Governments have always used fear and manipulation of emotion to get the public to support wars. The Bush administration did it in 2002 in Iraq and it is happening again in Obama's push for war in Syria.
In possibly the biggest development yet in the story, we learned this weekend that the CIA has now been enlisted to sell this new war with unproven evidence. On Saturday, U.S. intelligence officials claimed they "authenticated" 13 videos that show the horrific aftermath of a chemical attack in Syria in August. What exactly did they "authenticate"?
Why are these videos suddenly news when they have been publicly circulating the web for weeks? Here's why: The videos are meant to market the war, not to "prove" who committed the atrocities. (CBS News and others have reported that the White House case for war has been described as "largely circumstantial.")
We've seen this movie before and it doesn't end well. A decade after the Bush administration used the CIA's "yellow cake" tale and other faulty evidence, the government is yet again relying on the CIA to lead a domestic propaganda effort for military action abroad. If these videos can sway American public opinion, as they're intended to do, and influence Congress to vote to attack Syria, this could become the first YouTube war.
No American could look at these horrifying videos of people suffering and dying and not be moved. But that doesn't mean a military strike is the only way to respond to the humanitarian tragedy happening in Syria. So bald-faced is the rush to war that the White House could not restrain its anticipation that the videos could be successfully employed to market the war. As the Washington Post reported, "Administration officials and their congressional allies believe the horrific scenes depicted in the videos could help sway public opinion." But CNN, which broadcast portions of the grim videos this weekend, added the qualification that they could not independently authenticate them.
The release of these graphic videos is a cynical maneuver by the White House because the rest of the case for war remains unproven, with open questions about transcripts, satellite imagery and signal intelligence under the shield of classified information. What does it mean when the government's case for war relies more on emotion than on evidence? Welcome to war marketing in the YouTube era.
Just as the White House would have us believe that others created the "red line," the administration has just shifted responsibility for the war onto the CIA, which is famous for the use of emotional and psychological warfare. To point to just one example, in the 1960s the Agency's "Operation CHAOS" spied on American anti-war activists to try to disrupt and discredit opposition to the Vietnam War in order to sway public opinion against the anti-war movement.
This is the way intelligence seems to work lately: a classified sales pitch within a broader marketing plan. In an interview this weekend, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough acknowledged the administration's case wasn't 100%: "Do we have a picture or do we have irrefutable, beyond a reasonable doubt evidence? ... This is not a court of law. And intelligence does not work that way," he said.
Actually there are laws against aggressive war and faked intelligence.
I personally witnessed this game in advance of the Iraq War. As a member of Congress, I sat in classified sessions where maps were ceremoniously produced, conjecture elevated, scenarios spun and "evidence" concocted, leading me to conclude that there was no legitimate case to attack Iraq, as I argued five months before the Iraq invasion.
The marketing of a war using the manipulation of the public's emotion is wrong. Here are immediate remedies:
- We must insist that all information presented behind closed doors to advance a war be immediately declassified and released.
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- Congress must demand that the CIA desist in promoting the war and investigate its role in this domestic propaganda campaign: Who demanded the CIA "authentication" and when? Which division of the CIA supplied it?
- Congress must recall for additional testimony from James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, who oversees the CIA.
- Congressional investigators need to demand the underlying intelligence supporting the "classified" briefings.
- There must be no war based on secret information.