Eager to forestall a U.S. intervention, Bashar al-Assad has agreed to relinquish his stockpile of chemical weapons—a stockpile that, until this week, he denied even possessing. But Syria's president continues to deny—as he did in a recent interview with Charlie Rose—that he used such weapons on civilians in an Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. That's less surprising than the people who believe him, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary: countless Americans, including public figures from across the political spectrum who—out of opposition to war in general, or to President Barack Obama specifically—eagerly believe and spread misinformation. Call them chemical-weapons truthers.
One such group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), which is comprised by former spooks and diplomats, last week wrote an open letter to Obama warning that he might be led by dubious intelligence into intervening in Syria. They claimed to have learned from “former co-workers” that “the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21."
If true, this would be devastating to Obama's credibility. But skepticism of intelligence agencies notwithstanding, not everyone is likely to be swayed by the claims of anonymous informants. After all, the VIPS are also contradicting the considered judgment of the British, French and German intelligence—not to mention respected independent analysts like Eliot Higgins. Even the cautious-to-a-fault Human Rights Watch has confirmed the regime’s culpability in August's sarin gas attack.
VIPS insists its detailed account of the attack came from “a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East.” These have confirmed, they say, that the “chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters." Based on “some reports,” they allege, “canisters containing chemical agent were brought into a suburb of Damascus, where they were then opened." They forcefully reject the notion that “a Syrian military rocket capable of carrying a chemical agent was fired into the area."
I asked three of the signatories about their sources. They proved curiously evasive. But one VIPS member, Philip Giraldi, has since published an article in The American Conservative—and the reason for their hesitation has become obvious. The sources for VIPS' most sensational claims, it turns out, are Canadian eccentric Michel Chossudovsky’s conspiracy site Global Research and far-right shock-jock Alex Jones’s Infowars. The specific article that Giraldi references carries the intriguing headline “Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?” (The answer, in case you wondered, is yes.) The author is one Yossef Bodansky—an Israeli-American supporter of Assad’s uncle Rifaat, who led the 1982 massacre in Hama. Bodansky’s theory was widely circulated after an endorsement from Rush Limbaugh. A whole paragraph from Bodansky’s article makes it into the VIPS letter intact, with only a flourish added at the end.
Giraldi references two more articles to substantiate his claim: one from Infowars and another from DailyKos. But both reference the same source, an obscure website called Mint Press which published an article claiming that Syrian rebels had accidentally set off a canister of Sarin supplied to them by the Saudis. The idea that an accident in one place would cause over a thousand deaths in 12 separate locations—with none affected in areas in between—somehow did not strike this intelligence veteran as implausible. But to its credit, Mint Press has since added a disclaimer: “Some information in this article could not be independently verified."
What of VIPS’s “numerous sources in the Middle East,” then? It turns out they're the same as Bodansky’s “numerous sources in the Middle East”—the sentence is plagiarized.
None of this has prevented the letter from finding a larger audience among opponents of U.S. involvement in Syria. Michael Moore has posted it on his website. The far-right World Net Daily has given it favorable coverage. And Pamela Geller is promoting its claims. What the letter lacks in verifiable sources, it makes up for in its ideological serviceability.
The VIPS letter may be exceptional in its shoddiness, but it's part of a broader gullibility. In an article for The Huffington Post last week, former Congressman Dennis Kucinich also cast doubt on the regime’s use of chemical weapons and suggested that the administration had dismissed “reports of rebel use of chemical weapons.” Among the sources he cites is Eliot Higgins’s Brown Moses blog, but Higgins is unequivocal that no entity other the regime could have carried out the attack. The only thing Higgins withholds judgment on is whether the munitions used were military-grade chemical weapons—a moot point, since even the Assad regime no longer denies such weapons were used, but only who used them. Kucinich also cites Global Research in reprising a claim, long since discredited, that the United Nations accused Syrian rebels of using chemical weapons. That rumor originated with a controversial Swiss member of the U.N. independent commission of inquiry, Carla del Ponte, who suggested in May that Assad’s opponents had used chemical weapons. The U.N. swiftly distanced itself from her statements and made clear that its inquiry had "not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict.”
This is not the first time critics of U.S. foreign policy have denied the Syrian regime’s atrocities. One of the major promoters of the Mint Press article was the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which, more than a year before Ghouta, had used another dubious source to exculpate the Assad regime for the massacre in Houla. The facts of the incident were clear: The town was besieged by the regime; it was under artillery assault before and after the massacre; the barrage relented only long enough to let the perpetrators enter the town and carry out the killing. The U.N. visited Houla a day after the atrocity and an accompanying Channel 4 team interviewed survivors on camera. Three days later, Human Rights Watch pointed its finger at the regime. There was little doubt about the attack's authorship.
Yet, after a single story appeared in the conservative German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung alleging that those killed were Alawite regime supporters and that the perpetrators were besieged Sunni rebels, the far right and left ran with the story. After first making an appearance on the National Review website, it was picked up by the UK’s eccentric Media Lens; from there, it made it onto a FAIR “media alert” and eventually to Pamela Geller’s blog. The implausibility of the story, its complete reliance on anonymous sources, and the German journalist Rainer Herman’s subsequent admission that he had never been to Houla did not prevent it from becoming a news meme. In Britain, it was referenced both by Emmy- and BAFTA-winning documentary filmmaker John Pilger and Guardian senior editor Seumas Milne to exonerate the regime or to cast doubt on its responsibility.
The conspiracy theory was finally laid to rest last month after the UN completed its extensive investigation confirming the regime’s guilt. None of its purveyors apologized.
This tendency to shift blame away from Assad has even infected otherwise sophisticated thinkers like David Bromwich, a literature professor at Yale. In an article last week for The Huffington Post, after questioning the reported number of dead in the Ghouta attack, and whether the munitions used were indeed chemical weapons, Bromwich advises Congress to ask Obama:
Whether the entry into Syria on August 17 and 19 of US-trained guerrilla forces of the Free Syrian Army, numbering more than 300 — and the passage of those forces through Ghouta about the time of the chemical attack, as documented in the Jerusalem Post on August 23 — did, or did not, make them targets of the attack; and if not, what information about the activity of the forces leads to this conclusion.
The implied question: If 300 FSA fighters were passing through Ghouta, then was the regime not justified in gassing the neighborhoods?
There are perfectly good arguments for opposing military intervention—and some have been made persuasively, on moral or national interest grounds. There are also good reasons to be skeptical of humanitarian conceits that might be used to justify intervention. But there is more than a fine line between skepticism and cynicism—and not even the otherwise noble concern with preventing war, or the less-noble determination to oppose a president regardless of policy, justifies excusing the Assad regime’s well-documented crimes. While war must always be an option of last resort, and it is right to be concerned about its unforeseen consequences (as long as one is mindful that inaction too has consequences), the national debate over whether to wage it in Syria is not helped by spreading ideologically driven lies.