Struggling to win support for United States military strikes on Syria, the administration of President Barack Obama has launched an information operation on members of Congress and citizens of America, who still refuse to support engaging in an act of war in response to an alleged chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The information operation, which could be called a psychological operation, propaganda operation or a public relations operation, involves the specific reference to videos authenticated by the Central Intelligence Agency and previously shown to members of Congress in classified briefings. It also included having Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, go on just about every major Sunday morning news program to make a case for striking Syria by specifically citing the videos as intelligence that shows there is a basis for military strikes.
The videos show visceral images of victims suffering from the effects of some chemical after the attack believed to have occurred on August 21. They were all posted to YouTube and feature men, women and children sprawled out on the floor. Some appear to be in a coma. Others appear to be convulsing and flailing. In one video, the camera zooms in on the pupils of a victim and a head wound can also be seen.
CNN aired the videos yesterday and spoke with former United Nations ambassador Bill Richardson, who said “the footage could be vital in the administration’s quest to convince Congress and the American public that the U.S. must launch punitive strikes against Syria.” He told CNN, “That video will sensitize the American people that this isn’t just an intervention, that this is a military strike to stop that type of atrocity.”
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were selected for the public on September 7, ahead of Sunday morning news programs. Chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein authorized the release of a “representative range of YouTube content posted regarding the reported 21 August chemical weapons (CW) attacks in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria.”
The posting further noted, “All of the videos were posted on YouTube by pro-Syrian opposition users. With one exception, all 13 videos were posted by a pro-opposition Internet news channel that consistently posts user-created videos concerning the Syrian conflict. The news channel does not primarily generate content, but instead re-posts content originally posted by others.”
McDonough shared similar talking points on the news programs in which he appeared: (1) nobody in Congress had rebutted or doubted the intelligence that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people; (2) there must be a consequence for this action to send a message to Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah; (3) the US must defend the history of a Chemical Weapons Convention against use of such weapons by striking; (4) it will be targeted and limited use of consequential force and (5) the action will not be like the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan or the recent air campaign in Libya.
All of the above arguments, when expressed, could be easily tied to the images of human suffering in the released videos.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” with David Gregory, McDonough said he hoped before Congress members decide how they will cast their vote they will look at those images.
McDonough said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” with Bob Schieffer, “You’ve seen these terrible videos, Bob, and others have seen these terrible videos.” As he began to express what he hoped Congress would do in response, Schieffer asked, “You’re saying that’s evidence enough?”
Video of the victims sprawled out appeared on screen. “I’m saying that I hope every member of Congress looks at those videos before he or she makes up her mind on how they’re going to vote on this resolution,” McDonough answered. “Because to hold [Assad] accountable for this terrible action, we need Congress to vote yes for that resolution.”
In his appearance on the “State of the Union” with Candy Crowley on CNN, McDonough made reference to preventing the use of chemical weapons again so attacks do not occur like “the attacks that you showed here on your station throughout the day yesterday.”
Videos Do Not Prove Who Used Chemical Weapons
CNN explicitly stated the videos were “hard to watch, but do not prove who was behind the attack.” The Washington Post, in its coverage, also acknowledged, “The videos do not make clear who used the chemical weapons.”
The evidence that Assad ordered his own people to be gassed on August 21 is not as airtight as the Obama administration would like the public believe, as officials appear on news programs while media replay these videos on television. A German newspaper has recently reported that, according to German intelligence, “Syrian brigade and division commanders had been asking the Presidential Palace to allow them to use chemical weapons for the last four-and-a-half months.” However, “Permission had always been denied,” which raises questions about whether the August 21 attack was ordered by Assad or committed by rogue commanders.
As the Associated Press wrote in a September 8 report, “The US government insists it has the intelligence to prove it, but the American public has yet to see a single piece of concrete evidence—no satellite imagery, no transcripts of Syrian military communications—connecting the government of President Bashar Assad to the alleged chemical weapons attack last month that killed hundreds of people.”
AP further reported that the Obama administration has said its “assessment is based mainly on satellite and signal intelligence, including indications in the three days prior to the attack that the regime was preparing to use poisonous gas.” But, “Multiple requests to view that satellite imagery have been denied, though the administration produced copious amounts of satellite imagery earlier in the war to show the results of the Syrian regime’s military onslaught.”
The media organization diligently requested that it be allowed to see a transcript of “intercepted communications from a senior Syrian officials on the use of chemical weapons.” That request was denied. AP also requested access to a “transcript of communications allegedly ordering Syrian military personnel to prepare for a chemical weapons attack by readying gas masks.” That request was denied as well.
It has previously been reported that Israeli intelligence intercepted communications where the Syrian regime was discussing a chemical attack. According to a German magazine, the 8200 unit of the Israeli Defense Forces is responsible for providing contents of the conversation to the United States.
A Ploy to Make Congress Members Opposed to War Seem Indifferent to an Atrocity
Despite the fact that Assad is responsible for committing a number of atrocities in the Syrian civil war so far, it does not appear that the administration can state truthfully, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Assad ordered his own people to be gassed, which makes the public relations offensive by the Obama administration more reprehensible.
The administration does not hide that the value of these videos is to put members of Congress and the public in a position where they could be accused of indifference to the victims of a chemical attack if they do not support war. The administration openly advocates that each member cue of these videos right before voting to get the horror of it all fresh in their mind so they are primed for voting in support of authorizing force. However, what the administration does not want to admit is that the opposition to strikes has nothing to do with not caring enough about victims of atrocities and everything to do with what happens after the strikes begin.
Few believe the administration’s claims that this is going to be a limited operation, that a few Tomahawk missiles will be fired at targets and then it will be over. They fear getting embroiled in another full-blown Middle East war like Iraq and do not believe the administration at all when it suggests that this would not put us on the path of supporting regime change. This action will aid the rebels and complement the arming and training of rebels and it will increase calls and pressure to use force to remove Assad from power.
What happens when one of these rebel factions topples Assad? Most skeptics of strikes believe factions will bring about a continuation of sectarian violence. And how will US strikes supported by a handful of countries help bring peace? What is the likelihood that Syria becomes a new theater where groups can fight the US, just as groups did in Iraq, including al Qaeda?
Sen. John McCain successfully pushed the Senate to pass an authorization for the use of force resolution that contains language that any use of force should “change the military equation on the battlefield.” The end goal will not be achieved until a “negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria” occurs. So, these are legitimate questions, not hypotheticals, which the administration should take seriously.
Obama’s Chief of Staff: “Our Troops Have Not Been Subjected to Chemical Weapons Attacks Since World War I”
The exploitation of women and children dying from chemicals to build support for war is made even more vile by the history lesson the Obama administration is trying to give the American people.
On ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, McDonough said, “Now what we are trying to reinforce here and what our allies supported us reinforcing just Friday at the G20 is a prohibition that goes back almost 100 years. A prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. Why does that matter? You know, in World War I, our troops were subjected to chemical weapons attacks regularly. Not since World War I have they seen the same kinds of attacks. That is important. That increases our security. That reduces the burden against our men and women who are in the armed forces, who have taken a lot of burdens lately, by the way.”
McDonough also made a similar argument on “Meet the Press,”Our troops have not been subjected to chemical weapons attacks since World War I.
“Imagine it was the weapon of the day in World War I but because of our work and the work of our partners, it has now been prohibited except in many few instances. And we have to make sure that for the sake of our guys, our men and women on the frontlines, that we reinforce this prohibition,” McDonough added.
Thus, the Obama administration is now cynically arguing that the US has to drop bombs on Syria to protect US troops from being attacked by chemical weapons in future wars. That is as dubious as arguing the administration must strike targets to show Iran it means what it says when it makes threats against countries to use force. Both arguments are emotional arguments that appear to be based in nationalism, not reason.
Invoking History of Chemical Weapons While Ignoring US Military Use of Such Weapons
The administration conveniently ignores the United States’ history of using chemical weapons. After the Chemical Weapons Convention was ratified by the US in 1997, the US military used white phosphorus in Fallujah in the Iraq War. US intelligence classified white phosphorus as a “chemical weapon.”
The US military used depleted uranium in the Gulf and Iraq War. Journalist Dahr Jamail reported on “Democracy Now!” that the birth defects caused in the Iraq War in Fallujah were “extremely hard to bear witness to. But it’s something that we all need to pay attention to … What this has generated is, from 2004 up to this day, we are seeing a rate of congenital malformations in the city of Fallujah that has surpassed even that in the wake of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that nuclear bombs were dropped on at the end of World War II.”
The CIA helped facilitate Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranians in 1988 by providing intelligence to the regime, which it knew would be used to carry out attacks.
Furthermore, the US bears some responsibility for the fact that Assad has stockpiles of chemical weapons. Glenn Kessler described for The Washington Post:
Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile results from a never-acknowledged gentleman’s agreement in the Middle East that as long as Israel had nuclear weapons, Syria’s pursuit of chemical weapons would not attract much public acknowledgement or criticism. (The Fact Checker, when serving as The Washington Post’s diplomatic correspondent, learned of this secret arrangement from Middle Eastern and Western diplomats, but it was never officially confirmed.) These are the sorts of trade-offs that happen often in diplomacy. After all, Israel’s nuclear stockpile has never been officially acknowledged, and Syria in the 1980s and 1990s was often supportive of U.S. interests in the region, even nearly reaching a peace deal with Israel.
Chemical Weapons Convention Does Not Call on Countries to Enforce with Humanitarian Bombings
The enforcement mechanism for using chemical weapons in violation of an accepted international standard is not to bomb the country responsible. That is not the concept embedded in international humanitarian law.
Amnesty International has advocated those responsible be investigated and prosecuted for committing “crimes under international law.” The human rights organization has called for the formation of “joint international investigation and prosecution teams” to “improve the chances of effective arrests and prosecutions.” They add, “If any of those responsible were to attempt to seek safe haven abroad, under universal jurisdiction they must be arrested and investigated. UN Security Council members should step up and lead this effort.”
What if an effort by all countries to capture and bring to justice Syrian commanders involved in using chemical weapons was launched?
On April 3, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that a “War Crimes Rewards Program” was being expanded where the State Department would offer “up to $5 million for information that leads to the arrest, transfer and conviction” of Lord’s Resistance Army leaders Joseph Kony, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. What if that program was utilized to name the names of people the US believes have been behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria so they could be brought to justice?
The Obama administration wants the public to believe there are no remaining diplomatic or non-military options to responding to the alleged chemical attack by Assad. The administration has not gone to the UN to get a security resolution to strike Syria, which Rep. Loretta Sanchez said is a legal requirement under the ratified UN charter.
What the administration has decided to do instead is distribute videos, which Kerry said this weekend “make clear that the attack is not something Americans can ignore.” They give the American people something to “connect” with so they can support attacking Syria.
How Can One Honestly Suggest the Obama is Perpetrating a Propaganda Operation?
Edward Bernays wrote in “Propaganda” in 1928 about the efficacy of propaganda. At that time, propaganda was not a word with negative connotations. Propaganda had been used to great effect around World War I.
The US government, according to Bernays, used “visual, graphic and auditory” approaches to appeal to Americans to “support the national endeavor.” They “made use of the mental cliches and the emotional habits of the public to produce mass reactions against the alleged atrocities, the terror and the tyranny of the enemy.”
The government also “secured the cooperation of the key men in every group —persons whose mere word carried authority to hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of followers.” In recent days, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former CIA director David Petraeus have each indicated their support for strikes.
The Washington Post reported on September 3 that the administration had assembled a group of former staffers to “formulate a communications strategy.” That group included: “former senior advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe; Robert Gibbs, who served as White House press secretary; former White House communications director Anita Dunn;Stephanie Cutter , who served as deputy campaign manager for Obama’s 2012 campaign; Tommy Vietor, former National Security Council spokesman; and Jon Favreau, who was the president’s speechwriter. Vietor and Favreau now have a joint communications firm.”
McDonough’s tour of Sunday news programs, along with the distribution of videos, is presumably the result of this brain trust. And, on Monday, President Obama will go on television on PBS, CNN and Fox News. He will also deliver an address on Tuesday evening. That must be part of their strategy as well.
When what the Obama administration plans to do over the next days is considered fully, it is clear the administration does not intend to address the concerns of Americans about starting another war. It intends to manipulate the public into abandoning what reservations they have about what the administration intends to do by inundating Americans with images of victims, which are indisputably awful.
If Americans are aware of what their government is trying to do—and what the administration is trying to do to intimidate their representatives into voting for war, perhaps, the images in the videos will not produce the effect the administration perniciously hopes will occur so Obama can launch a war.