Reprinted from Consortium News
Theoretically, it would be a great story for the American press: an autocrat so obsessed with overthrowing the leader of a neighboring country that he authorizes his intelligence services to collaborate with terrorists in staging a lethal sarin attack to be blamed on his enemy and thus trick major powers to launch punishing bombing raids against the enemy's military.
And, after that scheme failed to achieve the desired intervention, the autocrat continues to have his intelligence services aid terrorists inside the neighboring country by providing weapons and safe transit for truck convoys carrying the terrorists' oil to market. The story gets juicier because the autocrat's son allegedly shares in the oil profits.
To make the story even more compelling, an opposition leader braves the wrath of the autocrat by seeking to expose these intelligence schemes, including the cover-up of key evidence. The autocrat's government then seeks to prosecute the critic for "treason."
But the problem with this story, as far as the American government and press are concerned, is that the autocratic leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is in charge of Turkey, a NATO ally and his hated neighbor is the much demonized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Major U.S. news outlets and political leaders also bought into the sarin deception and simply can't afford to admit that they once again misled the American people on a matter of war.
The Official Story of the sarin attack -- as presented by Secretary of State John Kerry, Human Rights Watch and other "respectable" sources -- firmly laid the blame for the Aug. 21, 2013 atrocity killing hundreds of civilians outside Damascus on Assad. That became a powerful "group think" across Official Washington.
Though a few independent media outlets, including Consortiumnews.com, challenged the rush to judgment and noted the lack of evidence regarding Assad's guilt, those doubts were brushed aside. (In an article on Aug. 30, 2013, I described the administration's "Government Assessment" blaming Assad as a "dodgy dossier," which offered not a single piece of verifiable proof.)
However, as with the "certainty" about Iraq's WMD a decade earlier, Every Important Person shared the Assad-did-it "group think." That meant -- as far as Official Washington was concerned -- that Assad had crossed President Barack Obama's "red line" against using chemical weapons. A massive U.S. retaliatory bombing strike was considered just days away.
But Obama -- at the last minute -- veered away from launching those military attacks, with Official Washington concluding that Obama had shown "weakness" by not following through. What was virtually unreported was that U.S. intelligence analysts had doubts about Assad's guilt and suspected a trap being laid by extremists.
Despite those internal questions, the U.S. government and the compliant mainstream media publicly continued to push the Assad-did-it propaganda line. In a formal address to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013, Obama declared, "It's an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack."
Later, a senior State Department official tried to steer me toward the Assad-is-guilty assessment of a British blogger then known as Moses Brown, a pseudonym for Eliot Higgins, who now runs an outfit called Bellingcat which follows an effective business model by reinforcing whatever the U.S. propaganda machine is churning out on a topic, except having greater credibility by posing as a "citizen blogger." [For more on Higgins, see Consortiumnews.com's "'MH-17 Case: 'Old Journalism' vs. 'New.'"]
The supposedly conclusive proof against Assad came in a "vector analysis" developed by Human Rights Watch and The New York Times -- tracing the flight paths of two rockets back to a Syrian military base northwest of Damascus. But that analysis collapsed when it became clear that only one of the rockets carried sarin and its range was less than one-third the distance between the army base and the point of impact. That meant the rocket carrying the sarin appeared to have originated in rebel territory.
But the "group think" was resistant to all empirical evidence. It was so powerful that even when the Turkish plot was uncovered by legendary investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh, his usual publication, The New Yorker, refused to print it. Rebuffed in the United States -- the land of freedom of the press -- Hersh had to take the story to the London Review of Books to get it out in April 2014. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Was Turkey Behind Syria Sarin Attack?"]
The Easier Route
It remained easier for The New York Times, The Washington Post and other premier news outlets to simply ignore the compelling tale of possible Turkish complicity in a serious war crime. After all, what would the American people think if -- after the mainstream media had failed to protect the country against the lies that led to the disastrous Iraq War -- the same star news sources had done something similar on Syria by failing to ask tough questions?