What Russia-gate Has Wrought

Exclusive: For five months, there was a daily drumbeat on Russia-gate, the sprawling conspiracy theory that Russia had somehow put Donald Trump in the White House, but suddenly the “scandal” disappeared, notes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Democrats, liberals and some progressives might be feeling a little perplexed over what has happened to Russia-gate, the story that pounded Donald Trump every day since his election last November – until April 4, that is.

On April 4, Trump fully capitulated to the neoconservative bash-Russia narrative amid dubious claims about a chemical attack in Syria. On April 6, Trump fired off 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase; he also restored the neocon demand for “regime change” in Syria; and he alleged that Russia was possibly complicit in the supposed chemical attack.

Since Trump took those actions – in accordance with the neocon desires for more “regime change” in the Middle East and a costly New Cold War with Russia – Russia-gate has almost vanished from the news.

I did find a little story in the lower right-hand corner of page A12 of Saturday’s New York Times about a still-eager Democratic congressman, Mike Quigley of Illinois, who spent a couple of days in Cyprus which attracted his interest because it is a known site for Russian money-laundering, but he seemed to leave more baffled than when he arrived.

“The more I learn, the more complex, layered and textured I see the Russia issue is – and that reinforces the need for professional full-time investigators,” Quigley said, suggesting that the investigation’s failure to strike oil is not that the holes are dry but that he needs better drill bits.

Yet, given all the hype and hullabaloo over Russia-gate, the folks who were led to believe that the vague and amorphous allegations were “bigger than Watergate” might now be feeling a little used. It appears they may have been sucked into a conspiracy frenzy in which the Establishment exploited their enthusiasm over the “scandal” in a clever maneuver to bludgeon an out-of-step new President back into line.

If that’s indeed the case, perhaps the most significant success of the Russia-gate ploy was the ouster of Trump’s original National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was seen as a key proponent of a New Détente with Russia, and his replacement by General H.R. McMaster, a protégé of neocon favorite, retired Gen. David Petraeus.

McMaster was viewed as the key player in arranging the April 6 missile strike on Syria and in preparing a questionable “intelligence assessment” on April 11 to justify the rush to judgment. Although McMaster’s four-page white paper has been accepted as gospel by the mainstream U.S. news media, its many weaknesses have been noted by actual experts, such as MIT national security and technology professor Theodore Postol.

How Washington Works

But the way Official Washington works is that Trump was made to look weak when he argued for a more cooperative and peaceful relationship with Russia. Hillary Clinton dubbed him Vladimir Putin’s “puppet” and “Saturday Night Live” portrayed Trump as in thrall to a bare-chested Putin. More significantly, front-page stories every morning and cable news segments every night created the impression of a compromised U.S. President in Putin’s pocket.

Conversely, Trump was made to look strong when he fired off missiles against a Syrian airbase and talked tough about Russian guilt. Neocon commentator Charles Krauthammer praised Trump’s shift as demonstrating that “America is back.”

Trump further enhanced his image for toughness when his military dropped the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB), nicknamed the “mother of all bombs,” on some caves in Afghanistan. While the number of casualties inflicted by the blast was unclear, Trump benefited from the admiring TV and op-ed commentaries about him finally acting “presidential.”

But the real test of political courage is to go against the grain in a way that may be unpopular in the short term but is in the best interests of the United States and the world community in the longer term.

In that sense, Trump seeking peaceful cooperation with Russia – even amid the intense anti-Russian propaganda of the past several years – required actual courage, while launching missiles and dropping bombs might win praise but actually make the U.S. position in the world weaker.

Trump, however, saw his fledgling presidency crumbling under the daily barrage of Russia-gate, even though there was no evidence that his campaign colluded with Russia to interfere with the U.S. election and there wasn’t even clear evidence that Russia was behind the disclosure of Democratic emails, via WikiLeaks, during the campaign.

Still, the combined assault from the Democrats, the neocons and the mainstream media forced Trump to surrender his campaign goal of achieving a more positive relationship with Russia and greater big-power collaboration in the fight against terrorism.

For Trump, the incessant chatter about Russia-gate was like a dripping water torture. The thin-skinned Trump fumed at his staff and twittered messages aimed at changing the narrative, such as accusing President Obama of “wiretapping” Trump Tower. But nothing worked.

However, once Trump waved the white flag by placing his foreign policy under the preferred banner of the neoconservatives, the Russia-gate pressure stopped. The op-ed pages suddenly were hailing his “decisiveness.” If you were a neocon, you might say about Russia-gate: Mission accomplished!

Russia-gate’s Achievements

Besides whipping Trump into becoming a more compliant politician, Russia-gate could claim some other notable achievements. For instance, it spared the national Democrats from having to confront their own failures in Campaign 2016 by diverting responsibility for the calamity of Trump’s election.

Instead of Democratic leaders taking responsibility for picking a dreadful candidate, ignoring the nation’s anti-establishment mood, and failing to offer any kind of inspiring message, the national Democrats could palm off the blame on “Russia! Russia! Russia!”

Thus, rather than looking in the mirror and trying to figure out how to correct their deep-seated problems, the national Democrats could instead focus on a quixotic tilting at Trump’s impeachment.

Many on the Left joined in this fantasy because they have been so long without a Movement that the huge post-inaugural “pussy hat” marches were a temptation that they couldn’t resist. Russia-gate became the fuel to keep the “Movement” bandwagon rolling. #Resistance!

It didn’t matter that the “scandal” – the belief that Russia somehow conspired with Trump to rig the U.S. presidential election – amounted to a bunch of informational dots that didn’t connect.

Russia-gate also taught the American “left” to learn to love McCarthyism since “proof” of guilt pretty much amounted to having had contact with a Russian — and anyone who questioned the dubious factual basis of the “scandal” was dismissed as a “Russian propagandist” or a “Moscow stooge” or a purveyor of “fake news.”

Another Russia-gate winner was the mainstream news media which got a lot of mileage – and loads of new subscription money – by pushing the convoluted conspiracy. The New York Times positioned itself as the great protector of “truth” and The Washington Post adopted a melodramatic new slogan: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

On Thanksgiving Day, the Post ran a front-page article touting an anonymous Internet group called PropOrNot that identified some 200 Internet news sites, including Consortiumnews.com and other major sources of independent journalism, as guilty of “Russian propaganda.” Facts weren’t needed; the accused had no chance for rebuttal; the accusers even got to hide in the shadows; the smear was the thing.

The Post and the Times also conflated news outlets that dared to express skepticism toward claims from the U.S. State Department with some entrepreneurial sites that trafficked in intentionally made-up stories or “fake news” to make money.

To the Post and Times, there appeared to be no difference between questioning the official U.S. narrative on, say, the Ukraine crisis and knowingly fabricating pretend news articles to get lots of clicks. Behind the smokescreen of Russia-gate, the mainstream U.S. news media took the position that there was only one side to a story, what Official Washington chose to believe.

While it’s likely that there will be some revival of Russia-gate to avoid the appearance of a completely manufactured scandal, the conspiracy theory’s more significant near-term consequence could be that it has taught Donald Trump a dangerous lesson.

If he finds himself in a tight spot, the way out is to start bombing some “enemy” halfway around the world. The next time, however, the target might not be so willing to turn the other cheek. If, say, Trump launches a preemptive strike against North Korea, the result could be a retaliatory nuclear attack against South Korea or Japan.

Or, if the neocons push ahead with their ultimate “regime change” strategy of staging a “color revolution” in Moscow to overthrow Putin, the outcome might be – not the pliable new leader that the neocons would want – but an unstable Russian nationalist who might see a nuclear attack on the U.S. as the only way to protect the honor of Mother Russia.

For all his faults, Trump did offer a more temperate approach toward U.S.-Russian relations, which also could have tamped down spending for nuclear and other strategic weapons and freed up some of that money for infrastructure and other needs at home. But that was before Russia-gate.

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).




Handing Killer Drones to Donald Trump

When President Obama expanded use of lethal drones, many Americans trusted him to act judiciously, but now those exceptional powers have passed to the hot-headed Donald Trump, notes Jesselyn Radack.

By Jesselyn Radack

The news is rife with President Trump’s threatened and actual military misadventures: in Syria, Yemen, and North Korea. But these military actions take on a new gravity considering the vast and secret powers Trump inherited.

Former President Obama escalated the use of drone strikes — including in non-battlefield arenas such as Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen — so it is no surprise that President Trump has continued with abandon. While Obama put some constraints on drones, Trump gave the secretive, unaccountable CIA new authority to conduct drone strikes against “suspected militants.”

Specifically, President Obama’s constraints on drones included that targets pose an “imminent threat,” that their capture is “not feasible,” and that there be “near certainty” civilians will not be injured or killed. However, Obama didn’t always hew closely to his own policy, which evolved throughout his Presidency as legitimate criticism of drone strikes increased.

One of the most famous Americans targeted and killed by a drone, al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, met none of the early purported criteria. Still, the Justice Department under Obama maintained that the President had the unilateral authority to target and kill American citizens like al-Awlaki. That power now rests with President Trump who has undertaken aggressive and messy military actions in the early days of his presidency.

Trump has pushed for a $54 billion increase in defense spending. Americans can expect Trump will use their money for expensive military actions like the botched raid in Yemen that killed innocent women and children and an American soldier and resulted in destruction of a $75 million military helicopter. Or, for decisions that upend years of international relations policy, such as launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria. (Replacing them will probably cost at least $1 million per missile).

Fearing the Buzzing Drone

This does not bode well for the millions of people living under the daily buzz of U.S. military drones. The power to target and kill using drone strikes went too unchecked in the Obama administration because we “trusted” him.

Although small pockets of national security, civil liberties, and peace groups complained about the Trust Doctrine, which seemed to apply to the most controversial conduct in which our country was engaged — from torture to surveillance to drone operations – people in positions of power were generally unwilling or unable to imagine what this power would look like in the hands of someone unpredictable, petty, and vengeful.

The Obama administration exalted the drone program’s “surgical precision,” the internal checks and balances built in, and the careful calculations before taking strikes. Because many saw Obama as a reasonable, intelligent President and capable leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize, Americans too calmly and too quietly accepted the secret killing practices being waged halfway around the world from U.S. Air Force bases in our backyards in Nevada and California.

The drone program is plagued by secrecy and unaccountability. That was true even before Trump put strike authority with the CIA and possibly relaxed civilian kill standards. Several whistleblowers have come forward to point out abusive practices and high turnover within the program, misleading government statements on the accuracy of strikes and targeting capabilities, and an overall pressure to launch strikes while falsely presenting the propagandist narrative that drone warfare allows precision targeting with no harmful effects at home in the U.S. This false narrative persists because politicians want us to believe it — and so do we.

We opened Pandora’s box and unleashed drones upon humankind. But in this case, the damage was entirely foreseeable.

Jesselyn Radack is a national security and human rights attorney who heads the “Whistleblower & Source Protection” project at ExposeFacts. Twitter: @jesselynradack . [This article originally appeared at https://exposefacts.org/what-have-we-done-executive-power-drones-and-trump/ ]

 




Did Al Qaeda Fool the White House Again?

Exclusive: Despite evidence that Al Qaeda and its allies have staged fake chemical attacks in Syria before, Official Washington asserts with “high confidence” that it’s not being fooled again, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

In Official Washington, words rarely mean what they say. For instance, if a U.S. government official voices “high confidence” in a supposed “intelligence assessment,” that usually means “we don’t have any real evidence, but we figure that if we say ‘high confidence’ enough then no one will dare challenge us.”

It’s also true that after a U.S. President or another senior official jumps to a conclusion that is not supported by evidence, the ranks of government careerists will close around him or her, making any serious or objective investigation almost impossible. Plus, if the dubious allegations are directed at some “enemy” state, then the mainstream media also will suppress skepticism. Prestigious “news” outlets will run “fact checks” filled with words in capital letters: “MISLEADING”; “FALSE”; or maybe “FAKE NEWS.”

Which is where things stand regarding President Trump’s rush to judgment within hours about an apparent chemical weapons incident in Syria’s Idlib province on April 4. Despite the fact that much of the information was coming from Al Qaeda and its propaganda-savvy allies, the mainstream U.S. media rushed emotional images onto what Trump calls “the shows” – upon which he says he bases his foreign policy judgments – and he blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the scores of deaths, including “beautiful little babies,” as Trump declared.

Given the neocon/liberal-interventionist domination of Official Washington’s foreign policy – and the professional Western propaganda shops working for Assad’s overthrow – there was virtually no pushback against the quick formulation of this new groupthink. All the predictable players played their predictable parts, from The New York Times to CNN to the Atlantic Council-related Bellingcat and its “citizen journalists.”

All the Important People who appeared on the TV shows or who were quoted in the mainstream media trusted the images provided by Al Qaeda-related propagandists and ignored documented prior cases in which the Syrian rebels staged chemical weapons incidents to implicate the Assad government.

‘We All Know’

One smug CNN commentator pontificated, “we all know what happened in 2013,” a reference to the enduring conventional wisdom that an Aug. 21, 2013 sarin attack outside Damascus was carried out by the Assad government and that President Obama then failed to enforce his “red line” against chemical weapons use. This beloved groupthink survives even though evidence later showed the operation was carried out by rebels, most likely by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front with help from Turkish intelligence, as investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported and brave Turkish officials later confirmed.

But Official Washington’s resistance to reality was perhaps best demonstrated one year ago when The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg published a detailed article about Obama’s foreign policy that repeated the groupthink about Obama shrinking from his “red line” but included the disclosure that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had informed the President that U.S. intelligence lacked any “slam dunk” evidence that Assad’s military was guilty.

One might normally think that such a warning from DNI Clapper would have spared Obama from the media’s judgment that he had chickened out, especially given the later evidence pointing the finger of blame at the rebels. After all, why should Obama have attacked the Syrian military and killed large numbers of soldiers and possibly civilians in retaliation for a crime that they had nothing to do with – and indeed an offense for which the Assad government was being framed? But Official Washington’s propaganda bubble is impervious to inconvenient reality.

Nor does anyone seem to know that a United Nations report disclosed testimonies from eyewitnesses about how rebels and their allied “rescue workers” had staged one “chlorine attack” so it would be blamed on the Assad government. Besides these Syrians coming forward to expose the fraud, the evidence that had been advanced to “prove” Assad’s guilt included bizarre claims from the rebels and their friends that they could tell that chlorine was inside a “barrel bomb” because of the special sound that it made while it was descending.

Despite the exposure of that one frame-up, the U.N. investigators – under intense pressure from Western governments to give them something to pin on the Assad regime – accepted rebel claims about two other alleged chlorine attacks, an implausible finding that is now repeatedly cited by the Western media even as it ignores the case of the debunked “chlorine attack.” Again, one might think that proof of two staged chemical weapons attacks – one involving sarin and the other chlorine – would inject some skepticism about the April 4 case, but apparently not.

All that was left was for President Trump to “act presidential” and fire off 59 Tomahawk missiles at some Syrian airbase on April 6, reportedly killing several Syrian soldiers and nine civilians, including four children, collateral damage that the mainstream U.S. media knows not to mention in its hosannas of praise for Trump’s decisiveness.

Home-Free Groupthink

There might be some pockets of resistance to the groupthink among professional analysts at the CIA, but their findings – if they contradict what the President has already done – will be locked away probably for generations if not forever.

In other words, the new Assad-did-it groupthink appeared to be home free, a certainty that The New York Times could now publish without having to add annoying words like “alleged” or “possibly,” simply stating Assad’s guilt as flat-fact.

Thomas L. Friedman, the Times’ star foreign policy columnist, did that and then extrapolated from his certainty to propose that the U.S. should ally itself with the jihadists fighting to overthrow Assad, a position long favored by U.S. “allies,” Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“Why should our goal right now be to defeat the Islamic State in Syria?” Friedman asked before proposing outright support for the jihadists: “We could dramatically increase our military aid to anti-Assad rebels, giving them sufficient anti-tank and antiaircraft missiles to threaten Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian helicopters and fighter jets and make them bleed, maybe enough to want to open negotiations. Fine with me.”

So, not only have the mainstream U.S. media stars decided that they know what happen on April 4 in a remote Al Qaeda-controlled section of Idlib province (without seeing any real evidence) but they are now building off their groupthink to propose that the Trump administration hand out antiaircraft missiles to the “anti-Assad rebels” who, in reality, are under the command of Al Qaeda and/or the Islamic State.

In other words, Friedman and other deep thinkers are advocating material support for terrorists who would get sophisticated American ground-to-air missiles that could shoot down Russian planes thus exacerbating already dangerous U.S.-Russian tensions or take down some civilian airliner as Al Qaeda has done in the past. If someone named Abdul had made such a suggestion, he could expect a knock on his door from the FBI.

Expert Skepticism

Yet, before President Trump takes Friedman’s advice – arming up Al Qaeda and entering into a de facto alliance with Islamic State – we might want to make sure that we aren’t being taken in again by a clever Al Qaeda psychological operation, another staged chemical weapons attack.

With the U.S. intelligence community effectively silenced by the fact that the President has already acted, Theodore Postol, a technology and national security expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, undertook his own review of the supposed evidence cited by Trump’s White House in issuing a four-page “intelligence assessment” on April 11 asserting with “high confidence” that Assad’s military delivered a bomb filled with sarin on the town of Khan Sheikdoun on the morning of April 4.

Postol, whose analytical work helped debunk Official Washington’s groupthink regarding the 2013 sarin attack outside Damascus, expressed new shock at the shoddiness of the latest White House report (or WHR). Postol produced “a quick turnaround assessment” of the April 11 report that night and went into greater detail in an addendum on April 13, writing:

“This addendum provides data that unambiguously shows that the assumption in the WHR that there was no tampering with the alleged site of the sarin release is not correct. This egregious error raises questions about every other claim in the WHR. … The implication of this observation is clear – the WHR was not reviewed and released by any competent intelligence expert unless they were motivated by factors other than concerns about the accuracy of the report.

“The WHR also makes claims about ‘communications intercepts’ which supposedly provide high confidence that the Syrian government was the source of the attack. There is no reason to believe that the veracity of this claim is any different from the now verified false claim that there was unambiguous evidence of a sarin release at the cited crater. … The evidence that unambiguously shows that the assumption that the sarin release crater was tampered with is contained in six photographs at the end of this document.”

Postol notes that one key photo “shows a man standing in the alleged sarin-release crater. He is wearing a honeycomb facemask that is designed to filter small particles from the air. Other apparel on him is an open necked cloth shirt and what appear to be medical exam gloves. Two other men are standing in front of him (on the left in the photograph) also wearing honeycomb facemask’s and medical exam gloves.

“If there were any sarin present at this location when this photograph was taken everybody in the photograph would have received a lethal or debilitating dose of sarin. The fact that these people were dressed so inadequately either suggests a complete ignorance of the basic measures needed to protect an individual from sarin poisoning, or that they knew that the site was not seriously contaminated.

“This is the crater that is the centerpiece evidence provided in the WHR for a sarin attack delivered by a Syrian aircraft.”

No ‘Competent’ Analyst

After reviewing other discrepancies in photos of the crater, Postol wrote: “It is hard for me to believe that anybody competent could have been involved in producing the WHR report and the implications of such an obviously predetermined result strongly suggests that this report was not motivated by a serious analysis of any kind.

“This finding is disturbing. It indicates that the WHR was probably a report purely aimed at justifying actions that were not supported by any legitimate intelligence. This is not a unique situation. President George W. Bush has argued that he was misinformed about unambiguous evidence that Iraq was hiding a substantial amount of weapons of mass destruction. This false intelligence led to a US attack on Iraq that started a process that ultimately led to a political disintegration in the Middle East, which through a series of unpredicted events then led to the rise of the Islamic State.”

Postol continued: “On August 30, 2013, the White House [under President Obama] produced a similarly false report about the nerve agent attack on August 21, 2013 in Damascus. This report also contained numerous intelligence claims that could not be true. An interview with President Obama published in The Atlantic in April 2016 indicates that Obama was initially told that there was solid intelligence that the Syrian government was responsible for the nerve agent attack of August 21, 2013 in Ghouta, Syria. Obama reported that he was later told that the intelligence was not solid by the then Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.

“Equally serious questions are raised about the abuse of intelligence findings by the incident in 2013. Questions that have not been answered about that incident is how the White House produced a false intelligence report with false claims that could obviously be identified by experts outside the White House and without access to classified information. There also needs to be an explanation of why this 2013 false report was not corrected. …

“It is now obvious that a second incident similar to what happened in the Obama administration has now occurred in the Trump administration. In this case, the president, supported by his staff, made a decision to launch 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. This action was accompanied by serious risks of creating a confrontation with Russia, and also undermining cooperative efforts to win the war against the Islamic State. …

“I therefore conclude that there needs to be a comprehensive investigation of these events that have either misled people in the White House, or worse yet, been perpetrated by people seeking to force decisions that were not justified by the cited intelligence. This is a serious matter and should not be allowed to continue.”

While Postol’s appeal for urgent attention to this pattern of the White House making false intelligence claims – now implicating three successive administrations – makes sense, the likelihood of such an undertaking is virtually nil. The embarrassment and loss of “credibility” for not only the U.S. political leadership but the major U.S. news outlets would be so severe, especially in the wake of the WMD fiasco in Iraq, that no establishment figure or organization would undertake such a review.

Instead, Official Washington’s propaganda bubble will stay firmly in place allowing its inhabitants to go happily about their business believing that they are the caretakers of “truth.”

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).




Trump Lurches into Chaos and Conflict

President Trump lurched into the attack on Syria in much the same chaotic way that he has lurched from side to side on domestic policy and foreign affairs, notes ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.

By Alastair Crooke

It seems clear – as much as anything is ‘”clear” – that the so-called Tomahawk “tweets” were intended as a message (in the sense that they did not constitute a military strategic act, per se), but even now, the address on these Tomahawk tweets remains disputed. Ostensibly, it was directed at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, and Kim Jong Un of North Korea are considered probable addressees too (although no one seems certain of this, and U.S. statements are both confused and confusing).

 

But if we look a little closer at the U.S. National Security dynamics, it is clear that for National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster at least, the target is Russia (see below).

So what might have provoked this sudden lurch toward military action, and towards Trump’s great Syria policy “U-turn”?  Ostensibly, nothing had changed on the ground in Syria: Syria, Russia, and Iran were continuing to prosecute the war against the jihadists with slow, but solid success. Tactical military co-operation with America was growing, and had been effective in halting Turkish disruption.

President Assad had signaled an opened door to Syrian co-operation with U.S. forces in the war against “terrorists,” and President Putin was clear that he would welcome a summit with President Trump. Indeed, US officials were already anticipating the symbolic “defeat” of ISIS, with the fall of Mosul in Iraq and Raqaa in Syria as a major Trump achievement. All in all, things might have been thought to be heading in a positive direction (from the U.S. perspective).

Then, in the space of some 120 hours, we move from policy U-turn (from “Assad can stay”), to missiles, following the improbable claim that President Assad was willing to jeopardize this benign change in his environment for the sake of chemical-bombing women and children, in some strategically insignificant village long held by jihadists of various radical ilk. (Claims of use of chemical weapons by both sides are hardly new in Syria, either: this conflict is the site of the most intensely fought propaganda-war in history).

A Complex Puzzle

In trying to find an explanation for this sudden, out-of-the-blue, discontinuity of U.S. policy, we are forced into speculation – trying to put together the parts to a complex puzzle:

The first (but only the first) piece relates to First Daughter Ivanka Trump. On seeing the distressing images of dying children on TV, she had an emotional melt-down, and “nagged her father into doing it.” (We have the reports of her brother Erik, Trump’s son, as well as the British Ambassador in Washington’s telegram to the British Prime Minister, stating that Ivanka was the initial catalyst). “Sure, Ivanka influenced the Syria strike decision,” Erik said.

But Pat Buchanan too (a former Republican Presidential candidate who has supported Trump) points to Trump’s own emotional state having played a pivotal role, when he asks “what was Trumps rationale” for the action. (And in the same vein, so does the New York Times).

Buchanan writes: “What was Trump thinking? Here was his strategic rationale: ‘When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies — with a chemical gas … that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. … And I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me … my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.’ Two days later, Trump was still emoting: ‘Beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.’”

In short, the initial reaction was emotive and impetuous – taken, it is clear, without bothering to wait for a considered analysis of facts, because obviously Assad did it, and Ivanka was in grief for the children.

From this initial reaction of emotion, and the desire to act, perhaps came into play Trump’s well-documented obsession to act, in every way, the opposite to that in which Obama acted. Roxanne Roberts, who sat next to Donald Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, wrote in April 2016:

“Regarding the vast mystery … Why is the billionaire reality star running for president? I don’t know. You don’t know. But a handful of armchair psychoanalysts — reporters for major news organizations, no less — have decided that it all began at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where Trump was the butt of jokes by President Obama and ‘Saturday Night Live’ comedian Seth Meyers.

“Trump was so humiliated by the experience, they say, that it triggered some deep, previously hidden yearning for revenge. ‘That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature in the political world,’ wrote the New York Times last month.”

Judge his face for yourself (see here). So, unlike Obama, who prevaricated (in the wake of the 2013 claim of chemical weapons used by Syrian government forces), Trump did the opposite: He did not pause; he acted decisively and swiftly. Both White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kept pressing this narrative of Trump’s decisiveness and swiftness.

Of course, post hoc, the further rationalizations may have set in: this attack on Syria, on Putin’s protégé Assad, Trump may have mused, additionally would kill dead the Democrats’ meme that he was somehow “Putin’s man.” This is the now celebrated “Machiavelli rationale” justifying Trump’s Tomahawk decision — a clever ruse to disarm the disparaging claim that he was the “Manchurian Candidate.” Maybe this became an afterthought, but the evidence suggests that the actual decision was grounded in the emotional impact of the moment.

So far so good, but did his National Security Adviser tell him that the intelligence services had their doubts about Assad’s culpability? It seems they did.We do know, from multiple sources, that many in CIA and DIA, including those on the ground, did not accept that President Assad was responsible.

The Missing Intel Officials

Robert Parry, a long time Washington hand writes: “There is a dark mystery behind the White House-released photo showing President Trump and more than a dozen advisers meeting at his estate in Mar-a-Lago after his decision to strike Syria with Tomahawk missiles: Where are CIA Director Mike Pompeo and other top intelligence officials?

“Before the photo was released on Friday, a source told me that Pompeo had personally briefed Trump on April 6 about the CIA’s belief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was likely not responsible for the lethal poison-gas incident in northern Syria two days earlier — and thus Pompeo was excluded from the larger meeting as Trump reached a contrary decision.

“At the time, I found the information dubious since Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior U.S. officials were declaring quite confidently that Assad was at fault. Given that apparent confidence, I assumed that Pompeo and the CIA must have signed off on the conclusion of Assad’s guilt even though I knew that some U.S. intelligence analysts had contrary opinions, that they viewed the incident as either an accidental release of chemicals or an intentional ploy by Al Qaeda rebels to sucker the U.S. into attacking Syria. …

“But in the photo of Trump and his advisers, no one from the intelligence community is in the frame. You see Trump, Secretary of State Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, strategic adviser Steve Bannon, son-in-law Jared Kushner and a variety of other officials, including some economic advisers who were at Mar-a-Lago in Florida for the meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“However, you don’t see Pompeo or Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats or any other intelligence official. Even The New York Times noted the oddity in its Saturday editions, writing: ‘If there were C.I.A. and other intelligence briefers around, … they are not in the picture.’”

So, at the crucial NSA meeting that formalized the government decision, the participants were “rigged” – in the sense that those who may have questioned the narrative of Syrian government culpability, simply were excluded. McMaster was the only intelligence professional present, and Trump got official endorsement for his instinctive conviction that President Assad was responsible.

But, here we come to the fourth piece to this puzzle: Why did the formal decision to attack the Syrian airbase metamorphose from a symbolic smack over the knuckles for Assad to an ultimatum? An ultimatum furthermore, which was clearly directed to Mr. Putin: Either Assad is your ally, or the U.S. – You choose. Whomsoever drafted this ultimatum will have understood well that such a binary choice was intended to visit humiliation on President Putin. Well, the only substantive security/intelligence professional present was General McMaster – of whom an erstwhile admirer of the latter’s intellectual powers, has written:

“I have been forced …  to come to the conclusion that McMaster is a big part of the problem in the mad rush to war on Syria that erupted, last week, war that could lead to a direct military confrontation with Russia. His appearance on Fox News Sunday was an indication of that but there were indications of this potential well beforehand, while he was still at US Army Training and Doctrine Command. His pre-occupation for the past two years, before he went to the White House, was, after all, how to reshape the Army for future war against Russia.”

Going After Russia

In the Fox interview, McMaster was asked a number of questions about Trump’s missile attack. Here is part of what he said: “The objective (of the strikes) was to send a very strong political message to Assad. And this is very significant because … this is the first time the United States has acted directly against the Assad regime, and that should be a strong message to Assad and to his sponsors.”

He added: “Russia should ask themselves, what are we doing here? Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available … Right now, I think everyone in the world sees Russia as part of the problem.” (Fox News with Chris Wallace) (CF emphasis added)

To place this last answer in context, we need to refer to what McMaster, at a talk to CSIS in Washington D.C. in April 2016, said:

“And what we’re seeing now is we’ve awakened to, obviously, this threat from Russia, who is waging limited war for limited objectives – annexing Crimea, invading Ukraine – at zero cost, consolidating gains over that territory, and portraying the reaction by us and allies and partners, as escalatory: That what is required to deter a strong nation that is waging limited war for limited objectives on battlegrounds involving weaker states – or what Thomas – Mackinder called at the end of the 18th, early 19th century the shatter zones on the Eurasian landmass – what is required is forward deterrence, to be able to ratchet up the cost at the frontier 

“Of course, this is a sophisticated strategy: that Russia is employing – and we’re doing a study of this now with a number of partners – [one which] combines, really, conventional forces as cover for unconventional action, but a much more sophisticated campaign involving the use of criminality and organized crime, and … part of a broader effort to sow doubt and conspiracy theories across our alliance.”

McMaster went on: “And this effort, I believe, is aimed really not at defensive objectives, but at offensive objectives – to collapse the post-World War II, certainly the post-Cold War, security, economic, and political order in Europe, and replace that order with something that is more sympathetic to Russian interests.” (emphasis added)

So where does this McMaster aspect take us? It suggests that President Trump’s core instincts (seemingly) are still primarily focused on the domestic, U.S. scene. It is precisely here, however, in the domestic sphere that he has suffered serious reversals. After nearly 100 days, he has no legislation.

Some Capitol Hill Republicans have envisioned the nightmare scenario for 2017, and it goes like this: “No ­ObamaCare repeal. No tax reform. No trillion-dollar infrastructure package. No border wall.”

Additionally, “It’s not just drafting laws that Republicans have failed at – it’s drafting passable laws. Right now there are Republican factions who believe that health care should be abandoned so they can score a win on tax reform, and factions that believe tax reform isn’t possible without first dealing with the Affordable Care Act. There’s also an increasing recognition that they can’t get everything they want pushed through without seeking some Democratic support in the Senate, a factor that makes it even more likely that they will shed Freedom Caucus votes in the House. Because Republicans have spent decades declaring that anything which can garner a Democratic vote is intrinsically evil.” (Emphasis added)

Hitting a Wall

In short, Trump has hit a domestic legislative “wall.” And being instinctive, rather than intellectual-strategic by nature, when he hits one wall, he lurches off in another direction until he hits another wall. Now, at the urging of son-in-law Jared Kushner and his Goldmanite allies (Cohn, Phillips), Trump is lurching off in search of some “middle ground” that might help him get some legislation passed and save Republican candidates in the mid-term 2018 elections from a deserting base. Perhaps he thought that “decisive” action in Syria would help claim him the middle ground?

T.A. Frank in Vanity Fair warns succinctly: “He first went for establishment nominees in filling his Cabinet, then hit the wall of resistance from his base, and tacked back toward Bannon, then hit a wall of mainstream outrage over his travel ban, then lurched toward Reince Priebus and more stress on procedures, until he hit a wall with health-care overhaul, then lurched into an attack on Syria, running into a wall of outrage from his base and approval from all the wrong people. So he’ll probably lurch away from Syria, or try to. But acts of war have a momentum of their own, and for many of Trump’s deplorables, this was not a compromise but a betrayal.”

Mr. Frank has put his finger on the problem exactly: It is three inter-connected problems, in fact. Firstly, in betraying your friends (your political base), to court your enemies: you risk losing both – but the loss of the former can be fatal, and the fleeting approbation of enemies, is, at best, granted on a short lease.

Just to be clear, the activist base that brought Trump to the Presidency is not happy. The divisions within Trump’s team are not just a matter of bad chemistry between Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner that can be corrected by a slap over the wrist – they are deeply ideological. Kushner (and Ivanka) are globalist, liberals from New York, and are both erstwhile Democrats. They represent the polar opposite of that for which stands Bannon and the America Firsters and nationalists.

But secondly, with legislative and GOP paralysis looming, mid-term elections in 2018, and strife within the Trump team already disorientated by Presidential “lurchings,” there is risk of systemic break-down.

And thirdly, in allowing McMaster to “weaponize” the “Tomahawk tweets” as an ultimatum to Putin (together with McMaster’s ambitions to “surge” in Syria and Iraq) Trump risks events spiraling out of control. There are interests in Syria who would happily escalate the situation into a standoff between America and Russia, in which either Putin or Trump will be humiliated by having to “blink first.”

Mr. Frank is likely right that Trump will “probably lurch away from Syria, or try to,” but as one expert on Russia ominously noted: “When I hear of the notion of imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, against the will of Russia, I get a knot in my stomach, because I fully understand where this could lead.”

We are lurching to a situation as potentially serious as was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum.




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 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