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New York Times, sarin and skepticism

Iraq Then, Syria Now?

FAIR | May 15, 2013

During the run-up to the Iraq War, the New York Times amplified erroneous official claims about weapons of mass destruction (FAIR Action Alert, 9/8/06). Looking at the paper’s coverage of allegations of chemical weapons use by Syria, some of the same patterns are clear: an over-reliance on official sources and the downplaying of critical or skeptical analysis of the available intelligence.

In “Syria Faces New Claim on Chemical Arms” (4/19/13), the paper told readers that, according to anonymous diplomats, Britain and France had sent letters to the United Nations about “credible evidence” against Syria regarding chemical weapon use. On April 24, the Times reported that Israel had “evidence that the Syrian government repeatedly used chemical weapons last month.”

The next day (4/25/13), the Times reported that, according to an unnamed “senior official,” the White House “shares the suspicions of several of its allies that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.” The article spoke of the “mounting pressure to act against Syria,” adding, “Some analysts say they worry that if the United States waits too long, it will embolden President Bashar al-Assad.”

And then on April 26, under the headline “White House Says Syria Has Used Chemical Arms,” the Times reported:

The White House, in a letter to Congressional leaders, said the nation’s intelligence agencies assessed ”with varying degrees of confidence” that the government of President Bashar al-Assad had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale.

 The story included a source, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.), who presented the intelligence as more definitive: She “said the agencies actually expressed more certainty about the use of these weapons than the White House indicated in its letter.”

 An April 27 Times report warned  that there were dangers in waiting too long to respond to the charges that Syria has used chemical weapons:

 If the president waits for courtroom levels of proof, what has been a few dozen deaths from chemical weapons–in a war that has claimed more than 70,000 lives–could multiply.

 In following days, the accusations of chemical weapons use were presented uncritically as the premise for political stories: pondering how the White House would “respond to growing evidence that Syrian officials have used chemical weapons” (4/28/13) or noting Republican attacks on the White House following “revelations last week that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is believed to have used chemical weapons against his own people” (4/29/13).

 On May 5, the Times was again weighing in on the political ramifications:

Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama now finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.

 Then, on May 5 came an unusual shift: Carla Del Ponte, a member of a United Nations team investigating human rights abuses in the Syrian civil war, claimed that the UN had collected evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria–but by the rebels, not by the government.

 After running a Reuters dispatch on May 6, the Times published its own piece on May 7, a report that talked about “new questions about the use of chemical weapons.” But the emphasis was clearly on rebutting the charges: The paper reported that the White House had “cast doubt on an assertion by a United Nations official that the Syrian rebels…had used the nerve agent sarin.” The piece included three U.S. sources–one named, two unnamed–who questioned the Del Ponte claims.

 The article went on to reiterate that the White House was weighing other options based on “its conclusion that there was a strong likelihood that the Assad government has used chemical weapons on its citizens.”

Outside the New York Times, though, doubts about the evidence pointing to Syrian use of poison gas  were evident from the very start. McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay (4/26/13) reported that one source characterized the U.S. intelligence as “tiny little data points” that were of “low to moderate” confidence.

 An April 30 report from GlobalPost noted that a “spent canister” at the scene of one attack “and the symptoms displayed by the victims are inconsistent with a chemical weapon such as sarin gas.” A subsequent GlobalPost dispatch (5/5/13) reported that blood samples tested in Turkey were not turning up evidence of sarin exposure.

NBC reporter Richard Engel (5/8/13) traveled to Syria with rebel forces to examine evidence they had collected. He seemed to concur with the GlobalPost reports that the chemical exposure could very well have been from a type of tear gas.

 By May 7, McClatchy was reporting that the case was looking weaker, noting that

 no concrete proof has emerged, and some headline-grabbing claims have been discredited or contested. Officials worldwide now admit that no allegations rise to the level of certainty…..Existing evidence casts more doubt on claims of chemical weapons use than it does to help build a case that one or both sides of the conflict have employed them.

 It is clear that the Times has promoted a storyline that treats the chemical weapons claims as more definitive than they are, and has given scant attention to subsequent revelations about the evidence.

 In a recent column (5/5/13), Times public editor Margaret Sullivan argued that the paper still faces problems with its credibility based on its reporting about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction over 10 years ago. The Times “pledged more skeptical and rigorous reporting” going forward, and Sullivan argues that the Times “has taken important steps” in that direction.

 But does the paper’s handling of the Syria chemical weapons stories demonstrate that the paper has learned lessons? Or is it repeating the same mistakes?

Ask the New York Times public editor to evaluate the paper’s reporting on Syria and chemical weapons.

New York Times
Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor

May 17, 2013 Posted by | Deception, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Wars for Israel | , , , , | Comments Off on New York Times, sarin and skepticism

IRS chief defends targeting of groups as ‘obnoxious,’ not illegal

By Bernie Becker and Peter Schroeder – The Hill – 05/17/13

Acting IRS chief Steven Miller on Friday said he did not believe agency officials did anything illegal when giving extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Miller, who was forced to resign this week by President Obama, said he didn’t believe the scrutiny was illegal even as he apologized for the IRS’s actions, which have turned into a political storm for the White House.

He also admitted under questioning from House Ways and Means Committee members that facts could emerge that might change whether he thinks anyone in the agency committed a crime, and he said one staffer involved in the extra scrutiny was reassigned and another received counseling.

Facing tense, and at times hostile, questions from GOP lawmakers at the first congressional hearing on the IRS controversy, Miller said the screening process the IRS used was “obnoxious” and called the customer service the agency offered “horrible.”

Miller stressed that the extra attention happened because IRS officials faced an avalanche of applications for tax-exempt status.

But he also pushed back on GOP lawmakers who said the IRS was targeting conservatives, calling that a “loaded” statement.

“When you talk about targeting, that’s a pejorative term,” Miller said.

Asked if the IRS’s actions had been illegal, he responded: “I don’t believe it is.”

He then added of the behavior: “I don’t believe it should happen.”

Miller’s answers did not sit well with GOP lawmakers throughout Friday’s hearing, and his comments fly in the face of top Republicans like Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who have said that agency staffers should be jailed.

Republicans on Friday accused the acting IRS chief of lying to them about the extra scrutiny given to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Miller found out about that special attention more than a year ago but declined to tell lawmakers.

At the start of Friday’s committee hearing, Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) rattled off several different violations he believes the IRS committed.

Camp also linked the IRS uproar to what he called a “culture of cover-ups and political intimidation in this administration,” an apparent reference to last year’s attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s subpoena of reporter records.

“This systemic abuse cannot be fixed with just one resignation,” Camp said. “And, as much as I expect more people need to go, the reality is this is not a personnel problem. This is a problem of the IRS being too large, too powerful, too intrusive and too abusive of honest, hardworking taxpayers.”

But Republicans on the panel have also expressed frustration throughout the hearing at Miller’s sometimes feisty answers, with the acting chief maintaining that he did not lie to them.

“You’re not going to cooperate with me, Mr. Miller, and you’ve been uncooperative in this hearing,” Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) told the IRS official.

Democrats acknowledged that the IRS had made serious mistakes and generally agreed with Miller’s statements that agency officials did not target Tea Party and conservative groups for political reasons.

“What I’m trying to point out, and basically to debunk, is the notion or idea the political statements — and, I believe, nonfactual statements by Chairman Camp — to link these scandals to the White House,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), a member of House Democratic leadership.

Democrats also stressed repeatedly that the Doug Shulman, who was IRS commissioner when the targeting took place, was nominated by former President George W. Bush. And several said that the major issue was the cloudy regulations guiding which groups should be granted tax-exempt status.

Miller is testifying along with Russell George, the Treasury inspector general whose report details what he called “ineffective management” at the agency.

George’s report found that the IRS asked for excessive information from conservative groups, including donor lists and whether group leaders wanted to run for public office. The IRS also applied inconsistent principles when deciding which groups to give extra screening, the report said, leading some groups to wait months or years for approval.

According to the inspector general’s report, Lois Lerner, the IRS official who first disclosed the targeting, found out in June 2011. Lerner pushed for the screening guidelines to be changed, but other IRS officials eventually went around her to change them again.

George’s report also says that IRS staffers assert that lower-level employees crafted the screening process and that they were not influenced by any outside group.

Miller on Friday acknowledged that Lerner’s disclosure of the IRS targeting last Friday came from a planted question.

Camp had said in his opening statement that he was interested in hearing why the IRS targeting occurred and why the agency kept it secret for so long, who started the extra scrutiny, and when President Obama and his administration found out.

But in a hearing break, he told The Hill that he wasn’t satisfied with the answers the panel was getting from Miller, a feeling shared by other Republicans.

“On the one hand, you’re arguing today that the IRS is not corrupt,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). “But the subtext of that is you say, ‘Look, we’re just incompetent.’ And I think it is a perilous pathway to go down.”

May 17, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Full Spectrum Dominance | , , , | Comments Off on IRS chief defends targeting of groups as ‘obnoxious,’ not illegal

Over 70 states refuse to say yes to anti-Syria resolution

Press TV – May 16, 2013

More than 70 countries have refused to say yes to an Arab-backed resolution against Syria at the United Nations General Assembly.

Russia, China and Iran were among the 12 countries that opposed the resolution on Wednesday.

Russia called the resolution, co-sponsored by the United States, “counterproductive and irresponsible.”

The resolution was adopted by a vote of 107-12 with 59 abstentions. Argentina, Brazil, and more than a dozen other Latin American and Caribbean countries abstained from voting.

Russian Deputy Ambassador to the UN Alexander Pankin called the resolution “very harmful and destructive,” saying it disregards “illegal actions of the armed opposition.” He also accused the resolution’s Arab sponsors of attempting to replace the Syrian government instead of trying to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria.

Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari also stated that the resolution “seeks to escalate the crisis and fuel violence in Syria.”

The non-binding resolution, which was drafted by a number of Arab states, calls for a “political transition” and refers to the foreign-backed militants in Syria as “effective representative interlocutors” needed for the transition.

The Syria crisis began in March 2011, and many people, including large numbers of soldiers and security personnel, have been killed in the violence.

The Syrian government says that the chaos is being orchestrated from outside the country, and there are reports that a very large number of the militants are foreign nationals.

Damascus says the West and its regional allies, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, are supporting the militants.

In an interview recently broadcast on Turkish television, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that if the militants take power in Syria, they could destabilize the entire Middle East region for decades.

“If the unrest in Syria leads to the partitioning of the country, or if the terrorist forces take control… the situation will inevitably spill over into neighboring countries and create a domino effect throughout the Middle East and beyond,” he stated.

May 17, 2013 Posted by | Aletho News | , , , , , , | Comments Off on Over 70 states refuse to say yes to anti-Syria resolution

PALESTINE REFLECTION: A right to education

CPTnet | May 16, 2013

-2On May 12, we arrived at Al Fakheit School where we were met by “Al Jazeera” journalists filming a documentary about the difficulty that children face in getting to school in Occupied Palestine. They told us about one school near East Jerusalem where children have to pass through a sewer pipe to reach their school.

As we were describing similar difficulties faced by children in the South Hebron Hills, and the dangers of living in a live firing zone, the headmaster approached us looking crestfallen. He told us that soldiers had just stopped three teachers as they were driving to Jinba School and told them that the police would arrest them since they were not allowed to be in a closed military area. Police then came and took the teachers into a nearby illegal Israeli settlement and held them for two hours before release. They allowed two teachers to continue on to the school, but made one return home. The police had previously arrested him at a non-violent protest against the firing zone, and said he was not permitted to return to the area.

Children in Al Fakheit and Jinba face daily disruptions from the army, whose helicopters often hover over their schools. As we were playing football with the children in Jinba, they suddenly started shouting “jesh, jesh” (army, army) and we saw a large military jeep whiz through the village, passing very close to the school and houses. Within five minutes it was back again, speeding through the village, kicking up stones and dust. Children have got used to the military presence near their homes, but are still fearful of what might happen. Will the army stop and arrest someone? Will they come to demolish something? On our way home, we stopped in the village of Mirkez. An old lady invited us in for tea. She told us that a few days ago, while a 14-year-old boy was herding his flock, the army took him into a nearby settlement but later released him.

Imagine the insecurity of living in an area where soldiers or police could pick you up any day for no reason. The people living in this area also face threats and acts of violence from settlers. A few days before our visit, settlers damaged 60 thirty-year-old olive trees. The olive tree is a symbol of peace. Villagers in the South Hebron Hills are committed to non-violent resistance. I am inspired by their continued strength and struggle. They face so many obstacles just trying to do things that people I know take for granted, like getting an education and grazing their sheep on their own land. Who knows how the daily intimidation and fear will affect these children in the future? I hope and pray that when they are ready to bring up children themselves, the occupation will have ended, and they will be able to go to school and herd their flocks free of fear.


Please sign this petition to tell Israel that this behavior must stop.

May 17, 2013 Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Subjugation - Torture | , , , , , , , | Comments Off on PALESTINE REFLECTION: A right to education