Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Most Important Lesson from Chilcot.

While there was not much in the way of facts in the Chilcot Report on the Iraq War, which had not already been aired in public, there are nonetheless many lessons to be learned from the whole tragic debacle.  The one I want to concentrate on can be summed up as:

Governments lie and their claims should never be taken at face value, especially when issues of war and peace are in the balance.  

Many would say that this is well known and perhaps it is.  But I still see the same old lies and half truths put before the public with seldom a squeak of protest.  As an example let me discuss a column in the Globe and Mail (or Glib and Stale as one wag put it) yesterday.  It is by Konrad Yakabuski and it is entitled 'Intervention chill' descends on the West.  In the piece Mr. Yakabuski uses the Chilcot report  to suggest that following the Iraq debacle, Western nations, especially the USA, are reluctant to intervene militarily in situations overseas where in his opinion such intervention would be beneficial.  

Apart from the dubiousness of the claim that Western nations are undergoing an 'intervention chill' there are a number of lies and dubious claims in the article which are very reminiscent of what the mainstream press was reporting in the months leading up to the Iraq invasion.  

The article leads off with the statement that "the invasion of Iraq was based on mistaken intelligence about Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction".  If the intelligence was 'mistaken' those using it chose, ingenuously, to be misled.  A more accurate adjective to describe the intelligence, on which the case for war was based, would be 'bogus'.  We know this from many sources (no doubt it is in Chilcot).  One particularly telling one is in a leaked memo from Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of the British MI6 at the time.  In this so-called Downing Street memo, Sir Richard stated that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Many other aspects of the so-called intelligence were discredited even before the invasion, including the Niger uranium claim and Blair's ridiculous claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction which could strike European capitals in 45 minutes. US Secretary of State Colin Powell had, embarrassingly, to admit that much of the case he presented at the UN was based on falsehoods.  The whole intelligence thing was so amateurish and preposterous that sensible people should have had serious doubts about having these incompetent people lead their countries in a war, even if they supported such a war.  

But back to Yakabuski's article.  He continues with the claim that Bashar al Assad crossed President Obama's red line "by using chemical weapons on civilians."  Well we know that John Kerry, David Cameron and others claimed that the Syrian army was behind the chemical attack.  But there have been serious doubts about this claim. Simply arguing from Cicero's Cui Bono principle it would seem unlikely that al Assad would permit such an attack, knowing how damaging it would be to his position.  

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in a piece published in the London Review of Books in 2014 has argued that the chemical attack was a 'false flag' operation carried out by a Syrian opposition group with support from Turkish intelligence.  Since his piece appeared two deputies in the Turkish parliament have supported that claim saying, last October, that they have wiretap evidence of sarin being shipped from Turkey to an al Qaeda militant, Hayyam Kasap.  One of the deputies Eren Erdem said at a news conference  Wiretapped phone conversations reveal the process of procuring the gas at specific addresses as well as the process of procuring the rockets that would fire the capsules containing the toxic gas."

Now this does not by any means prove the case of a false flag operation.  But it does cast serious doubt on the claim that al Assad was behind the sarin attack.  A competent and principled reporter should know, and acknowledge, that there is serious doubt about whether the Syrian Government was behind the sarin attack, rather than taking at face value US and British government claims. 

In  terms of the main argument of his piece Mr. Yakabuski repeats the claim of Tony Blair's assistant Jonathan Powell that "Our failure to act in Syria has led to 400,000 dead."  This is a standard "liberal interventionist" position, but given its source it sounds an awful lot like a post hoc attempt at justifying the Iraq invasion.  

And again it is based on dubious facts.  The truth is that the West has been interfering in Syria from the start and continues to do so, and not only in the form of air strikes against ISIS.  Cables released by Wikileaks (Chapter10) reveal that plans to destabilize the al Assad regime go back at least to 2006.  US Ambassador to Syria at the time, William Roebuck, suggested using Egyptian and Saudi influence to stir up sectarian tensions and play on fears of Iranian influence.  It is also now widely accepted that the CIA has been shipping arms from Qadaffi's arsenals in Libya, to Syrian rebel groups. Many of these weapons, it is alleged, have ended up in the hands of ISIS or the Al Nusra front. 

Indeed it has been claimed (Aaron Klein - The Real Benghazi Story) that the September 11th attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi was related to the arms shipments.  Certainly the ambassador Christopher Stevens who was killed in the Benghazi attack was involved in arms dealing (New York Times, December, 2012).  

Again there is much uncertainty about the US involvement in the Syrian conflict.  But is is pretty clear that the US and other Western powers have been and continue to be active players in the Syrian situation.  It is just false to endorse the position of Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell, that the West has failed to get involved.   Again a conscientious reporter would acknowledge the grey areas concerning this and not just pretend that the US and its Western allies only act for the good of mankind - or rather that in this case that they have failed to so act.

Another obvious case of journalistic dereliction concerns NATO's position vis a vis Russia.  The official line is that Putin is an aggressor and that NATO must respond and place troops in the Baltic republics, to defend them against a Russian move (this in spite of a guarantee when the Soviet Union broke up that NATO would not station troops in former Soviet bloc countries).  There is not the slightest evidence that Putin has any designs on Latvia, Lithuania etc.  Rather it is the West that has been acting aggressively - the US has recently installed the Aegis Ashore missile defence system in Romania and will do so shortly in Poland.  It is not widely realized (because our derelict press don't inform us) that the anti-missile missiles can easily be replaced with nuclear tipped offensive missiles.  Imagine how Washington   would respond if Russia were to become friends with Mexico and started to install such a system there.  We don't in fact need much imagination because such a scenario was played out with the Cuban Missile crisis of the 1960s.  

I don't know whether it is through incompetence, laziness or complicity, but it seems that much of the mainstream media are far too happy to accept the government version of events, without attempting to understand what is really going on.  Of course there are many excellent investigative journalists who are digging deeper and finding things out.  But more and more they are being forced out of mainstream publications and having to rely on media with much lower public profiles.  The case of Seymour Hersh provides a good example. He is a widely respected investigated journalist.  He exposed the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam (for which he won a Pulitzer prize) and American abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib.  He has excellent contacts in the military and intelligence communities and has won numerous awards for his reporting, most of which was published in The New Yorker.  But that magazine would not touch his piece on the chemical weapons attack in Syria, nor a later piece on the death of Osama bin Laden.  He published these pieces outside of the US in The London Review of Books, a periodical with a much lower profile than The New Yorker.

The level of awareness of much of the mainstream press seems to me sadly lacking. There is a lack of curiosity;  official statements are taken at face value and then often repeated so that they become part of the "accepted" narrative.  The Chilcot Report and the whole sorry Iraq mess should have taught the journalistic profession some lessons.   Sadly it doesn't seem to have done so. The most important lesson, it seems to me, is that governments and their apologists lie, especially in matters involving foreign affairs, the military and state security;  and to take their statements at face value is to be complicit in their lies. Journalists should be taught skepticism.  There are by now many case studies which could reveal the way in which the truth has been manipulated.

I think that in every journalism school, emblazoned above the entrance and displayed prominently in every class room, there should be the statement



  1. I agree with much of what you say, but despite your headline about government's lying (often true), your post is mainly an attack on the press. Why do you really think the mainstream press is so complicit?

    1. As I say above "I don't know whether it is through incompetence, laziness or complicity". I suspect at the individual journalist level it is mainly the first two. But a paper's (or TV or radio channel's) general policy direction are set by the owners. I suspect that at this level (and editorial level) it is mainly the third.

      There is also the silly idea about that one supports one's country through thick and thin - so if the government says, say, that Russia is the enemy, then the media fall into line, beat the drum and vilify Russia. Maybe excusable in wartime, but hardly appropriate in a democracy.