So, just a little more than a decade after President George W. Bush misled the nation into a disastrous war in Iraq, President Barack Obama and his team are trying to sell a new war with Syria by presenting even fewer details.
Members of Congress also are reprising their roles from 2002-2003, displaying almost no skepticism as they get "classified" glimpses of this well-scrubbed intelligence. And, the mainstream press has slid into the same careless acceptance of U.S. government proclamations as fact, just as it did a decade ago.
For instance, the New York Times star columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who swallowed the Iraq War lies whole, is gorging himself again on whatever the U.S. government is dishing up on Syria. "Count me with the activists on the question of whether the United States should respond to the Syrian regime's murder of some 1,400 civilians, more than 400 of them children, with poison gas," Friedman wrote on Wednesday.
Note his complete lack of sourcing or ambivalence, though every point in his declarative sentence is in doubt, including the numbers of victims. British intelligence cites a figure of "at least 350" while U.S. intelligence provides the strangely precise number of "1,429," but without offering any public explanation of how that total was reached.
After the Iraq War fiasco, which killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (although, in that case, the U.S. government never did a serious body count), I wrote a number of articles calling for accountability not only for government officials who authorized the illegal war but for journalists who failed to protect the American people from government lies.
However, the conventional wisdom then was that it would be unfair to fire or demote journalists who ran with the pack. After all, they were simply doing what almost everyone else was doing -- and it was impractical to purge the swollen ranks of implicated journalists, from senior editors to big-name columnists to beat reporters.
So, with very few exceptions, there was no accountability in the national press as there was next to none within the U.S. government (except for some whistleblowers who exposed government wrongdoing). This failure of fairness and justice created the danger that when the next Middle East crisis arose, the American people would be guided by many of the same politicians who messed up Iraq -- and would be informed by the same journalists.
Thus, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, you had most of the testimony coming from two politicians -- Secretary of State Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- who as senators in 2002 voted for Bush's Iraq War resolution. And you had the likes to Thomas Friedman and the Washington Post's neocon opinion section again beating the drums for war, either by arming the Syrian rebels or through direct intervention by the U.S. military.
Though some of the Iraq War hawks in the press and politics later admitted they were duped by Bush's certitude regarding Iraq's WMD stockpiles -- and they shouldn't have stated the WMD's existence as "flat fact" -- they have quickly forgotten that lesson a decade later with Syria.
Instead of demanding that the Obama administration present its intelligence information in detail, the usual suspects have simply fallen back into the pattern of accepting disputed U.S. evidence as undeniable. Friedman almost swaggers rhetorically as he dares anyone to doubt the U.S. government's case this time.
Similarly, Kerry is emboldened to embroider the U.S. government's claims without supplying any checkable details. In his Senate testimony on Tuesday, Kerry declared that the "Assad regime prepared for this attack, issued instructions to prepare for this attack, warned its own forces to use gas masks." He added that the U.S. intelligence included "physical evidence of where the rockets came from and when."
Previously, Kerry had claimed that a phone intercept of a senior Syrian official caught him admitting that the Assad regime had carried out the attack. But a three-page white paper issued last Friday contained not a single independently verifiable piece of evidence. For instance, the "senior official" was left unnamed and his words were only paraphrased. There were no direct quotes, no transcript, no full context.
It's also unclear how the United States knows about the Assad regime's pre-attack preparations and the location of the missile launches. If the U.S. possesses satellite photographs or other physical evidence, none has been revealed publicly.
Though some credulous Congress people have emerged from the "classified" briefings deeply impressed by the intelligence community's presentations, a few were underwhelmed. "Yes, I saw the classified documents," Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, told The Hill newspaper. "They were pretty thin."
One also might assume that if the intelligence were truly a "slam dunk," the Obama administration would have figured out ways of highlighting the evidence. The fact that all the details are being kept from the American people should be regarded as a prima facie case for believing that Rep. Burgess is right.