Russia and for trying to change America’s “regime change” foreign policy – used this occasion to reposition himself as a new tough-guy “war president” to the acclaim of neocons and liberal interventionists.

A Closer Look

So what did happen in Khan Sheikhoun? The story actually may have started a couple of weeks earlier. On March 22, anti-government militants overran the government-controlled town of Khattab and kidnapped some civilians who were taken to the nearby opposition-controlled town of Khan Sheikhoun.

On March 30, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nicki Haley indicated that the removal of Assad was no longer a U.S. priority, instead the focus would be on defeating the Islamic State and other terror groups. Tillerson said Assad’s future should be settled by the Syrian people, and Haley said the Trump administration would not “focus on getting Assad out.”

Those comments brought harsh criticism from American neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, Israeli leaders and others obsessed over the past six years with “regime change” in Syria.

Then, on April 4, there were sketchy reports of children and other civilians killed by chemical poisoning in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, an area controlled by Al Qaeda-connected rebels. Assad was immediately blamed for bombing civilians with chemical weapons, but some initial accounts were contradictory. Some claimed that people smelled the gas; others claimed the gas caused immediate death like odorless sarin. All told, some 80 people reportedly died in the incident. [Photographs, videos, analyses and other sources are documented at “A Closer Look At Syria.”]

But there were problems in assessing what exactly happened at Khan Sheikhoun, including the unreliability of some sources. One video featured U.K.-born-and-raised Dr. Shajul Islam, who had his U.K. medical license suspended due to reports he was involved in the kidnapping in Syria of journalist John Cantlie, who was later freed but then taken hostage again in 2012 along with American James Foley, who was later beheaded by ISIS. Cantlie remains a hostage.

After a criminal case against Shajul Islam in the U.K. collapsed because Cantlie and other victims could not testify, Islam somehow made his way back into Syria and into Al Qaeda’s territory. After the chemical weapons incident, Islam was widely cited by Western news outlets as a key source of information.

There are also curious features in the videos, which depict a scene set in a limestone quarry with apparent caves and storage depots along with flat-bed trucks with bodies scattered on the ground. Other videos show scenes in a medical clinic, while photographs show White Helmet “rescue workers” handling bodies without gloves, which is very strange if the people had died or were dying from chemical poison.

But the on-scene reports were immediately accepted at face value by the Western media, which has long been inclined to believe any negative claims about Assad. Just as quickly, Sen. John McCain and other neoconservatives joined the chorus, recalling the old conventional wisdom about President Obama not enforcing his “red line” after the 2013 sarin case (since it remains the ill-informed groupthink in Washington that Assad ordered that sarin attack). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chimed in, too, with a renewed call for war on Syria, tweeting that it’s time for the international community to “fulfill its obligations from 2013.”

Under this cacophony of anti-Assad outrage – before any serious collection of evidence could occur – the Trump administration began endorsing the interpretation of an Assad-regime airstrike delivering poison gas. On April 5, President Trump publicly blamed the Syrian government despite the conflicting reports.

He said, “Yesterday’s chemical attack in Syria [was] against innocent people including women, small children and even beautiful little babies. Their deaths was an affront to humanity. These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated … my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”

Just a day later, on April 6, Trump ordered a “targeted military strike” on Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles attacking a Syrian air base near Homs. The base is used to support the combat against ISIS in eastern Syria and against Al Qaeda’s Nusra affiliate in Idlib province. According to reports from Syria, the missile strike killed seven or eight soldiers and some nine civilians, including four children. But the attack earned Trump plaudits from many of his harshest foreign policy critics in the political world and the mainstream media.

The Theories

But the real story behind the deaths in Khan Sheikhoun remains uncertain, with U.S. intelligence apparently still trying to unravel the mystery and with some logic pointing to the armed opposition as the perpetrators, not the Syrian government.

There are four basic theories about what happened:

-The dominant Western narrative is that the Syrian “regime” dropped illegal chemical weapons on civilians because it is simply barbaric or alternatively because it was celebrating its impunity following the Trump administration’s announcement that it was no longer seeking Assad’s ouster.

-Then, there’s the possibility of an accidental release of chemicals because an airstrike by the Syrian military hit an Al Qaeda weapons depot where chemical weapons were stored, rupturing the containers and causing the poison gas to spread over the area. The Russian Ministry of Defense says militants had a weapons production factory including chemical weapon ingredients.

-Another theory is that the deaths were part of a psychological operation in which the kidnapped civilians from Khattab and possibly others were killed or poisoned in a staged event prompted by the growing desperation of Al Qaeda and other rebel groups, especially after the late March announcement that the U.S. was no longer seeking Assad’s removal.

-There is also the possibility that an outside power, angered by the Trump administration’s announcement, assisted in the psychological operation by delivering the poison gas that was used on the town.

Despite Trump’s hasty decision to blame and punish the Assad government, U.S. intelligence analysts are reportedly still reviewing the evidence, which includes overhead surveillance of the area. However, because the President has already acted, whatever the CIA concludes – if it contradicts Trump – may remain secret for the indefinite future.

Still, there are facts, history and circumstantial reasons that would lead one to believe that it is far more likely the armed opposition is responsible than the government.

(1) The incident and publicity help the opposition and hurt the government.

Crime investigations usually begin with the question: Who has a motive? In this case, it’s strikingly clear that the armed opposition and their supporters benefited from this event. They have used the story to further demonize the Assad government and renew calls for the U.S. and “the world” to intervene.

Not only did the incident cause the Trump administration to reverse its recently announced reversal of Obama’s “Assad must go” mantra, but the deaths came as the Syrian government is making steady advances in many parts of the country. The government had no reason to use chemical weapons even if it still had any after surrendering its stockpiles of such weapons in 2014. Indeed, the government had every reason NOT to use chemical weapons, knowing very well the armed opposition’s propaganda capabilities and access to the major Western media.

It is also relevant to consider timing. In this case, the events in Khan Sheikhoun occurred the day before an important conference on Syria was to be held in Brussels. The conference titled “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” has been effectively sidetracked by news about the chemical weapons attack and the Syrian government being blamed.

(2) Extremists were likely responsible for the August 2013 chemical weapon attack in Damascus. 

Western supporters of the armed opposition were quick to blame the Syrian government for the chemical attack in Ghouta on Aug. 21, 2013. However, subsequent investigations by the most credible investigative journalists and researchers concluded the Syrian government was probably NOT responsible. Seymour Hersh and Robert Parry concluded the attack was most likely carried out by militants with support from Turkish intelligence.

The in-depth examination titled WhoGhouta concluded The only plausible scenario that fits the evidence is an attack by opposition forces.” An MIT study made a detailed trajectory analysis and concluded that the sarin-carrying missile could not have been fired from government territory. The study challenged the unsubstantiated claims made in the U.S. “government assessment” white paper, which almost led President Obama to launch a military strike against Syrian government forces. “Faulty intelligence could have led to an unjustified US military action,” the MIT study said.

(3) Armed opposition groups have a history of staging incidents

From the start, the Syrian conflict has included an information war. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boasted of “training for more than a thousand activists, students and independent journalists,” a program that amounted to an invitation for the armed opposition to sell its case to the West via propaganda on social media, including heartrending tales focused on suffering children and heroic stories of selfless “moderate” rebels and the even more selfless White Helmets “rescue workers.”

In December 2012, NBC journalist Richard Engel was reportedly kidnapped and abused by “shabiha” supporters of the Syrian government. Engel and his film crew were “liberated” by Free Syrian Army rebels after a gunfight with the supposedly pro-Assad kidnappers. In reality, the entire episode from kidnapping to rescue was a hoax designed to demonize Assad’s supporters and glorify the “rebels.” The true story emerged years later after the actual events were leaked. When it was going to be made public, Engel finally admitted the truth.

The world also now knows that the real kidnappers of Western journalists have been the jihadist rebels, who have decapitated hostages including Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

(4) Supporters of the armed opposition have a history of fabricating stories to demonize the Syrian government.

In February 2014, it was announced that a defecting Syrian military photographer, who was anonymous but code-named “Caesar,” had 55,000 photos documenting the torture and murder of 11,000 innocent Syrian civilians. This news received sensational media attention with live interviews on CNN and front-page coverage throughout the Western world. The news relied on the judgment of legal prosecutors who “verified” the story and produced a “Caesar Report,” released the day before the start of Geneva peace negotiations. It effectively disrupted the talks and facilitated the “rebels” refusal to negotiate and walk away.

In reality, the “verification” and report was commissioned by the government of Qatar, which has been a major funder of the armed opposition. Since then it has been discovered that nearly half the 55,000 photos show the opposite of what was claimed: they show dead Syrian soldiers and victims of explosions NOT tortured civilians, just one of the findings of fraud in this sensational story. [A concise expose of “Caesar” is here.]

Lost in Propaganda

Between the reality that wars are always brutish affairs and the introduction of sophisticated propaganda that has exaggerated and fabricated abuses by the Syrian government, the West’s understanding of what’s been happening in Syria is understandably confused.

There is also the behind-the-scenes role of Israel and the U.S. neoconservatives who have had Syrian “regime change” on their wish list for decades – and more recently have indicated that they would even prefer a victory by Al Qaeda or the Islamic State to continuation of Assad’s rule because of his close ties to Iran.

As former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said, “we always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to those who were backed by Iran.”

In 2010, before the conflict began, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear to Damascus that the U.S. wanted Syria to accede to key Israeli demands: end its alliance with Hezbollah, reduce its interactions with Iran, and come to an agreement with Israel. When Syria rebuffed those demands, the “regime change” war began in 2011.

However, with the Russian intervention in support of the Syrian government in 2015 and the army’s recent liberation of eastern Aleppo, forcing the Al Qaeda-led rebels to relocate to northern Idlib Province, the prospects for the Israeli/neocon agenda looked bleak. Even worse, Donald Trump’s election seemed to presage a more practical approach toward resolving the Syrian conflict with Assad’s status left for future Syrian elections to decide.

That possibility became a stark reality at the end of March with the statements by Tillerson and Haley. But then – at this desperate moment for the long and bloody “regime change” struggle – came the remarkable “good fortune” of an apparent chemical weapons attack in the remote town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Now that Trump has again reversed his policy on Syria by launching a missile attack without waiting for a serious investigation or the emergence of hard evidence, he is getting congratulated by Congress and the media. Given Trump’s well-known hunger for approval, the danger of a head-on clash with nuclear-armed Russia – beginning but not ending in Syria – has suddenly and dramatically increased.

The wind is back in the sails of the armed opposition and their many foreign allies.

Rick Sterling is an investigative journalist. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be contacted at rsterling1@gmail.com




The Scary Temptation of War in Syria

The incoherence of President Trump’s foreign policy – and his reliance on “the shows” to get his military advice – have made Syria a dangerous temptation, explains ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

After the Soviet Union launched a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, President Jimmy Carter remarked to a television interviewer that this event had “made a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”

Carter took much criticism for this comment, with charges that he was revealing naiveté and should have known all along about the nature of the regime he was confronting. But at least the Soviet military intervention was a very large data point — a major departure in Soviet policy that was far different in scale from the use of a particular weapon in one encounter during an ongoing war.

Moreover, Carter did not respond to the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan with a U.S. military intervention there but instead with measures short of military intervention such as a grain embargo, boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, and what would become the provision of materiel to Afghan rebels. Carter’s main mistake was to interpret the objective of the Soviet intervention as part of a larger drive to seize parts of Asia with a warm-water shoreline rather than, as was actually the case, the more limited goal of shoring up a beleaguered Communist client regime in Kabul.

Now there has been a surge of cries to “do something” in response to a reported chemical weapons attack in Syria, which the Trump administration has answered with a cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is talking about regime change in Syria just a week after he had appeared to rule out such change as an objective.

We have heard this sort of belligerent uproar after previous battlefield developments in the Syrian war that have elicited outrage. There was an earlier reported use of chemical weapons, and several months ago there was a similar popular reaction to the situation in Aleppo in the final days before the regime recaptured the remainder of that city. These reactions are essentially expressions of mass emotion rather than a reflection of any careful consideration about what actions would or would not be in U.S. interests.

Trump’s Inconsistencies

In this situation, President Trump is by no means a bulwark against the United States taking action damaging to its interests, even though as a candidate he publicly urged President Obama to stay out of the war against Assad. As we know, consistency is not a strong suit of Trump. The fact that Obama did stay out, pretty much, of that war has not led Trump to hesitate in blaming Obama for the situation in Syria, just as he blames Obama for most everything else that people don’t like.

Trump is less likely than Obama to resist the pressure to wade even more deeply into the Syrian civil war against Assad, even going beyond the cruise missile strike, because of several characteristics of Trump’s operating style. One is how he educates himself from “the shows” and believes he gets all the information he needs from cable TV.

His perceptions of the Syrian regime and his “understanding” of it thus really are likely to be shaped, and his policies on Syria moved, as some of Trump’s own comments this week suggest, by what he has seen on television and especially the graphic part of it — including pictures of dead children, as U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley was displaying at the United Nations.

Second is Trump’s focus on immediate popular approval at the expense of longer-term consequences. In other words, it is a continuation of campaign mode rather than governing mode.

Third is the apparent disconnect in Trump’s thinking of military operations from the pursuit of well-formulated strategic objectives. Clausewitzian principles are foreign to him in every respect. This disconnect underlies his giving of an unusually free hand to the Pentagon in formulating and initiating operations. This method of decision-making will tend to focus on what can be defined as military objectives with insufficient attention to exactly how achievement of those objectives would or would not advance U.S. national interests.

Perhaps National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is beginning to impose some more orderly thinking on national security decisions, but giving the military a free hand has the attraction to Trump of being able to shift blame to the military when things go badly (as he already did with a raid in Yemen).

Reasons for Doubt

The significant probability that Trump is immersing the United States into a larger and damaging intervention in the Syrian civil war is especially regrettable when bearing in mind the following.

First, the incident with the chemical weapon — even if we accept the judgment that the regime was fully responsible — doesn’t tell us anything new about the regime. Responding to this incident is thus more a matter of emotion and response to popular clamor rather than of well-conceived policymaking use of a significant new data point. The Assad regime has employed many loathsome tactics in this war, and they have not needed chemical agents to do so. Even if a U.S. military attack had some deterrent value regarding future use of chemicals, the regime can and would just use its other means that have resulted in many civilian casualties — some of which, such as the use of ground-based artillery, do not even require air operations.

Second, the make-up of whatever regime rules in Damascus is not an important U.S. interest, and certainly not important enough to warrant the costs and risks of immersion in someone else’s civil war. The Assads have been in power in Syria since 1970; why is regime change supposedly an objective now?

Third, it is not within U.S. power, even using more extensive military force, to change that regime. The regime itself has its own existence to fight for, and it is aided by Russia, Iran and non-state allies. The assertion that Russia’s intervention went more smoothly and was more effective than predicted, and that the United States could do, or could have done, the same is a fallacy. The asymmetries are huge.

Russia’s intervention was a tipping of the scale in favor of what was already the dominant force in the fight, which was the incumbent regime. Any effort by an outsider to intervene on the other side would depend on what always has been the weak reed of a disorganized (and extremist-laden) opposition. And surely we have learned by now the lesson that knocking off a loathsome ruler is only the beginning of what can be a very long and costly effort to establish and prop up some alternative.

Fourth, direct U.S. military intervention in this war carries a significant risk of escalation into a much wider war, especially when facing the large military requirements of establishing something like the much-talked-about safe zones. The risk of even more widespread warfare also would come through direct engagement, intentional or unintentional, of Russian or Iranian forces.

Throughout the Cold War, the superpowers were careful to avoid any such direct engagement with each other, however much they sponsored and equipped armed proxies. That was part of why Carter did not get into a direct military fight in Afghanistan. It would be most unwise to throw away such caution where the Russians are involved today.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 




Trump Plunges Toward World War III

Months of Democratic Russia-bashing and Trump-baiting achieved their predictable result as the thin-skinned and rash President is now proving his “toughness” by firing off missiles and risking World War III, warns Norman Solomon.

By Norman Solomon

Vast efforts to portray Donald Trump as Vladimir Putin’s flunky have given Trump huge incentives to prove otherwise. Last Thursday, he began the process in a big way by ordering a missile attack on Russia’s close ally Syria. In the aftermath of the attack, the cheerleading from U.S. mass media was close to unanimous, and the assault won lots of praise on Capitol Hill. Finally, the protracted and fervent depictions of Trump as a Kremlin tool were getting some tangible results.

At this point, the anti-Russia bandwagon has gained so much momentum that a national frenzy is boosting the odds of unfathomable catastrophe. The world’s two nuclear superpowers are in confrontation mode. It’s urgent to tell ourselves and each other: Wake up!

The dangers of a direct U.S.-Russian military conflict are spiking upward. After the missile attack, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that it was suspending a memorandum of understanding with the United States to prevent mid-air collisions over Syria. And Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, issued a statement referring to “our now completely ruined relations” and declaring that the United States was “on the verge of a military clash with Russia.”

These ominous developments are a longtime dream come true for ultra-hawks like Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who’ve gained leverage in an alliance with numerous congressional Democrats. The neocons and the “liberal interventionists” really have something going now, after propagating the meme that Trump is a Putin puppet.

At this perilous moment in human history, the quality of the Democratic Party leadership was embodied in a tweet last month from the Democratic National Committee’s new chair, Tom Perez, who sent out this message about a weekly address by President Trump: “Translated from the original Russian and everything.”

Such tactics aren’t just McCarthyite. They are baiting, goading and pressurizing Trump to prove that he’s willing to clash with Russia after all. Those tactics are a far cry from what’s actually needed — truly independent investigations — in order to address the charges that Russia interfered with the U.S. election last year. We most definitely do not need the kind of baiting and goading that creates enormous pressure on Trump to show he’s willing and able to go to the brink of war with Russia.

Risking Thermonuclear War

Make no mistake. With 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons at the ready in the United States and Russia, pushing to heighten tensions between the two countries is playing with thermonuclear fire.

Early this year, citing the escalation of those tensions, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its “Doomsday Clock” even closer to midnight. “In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent,” the Bulletin declared. “It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way. “

People at the grassroots must lead, pushing and pulling the official leaders to follow. To stop the current war train — and to quite possibly rescue the fate of the earth — we must get a grip. If we depend on the “leadership” in Congress, all that we hold dear will drift into still-greater jeopardy. With Congress now in recess, most legislators are back home — and they should hear from us. Pick up the phone, make an appointment to visit their district offices, or show up without an appointment.

Right now, in one minute, you can send an email to your senators and representative. …

Detente between the United States and Russia will be necessary for bringing peace to Syria. The same goes for reducing — instead of increasing — the chances that nuclear weapons will destroy us all. What passes for leadership on these matters in Congress will not save us. On the contrary, right now the congressional leaders are serving as enablers for what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the madness of militarism.”

Even the better statements from Capitol Hill about the April 6 missile attack have been grimly inadequate. So, Senator Chris Murphy warned of “the potential quagmire of Syria,” while Senator Bernie Sanders said: “I’m deeply concerned that these strikes could lead to the United States once again being dragged back into the quagmire of long-term military engagement in the Middle East.”

Expressing concern about a “quagmire” is all well and good, but falls far short of acknowledging what’s at stake.

On Sunday, the Washington Post published a sobering — and frightening — article by the person who was the national security adviser for Joe Biden during his last two years as vice president. “If the Trump administration and the Kremlin are not able to come to a meeting of the minds on Syria,” wrote Colin Kahl, “it could set the two nuclear powers on a dangerous collision course.”

Kahl, now an associate professor in security studies at Georgetown University, sketched out a plausible scenario: “The Syrian dictator (perhaps prodded by Russia or Iran) may attempt to test Trump again, hoping to prove the president is a ‘paper tiger.’ And Trump, having invested his personal credibility in standing firm, may find himself psychologically or politically compelled to respond, despite the very real risks that it could result in a direct military clash with Russia.”

And, Kahl added, “Given Russia’s vital interests in Syria, Moscow is not likely to respond positively to U.S. ultimatums and maximalist positions. If the administration does not find a way to give the Kremlin a face-saving way out, conflict is much more likely than accommodation.”

Kahl’s article concluded: “Sinking into a Syrian quagmire would be bad enough. World War III would be far worse.”

Norman Solomon is the coordinator of the online activist group RootsAction.org and the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He is the author of a dozen books including War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.




Bill Maher’s Muddled Attacks on Islam

As an edgy comedian, Bill Maher prides himself on his “politically incorrect” religion-bashing, but his excessive attacks on Islam more aptly reflect a “politically correct” bigotry, as JP Sottile explains.

By JP Sottile

Bill Maher thinks he knows exactly why they hate us. In the world according to Bill, all those agitated Muslims on the receiving end of multiple interventions, numerous “double-tap” drone strikes, countless tons of falling bombs, the systematic imprisonment of “rendered” individuals and the widespread use of lawless torture are, simply put, the outgrowth of a backwards belief system. And those beliefs also inspire a type of religious violence that’s become a destructive force unparalleled in today’s world.

The “today” part is important to Maher because he doesn’t like the “false equivalence” of historical context. Instead, he’s decidedly on the side of “that was then, this is now.” So, forget Christian Crusaders, Spanish Inquisitors, Philistine-purging Israelites or, one would assume, any of human history’s numerous examples of holy war-making.

Also not equivalent are recent mass murders of Sikhs in Wisconsin and of Muslims in Quebec. And don’t bother bringing up the growing list of identity-based violence against Muslims or, perhaps most tellingly, of mistaken identity-based violence against those who are ignorantly thought to be Muslims, but aren’t.

Somehow, America’s long, demonstrable history of putting ethnic cleanliness next to its own obsessive Godliness doesn’t quite cut it either, burning crosses and Native American genocide notwithstanding. No, history doesn’t reverberate in the Islamophobic echo chamber … unless, of course, we’re talking about the “warlike” history of long-since faded Islamic empires. Then all’s fair in this one-sided front on the anti-religious war being waged by the so-called “New Atheists.”

The New Atheism

Maher and his confrontational cohorts — like famed geneticist Richard Dawkins and anti-Muslim gadfly Sam Harris — have targeted Islam as something far more pernicious than just another fantasy-based religion with the usual roster of fundamentalists, self-appointed prophets and violent opportunists.

For them, Islam is sui generis. Islam is, according to their unique atheist orthodoxy, both violent and repressive in ways that make it wholly unique. Islam is not just an intellectual error, but a dangerous cultural cancer.

Essentially, these New Atheists have simplified a question almost as old as the “War on Terror” it so inadequately tries to explain. For them, the answer is clear. They hate us because Islam is the enemy of the “liberal” values and, by extension, of the entire civilized world.

Perhaps that’s why Maher doesn’t think jihadi terrorist groups or random incidents of jihadi-inspired violence are better explained as the irrational acts of individual insanity or as the predictable blowback from 75 years of American meddling the Middle East. That is, of course, if you consider “meddling” an adequate description of America’s history of profitable relationships with brutal dictators.

Maher’s “they-hate-our-liberal values” explanation is certainly an inadequate characterization of 25 years of continuous bombing in the region … and of CENTCOM’s random application of kinetic force in numerous Muslim countries over the same period. “Meddling” also falls short of describing the multi-year drone war on “suspected militants” and, all-too-often, on innocent civilians.

On the other hand, “meddling with benefits” might best describe the post-colonial period in a poorly-partitioned region where receding Western powers exploited the maps they’d drawn to great effect. The divided nations they created were fairly easy for corporate neo-colonialists to conquer or control — whether they sought oil, or sold weapons to those who had the oil, but needed protection … sometimes from their “own people.” And then there’s Uncle Sam’s meddling (a.k.a. complicity) in the never-ending displacement of the Palestinian people.

But those niggling details tend to cloud the clear-as-day view of Islam that Maher shares with those who see it as an enemy of civilization. That’s certainly the view of die-hard evangelicals like Franklin Graham, of defense industry shills at the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, and of the assorted denizens of the increasingly profitable Islamophobia industry.

In effect, Maher and the New Atheists have joined a legion of doomsayers led by the indefatigable Pamela Geller, the paranoia-stricken Frank Gaffney, Steve Bannon’s profit-seeking Breitbart and Trump’s momentary National Security Advisor Lt. General Michael Flynn.

Packaged for Liberals

To be fair, Maher doesn’t employ the same type of paranoid histrionics that both buoys and enriches those right-wing poseurs and the other troubling Islamophobes who’ve found a home in Trump’s White House. Rather, Maher makes a “liberal” argument about the need to stand up for “progressive” values like equality for women, free speech and freedom of religious conscience. He rightly points to countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan as places where a basic level of human rights is not available to women, to religious minorities, to homosexuals or to anyone not willing to conform to fundamentalist orthodoxy.

Ironically, and perhaps not coincidentally, some of the places where progressive values are least likely to be embraced are the same countries America has mostly closely supported — Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also not coincidentally, the places where America has exerted the most influence are also the places that produce many of the violent individuals and groups through which Maher judges the planet’s Muslims.

Unsurprisingly, Maher and the New Atheists are loathe to concede the notable shades of gray around the Islamic world — from the women serving in parliament and working as professionals in Iran to the quite different Muslim experiences found in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Balkans. Nor do they mention the fact that Muslim-majority nations have had more women reach the top political spot (eleven) than the United States (zero). It doesn’t quite fit into their zero-sum game.

Punchy Lines

Still, if Maher was making the point that the United States is too often a handmaiden to … or crass beneficiary of … repression in regimes that hold some economic and/or strategic value to the defense industry and/or the oil industry, he’d likely garner support from many of the progressives he often scolds. But he doesn’t.

Instead he and his fellow finger-pointers rail against the Quran as the “motherlode of bad ideas.” Maher says Islam is “the only religion that acts like the Mafia” and even assured Muslim-American Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, that the Quran is a hate-filled holy book.”

Maher’s presentation is a “schlock and awe” shtick that burnishes his credentials as a self-appointed bullshit detector. It preserves his long-standing brand as an anti-PC crusader and, like so many great comedians before him, as someone willing to “go there” even if it makes people uncomfortable.

Perhaps that’s why Maher’s accused his fellow liberals of giving Islam a “free pass” when it comes to their “repressive” culture. And why he’s reprimanded anyone who disagrees with his assertion that Islam is both a particularly violent and a peculiarly “backward” religion that is totally incompatible with the modern world (whatever that is).

He’s made a point of criticizing the “cultural relativism” that compares Islamic-based violence with violence linked to other religions — particularly violence linked to Christianity. As Maher infamously told Charlie Rose back in 2014, to “claim that this religion is like other religions is just naive and plain wrong.”

This politically incorrect posture has made fans of die-hard Christian commentators. But this is also where his punchy argument — and his disdain for context — betrays him. Why? Because it fails to account for the cruel crimes against humanity currently being driven by hard-line, radical Buddhists in Myanmar. Yes, it’s true … Buddhists have fomented a widespread program of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority which is, oddly enough, a Muslim minority.

Hindus Too?

Maher’s posture ignores the rise of Hindu extremism in India, where the problem of religious violence and persecution is growing under the Hindu nationalist  Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Vice reported that religious minorities in India “averaged one attack per day” in 2015. Muslims in particular have experienced an increase of random violence since Modi came to power. And last year, attacks on the Christian minority grew three-fold with a church “burnt down or a cleric beaten on average 10 times a week,” according  to a report by Open Doors UK & Ireland.

It is also true that the radical settler movement in Israel has its own hyper-fundamentalists who believe divine right has given them carte blanche to purge the Holy Land of both Muslims and Christians. In 2016, radicalized settlers produced “an average of 2 incidents of settler violence per week,” according to a United Nations report. Yes, we know about Hamas’ radical Islamic violence.

But human rights organization B’Tselem  is monitoring the persistent problem of Jewish violence because there is such a thing as “radical Judiasm.” And Israel’s “Ultra-Orthodox” fundamentalists have a familiar, anti-liberal problem with women worshipping next to men, riding the bus with men and with a belief in the “unclean” nature of the feminine.

Let’s be honest … it’s a fundamentalist tendency shared among the three Abrahamic cousins. Even now America’s Vice President Mike Pence believes married men shouldn’t risk cavorting with other women, may believe it’s possible to “pray the Gay away,” absolutely believes gay marriage is tantamount to “societal collapse” and is the standard bearer for a well-established Evangelical political movement that “inspired” violence against abortion providers. And, as noted earlier, there are those troubling, religiously-inspired burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan.

Do these religiously-sourced incidents, some of which are part of long, identifiable patterns, mean that the religions themselves are inherently pernicious? Is it possible that Maher, like the politically correct liberals he scorns, is handing out free passes to these non-Muslim religions? Or is it that religions are — like most belief or political systems — potentially useful tools to those seeking righteous justification or an organizing rationale for their rage and anger?

As a guest on Maher’s HBO show recently said regarding the “lone wolf” attack outside the Houses of Parliament in London, “it has nothing to do with Islam the same way Timothy McVeigh had nothing to do with Roman Catholicism.”

But Maher wasn’t having it. And when he was then presented with the fact that Irish Catholic separatists engaged in a deadly campaign of bombings and terrorism against those they perceived as their Protestant oppressors, again Maher bristled. He said that was “the past” (like the Inquisition, the Crusades and, apparently, those uniquely American burning crosses).

And he punctuated his point by dropping this headline-grabbing punch-line: “Every time some bomb goes off, before it goes off, somebody yells ‘Allahu Akbar!’ I never hear anybody go ‘Merry Christmas! This one’s for the flying nun!’”

It got a nice chuckle from the crowd. But history usually gets the last laugh.

History Matters

First of all, not only did the IRA and IRA “elements” repeatedly attack Christmas shoppers in London in the week before the holiday, but one such attack outside Harrod’s on Dec. 17, 1983, killed five shoppers and wounded 91 others. That bombing led to annual fears of a “Christmas Bombing” campaign all the way into the 1990s.

No, the proudly Catholic authors of that attack did not say “Merry Christmas,” but their intention was clear. The bombings were not in spite of the most important religious holiday for Christians, but because of the added impact that holiday had in creating a feeling of terror among the intended target. The timing of the bombing was itself a terrifying message.

Secondly and, perhaps more pertinently, the United States used the Christmas holiday as a backdrop for one of the most brutal bombing campaigns of the post-World War II era. Officially it was called “Linebacker II,” but ever since it began on Dec. 18, 1972, the round-the-clock bombardment of Hanoi, Haiphong and the surrounding environs has been known as the “Christmas Bombing.” It was ordered by President Nixon as a punitive measure meant to terrorize the Vietnamese people and, therefore, designed to apply pressure on the Communist government to (ironically) sign a peace agreement in Paris.

Although there was a pause on Christmas Day, this momentary “gift” was cold comfort to the 1,600 people who died in that campaign. Hanoi was laid waste as America’s fleet B-52s flew a total of 741 sorties and  “dropped at least 20,000 tonnes” of bombs, according to a 40th anniversary report on the bombing by the BBC. Another report put the total at 40,000 tons. A Vietnamese source says the total — and the lingering toll on the Vietnamese people — was much higher still.

LobeLog’s David Bacon wrote a retrospective look at the psychological impact of the B-52 as an instrument of de facto terrorism. He dug up a newspaper report on a delegation visiting in the wake of the Christmas Bombing. It was led by Nuremburg jurist Telford Taylor. It also included Joan Baez and Yale University Divinity School Associate Dean Michael Allen, who said, “The most horrible scene that I’ve ever seen in my life was when we visited the residential area of Khan Thieu, and as far as I could see, everything was destroyed.”

Like the IRA, Nixon didn’t shout “Merry Christmas” when he delivered his explosive message. Then again, he didn’t really have to. As noted journalist and columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in the New York Times, “To send B-52s against populous areas such as Haiphong or Hanoi could have only one purpose: terror.” And Lewis wasn’t alone in his assessment that Nixon’s purpose was, in fact, terrorism.

Newspapers around the United States and the world condemned the bombing and the word “terror” was used by The Washington Post (“Terror Bombing in the Name of Peace,” Dec. 28), the New York Times (“Terror From the Skies,” Dec. 26), Joseph Kraft (“senseless terror”) and Dan Rather (“large scale terror bombing”). The Christmas bombing message was clear to all.

God-Fearing ‘Freedom’

But that simple symmetry is not the end of the story. That’s because the underlying propaganda of that the war — like all of America’s Cold War interventions, proxy battles and ad hoc bombings — was something Americans have (perhaps unsurprisingly, perhaps conveniently) forgotten. The plain fact is that Vietnam and the entire post-World War II period was sold as a struggle against “Godless Communism.” That may sound like a quirky anachronism today, but rest assured that the “Godlessness” of Commies, Pinkos and interloping Socialists was not only a core foundation of Cold War propaganda, but it also fed the monster of paranoia that helped create McCarthyism.

Indeed, at the same time Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wisconsin, was railing against Commies in 1954, Congress was moving to add “One Nation Under God” to the pledge of allegiance. As the New York Times recalled in a 2002 article on a challenge to the constitutionality of that addition:

“The change was made to draw attention to the difference between the system of government in this country and ‘godless Communism.’ … Introducing his resolution in the Senate, Senator Homer Ferguson, Republican of Michigan, declared, ‘I believe this modification of the pledge is important because it highlights one of the real fundamental differences between the free world and the Communist world, namely belief in God.’ No one in the Senate or the House spoke in opposition.”

In fact, the vocal merger of American Christianity with Cold War anti-Communism has been cited as a spur for the 16 percent rise in church membership between 1940 and 1970. In a 2003 review of a well-received book of the topic, Dr. Merrilyn Thomas of University College London noted that it should be “self-evident” that “religion played a significant role in the Cold War … given the powerful influence of Christianity on the lives of millions of people on both sides of the Iron Curtain.”

It may not be “self-evident” now because it is simply taken for granted. We’ve inherited that era’s holy warriorism and pushed it deep into our collective subconsciously through our gaping memory hole. It’s a subtext that came to the fore when the 9/11 “changed everything.” But, then again … it really changed nothing.

Lessons Unlearnt

Perhaps the saddest fact to emerge from the bloodiest episode in America’s war on Godless Communism is that Ho Chi Minh didn’t really have to be America’s enemy. He actually thought America — with its own revolutionary past — might be an ally in his drive to liberate Vietnam from French colonial rule. It made sense since he’d worked with the OSS to battle the Japanese in World War II. But that nascent alliance became impossible as an almost religious form of zealous anti-Communism consumed Truman’s presidency, the foreign policy establishment and, by the mid-1950s, most of America’s institutions.

Instead of seeing Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist first and a Communist second, America policymakers missed an important fact. His main goal was to liberate his nation from foreign occupation. But the foreign policy establishment viewed Vietnam and the entire world through a Manichean lens. It was the Free World versus Communism. It was good versus evil. It was a civilizational battle between the God-fearing and the God-less. And this simplistic template made it impossible to see that Communism was often as much a means to an end as it was an end unto itself.

That’s one lesson Cornell University professor and historian Frederik Logevall took from writing his 2012 book Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.

As Logevall  said in an interview referenced by the New York Times, Ho “saw communism as the best path of development for his country, but it was always his country.” And it was the liberation of “his country” that mattered most. Even the New York Times noted in its Sept. 4, 1969 obituary that Ho was a “remarkable” statesman who “pursued his goal of Vietnamese independence” by successfully “blending Communism with nationalism.”

And that’s the unlearned lesson of the entire Cold War period. Wherever we look back and see Communist, Socialist and other radicalized insurgencies, we usually see a larger historical process of decolonization. The years after World War II are filled with examples of former colonies fighting against the re-imposition of empire after the end of World War II. Or we see the revolt of newly-liberated peoples against the post-colonial proxies, kleptocrats and petty dictatorships that essentially stood between the people and their right of true self-determination and/or economic power.

To be sure, there were also many instances of dyed-in-the-wool Reds who were true believers. Places like Cuba, China and the Soviet Union were secure enough on their own to turn inward and, ironically, transform the communist project into a statist-style religion with personality cults that smack of religion. We see it now today in North Korea. But it is undeniable that Communism was also an effective organizing and recruitment tool that gave adherents a strong sense of group cohesion and ideological discipline that made them both effective fighters and committed believers.

Moreover, Communism was itself often criticized as a pseudo-religious paradigm that crystallized the terms of the fight into divided the world into the oppressors and the oppressed (a.k.a. infidels and believers). This mirrored the way America divided the world into the God-loving free world and the “Evil” empire of Godless Communism. In many ways, Communism became the logical “belief system” for those organizing resistance to the real or perceived American imperialism of the post-war period. It’s almost an irrefutable matter of political physics that the forceful imposition of the American Century would elicit an equal and opposite reaction. These reactions are as predictable as gravity.

Belief System Breakdown

Sadly, the coming of the War on Terror revealed exactly how little America learned from the bloodletting of Vietnam. Osama bin Laden began his Holy War as a project to eject “infidels” from Saudi Arabia — the holiest of Islam’s lands and his home nation. The infidels were American troops and they were there because they were “meddling” in Iraq — a place where America’s one-time client had become its foe. But America’s oil-thirsty neo-colonial protection racket put it right in the crosshairs of bin Laden and many others who resented America’s presence. Ironically, that resentment had its roots in yet another resistance movement — the CIA-generated plot to expel another set of invaders from a Muslim land.

That’s right … like Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong and countless other ideological leaders of the Twentieth Century … the CIA realized the power of a coherent belief system to create exactly the type group cohesion and hard-won discipline necessary to fight an asymmetrical war against a superior invader. That’s what Saudi Wahhabism and Salafism offered the adherents who flocked to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the CIA took note of the power of Shiite fundamentalism to organize resistance when their hand-picked, highly-Westernized leader in Iran was quickly toppled by a religious coup that was as much an anti-colonial fight as it was anything else. It’s a lesson as Russia learned in neighboring Afghanistan when they were ejected by comparatively lightly-armed foe reinforced by their hardcore beliefs.

It’s strangely fitting that the Muslim faith of the Mujahedeen helped to bring down the “Evil Empire” of Godless Communism. Unfortunately, their American benefactors filled that vacuum with their own ambitions for a unipolar world and, in the process, left Afghanistan with little more than rubble to show for their help.

With America now unopposed on the world stage, it began a renewed era of “meddling” around the Muslim world that led to the arrival troops in Saudi Arabia (1990), the basing of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain (1995), the establishment of Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti (2002) and a vast array of smaller deployments around the globe. This compounded the damage from U.S. indifference to Palestinian aspirations for self-determination and from a decade of sanctions and bombing in Iraq that reportedly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children.

Albright’s Endorsement

Whether that story is a fact or a myth, all that really matters is that the story was widely known. In 1996, it was bitterly reinforced by then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright when she infamously told Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes that the Iraq’s sanction-related deaths were “worth it.”

Why? Because America’s former client — Saddam Hussein — needed to be punished. This is the same Saddam Hussein the United States armed in the 1980s to fight Iran. That’s the same Iran the United States was simultaneously — and quite illegally — arming to fight Saddam. And this, like so many other details, may be inexorably stuffed somewhere in America’s bottomless memory hole.

But, like a long litany of interventions, drone-delivered executions and troubling crimes committed since 9/11 (yes, torture and extralegal imprisonment are crimes), it’s a fact widely known around the Muslim world. Don’t doubt for a minute that Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and the ever-present menace of hovering drones are foremost in the hearts and minds of many Muslims.

Given that fact, it is any real surprise that the Muslim world sees the United States and its allies as enemies? Is it really because — as the New Atheists and Right-wing Islamophobes believe (note that is, in fact, a belief) — the Muslim faith is uniquely ill-equipped to be part of their “civilized” world? Or is it that Islam is just the latest example of an ideology or religion being used to organize, to inspire and to marshal angry, displaced and/or aspirational human beings in a fight against a superior foe?

If history is our guide, radical jihadism looks like an opportune way to organize resistance to what many Muslims see as an American Century of violent “meddling” and political imposition through brutal proxies and neo-colonial adventurism. It is blowback. The New Atheists — and befuddled Americans — should look no further than the most recent slaughters of civilians in Yemen and Mosul for the replenishment of the already manifold reasons why they hate us.

And as for the often-cited the rejection of Western “liberal” values? Like the rejection of “decadent Capitalism” by fundamentalist Communism during the Cold War, it makes sense that Islamic fundamentalism would target anything that smacks of the Western world. And like other ideologies of resistance and revolution, it directs people’s anger toward the accouterments and symbols of the dominant power in their lives — whether directly imposed or imposed through proxies.

If that’s what radical Muslim jihadism is … then it is infinitely more comprehensible than Bill Maher, the New Atheists and Right-wing Islamophobes are willing to accept or admit. Maybe Islam isn’t a puzzling cancer that has to be excised. Maybe jihadism is a means, not an end. And maybe the brutal insanity of the Islamic State is more an echo of the excesses of the Khmer Rouge, Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Robespierre’s Reign of Terror than it is a logical conclusion of the Islamic faith. And maybe … just maybe … the radicalism around Muslim world can be seen in a larger context of history. That means acknowledging the extent to which America and its repressive proxies have set the terms of the debate around the Muslim world for the better part of a century.

Ultimately, it’s most important to recognize that Maher is, at best, misguided when he says there aren’t “Christian terrorist armies like ISIS.” As far as many Muslims on the receiving end of officially-sanctioned violence from the U.S. military, that’s probably a distinction without much of a difference. And if there’s any doubt about America’s own lingering fundamentalism, take note that few things would be more futile today than trying to get Congress to scrub that Cold War-era religious test from the Pledge of Allegiance.

JP Sottile is a freelance journalist, radio co-host, documentary filmmaker and former broadcast news producer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at Newsvandal.com or you can follow him on Twitter, http://twitter/newsvandal.