Guardian columnist George Monbiot has responded to our recent media alert on the alleged gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, Syria, on April 4:
'Here's a response to the latest attempt by @medialens to dismiss the mounting evidence on the authorship of the #KhanSheikhoun attack'
This is a very serious misrepresentation of what we have argued in two media alerts. We made our position crystal-clear in the latest alert:
'We have no idea who was responsible for the mass killings in Idlib on April 4; we are not weapons experts. But it seems obvious to us that arguments and evidence offered by credible sources like Postol should at least be aired by the mass media.'
To interpret this as an attempt to 'dismiss the mounting evidence on the authorship of the #KhanSheikhoun attack' is to exactly reverse the truth, which is frankly outrageous from a high-profile Guardian journalist. We are precisely calling for journalists to not dismiss evidence on the authorship of the alleged attack. This is why we quoted investigative reporter Robert Parry:
'The role of an honest press corps should be to apply skepticism to all official stories, not carry water for "our side" and reject anything coming from the "other side," which is what The New York Times, The Washington Post and the rest of the Western mainstream media have done, especially regarding Middle East policies and now the New Cold War with Russia.'
We have most certainly not urged anyone to 'dismiss' the White House version of events. We have asked journalists to consider that version as well as evidence offered by credible critics like former UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Scott Ritter, and by investigative journalists like Parry. We are clearly arguing in favour of inclusion of evidence, not exclusion. Monbiot has simply reversed the truth. In an expanded version of his tweeted response titled, 'Disavowal', he writes:
'There's an element on the left that seems determined to produce a mirror image of the Washington Consensus. Just as the billionaire press and Western governments downplay and deny the crimes of their allies, so this element downplays and denies the crimes of the West's official enemies.'
We have no interest in downplaying or denying any crimes. We hold no candle whatever for Assad or Putin, as we held no candle for Milosevic, Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. We are simply urging journalists to consider both 'Washington Consensus' arguments and serious counter-arguments offered by credible sources. Monbiot writes:
'The pattern is always the same. They ignore a mountain of compelling evidence and latch onto one or a few contrarians who tell them what they want to hear (a similar pattern to the 9/11 conspiracy theories, and to climate change denial). The lastest [sic] example is an "alert" published by an organisation called Media Lens, in response to a tweet of mine.'
Our latest alert was not 'in response' to Monbiot's tweet; it was in response to Professor Postol's analysischallenging a White House report on the alleged attacks in Idlib. We simply used Monbiot's tweet as a typical example indicating what we described as the 'corporate media zeitgeist'.
Is it reasonable to describe Postol, one of the world's 'leading weapons experts', according to the New York Times, as a 'contrarian'? Is Hans Blix, who led the weapons inspections team in Iraq in 2002-2003, a 'contrarian'? How about former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who was 100% vindicated by the failure to find WMD in Iraq? Can Noam Chomsky also be dismissed as merely a 'contrarian' following a 'pattern' which is 'always the same'? Chomsky commented recently:
'Well, there are some interesting questions there -- you can understand why Assad would have been pretty crazy [to provoke a US intervention] because they're winning the war. The worst thing for him is to bring the United States in. So why would he turn to a chemical weapons attack? You can imagine that a dictator with just local interests might do it, maybe if he thought he had a green light. But why would the Russians allow it? It doesn't make any sense. And in fact, there are some questions about what happened, but there are some pretty credible people -- not conspiracy types -- people with solid intelligence credentials that say it didn't happen.
'Lawrence Wilkerson said that the US intelligence picked up a plane and followed that it probably hit an Al-Qaeda warehouse which had some sort of chemical weapon stored in it and they spread. I don't know. But it certainly calls for at least an investigation. And those are not insignificant people [challenging the official narrative].'
We are saying no more or less than this – it calls for at least an investigation.
Chomsky pointed to comments made by Wilkerson, former chief of staff to General Colin Powell, in a recent interview on the Real News Network:
'I personally think the provocation was a Tonkin Gulf incident..... Most of my sources are telling me, including members of the team that monitors global chemical weapons –including people in Syria, including people in the US Intelligence Community–that what most likely happened ...was that they hit a warehouse that they had intended to hit...and this warehouse was alleged to have to [sic] ISIS supplies in it, and... some of those supplies were precursors for chemicals..... conventional bombs hit the warehouse, and due to a strong wind, and the explosive power of the bombs, they dispersed these ingredients and killed some people.'
There is also the collective judgement of 20 former members of the US Intelligence Community, the Steering Group of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity:
'Our U.S. Army contacts in the area have told us this is not what happened. There was no Syrian "chemical weapons attack." Instead, a Syrian aircraft bombed an al-Qaeda-in-Syria ammunition depot that turned out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the chemical-laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died.....This is what the Russians and Syrians have been saying and – more important –what they appear to believe happened.'
Monbiot's 'one or a few contrarians' include all of the above, plus journalists John Pilger, Jonathan Cook, Peter Hitchens, Gareth Porter, Philip Giraldi, and others. They also include Piers Robinson, Professor of Politics, Society and Political Journalism at the University of Sheffield, who responded to our request for a comment:
'Monbiot supports the official narrative that the Assad regime is responsible for the April 4 event when it is alleged that Assad's forces launched a chemical weapon attack on civilians. He is presenting this as factually correct even though some credible commentators have raised questions regarding these claims and whilst there remains a lack of compelling evidence. In a recent posting Monbiot quotes recent French intelligence service claims regarding Assad's guilt in this matter.
'The problem here is that there are substantial grounds for remaining cautious of official claims. It is no secret that Western governments and key allies of theirs (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) have been seeking the overthrow of Assad for many years now. Indeed, the recently published Chilcot Inquiry, in section 3.1, revealed discussions between Blair and Bush which indicate that Syria was considered a potential target straight after 9/11. Given these objectives it is entirely plausible that Western intelligence services might be manipulating information so as to generate the impression that the Assad regime is responsible. Indeed, this kind of propaganda was well documented in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq when weak intelligence was used by US and British politicians to justify their certainty that Iraq possessed WMD. These are all very good reasons for journalists and commentators to ask challenging questions rather than to dismiss out of hand any such attempts in the way Monbiot does.' (Email to Media Lens, May 3, 2017)
Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory at Edinburgh University, has also responded to Monbiot's piece here:
'There are serious unsettled questions about every aspect of the incident, not only the anomalies concerning time of incident, identity of victims, causes of death, role of White Helmets, and about whose interests it served, but also concerning the forensic evidence itself.'
'In a tweeted response, he repeated his opinion that people like me, who question it, are denying a mountain of evidence.
'So to state a point that should not need stating: to question is not to deny – although nor is it to affirm. It is to seek knowledge and understanding. Being less impressed than George by the quantity of data presented as evidence, I have only ever commented on its quality.'
Hayward adds that in Monbiot's latest post: 'he has entrenched more deeply his defence of the NATO narrative'.
Monbiot says 'the pattern is always the same'. In fact, there is indeed a pattern of 'mainstream' media insisting on the need for war in response to unproven claims that are often later debunked. We gave several examples in our first alert on the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Idlib. It is absurd for Monbiot to wearily dismiss our 'pattern', when our scepticism over claims made on Iraq and Libya - and numerous other issues, over many years - has so obviously been justified. Again, our problem is with the refusal of 'mainstream' media to report or discuss the opinions of credible experts challenging government claims. Back to Monbiot:
'Doubtless the French government will now be added to the list of conspirators.'
We have not argued for any kind of conspiracy – perhaps the US, UK and French governments all agree because they have seen the same evidence and are correct in their apportioning of blame. We don't know; we are not weapons experts. Our point is that if journalists like Monbiot are serious about establishing the truth, they will test the French government and other claims against the arguments and evidence offered by dissidents. They will consider the different claims, and come to some kind of informed conclusion. What is not acceptable is that journalists should simply accept as Truth arguments made by Western governments openly seeking regime change in Syria and that have a spectacular track record of lying about claims supposedly justifying war.
'For the record, I oppose Western military intervention in Syria. I believe it is likely only to make a dreadful situation worse. I believe that the best foreign governments can do at the moment is to provide humanitarian relief, seek to broker negotiated settlements and accept refugees from the horrors inflicted by all sides in that nation.
'I have no agenda here other than to ensure that the reality suffered by the people of Khan Sheikhoun is not denied. The survivors of the chemical weapons attack are among the key witnesses to the fact that the weapons were delivered by air – it is their testimony as well as that of investigators that is being dismissed by people who would prefer to deny that the Assad government could have been responsible.'
Again, we are not arguing for any evidence or testimony to be 'dismissed'. We are arguing for counter-arguments to be admitted and considered by a press that is supposed to be objective, neutral and fair. Monbiot adds:
'When people allow geopolitical considerations to displace both a reasoned assessment of the evidence and a principled humanitarianism, they mirror the doctrines of people such as Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair. The victims become an abstraction, a political tool whose purpose is to serve an agenda. That this agenda stands in opposition to the objectives of people like Kissinger and Blair does not justify the exercise.'
This is really outrageous. We are not mirroring, but exactly opposing, the positions adopted by the likes of Kissinger and Blair. They, of course, were strongly against fair consideration of all the available evidence. Blair, for example, did everything he could to manufacture a case for war on Iraq by manipulating and hyping evidence, and by keeping evidence exposing his fake case for war from public view. In responding to Monbiot, former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook is able to understand the point that somehow eludes Monbiot:
'We need more debate about the evidence, not less of it. Postol, Blix and Ritter may be wrong. But they should have a fair hearing and their arguments should be fully aired in the mainstream – especially, in supposedly liberal media outlets like the Guardian. Anyone who wants to understand what happened in Idlib must also want a vigorous and open debate that most members of the public will have access to.' (Our emphasis)
And in fact Postol was wrong in his April 27 misreading of the French intelligence report on the Idlib incident. He quickly issued a correction and has subsequently poured scorn on the French claims.
'The implications should be obvious. If we deny crimes against humanity, or deny the evidence pointing to the authorship of these crimes, we deny the humanity of the victims. Aren't we supposed to be better than this? If we do not support the principle of universalism – human rights and justice for everyone, regardless of their identity or the identity of those who oppress them – what are we for?'
We agree but for reasons Monbiot would probably not understand. When we admit only the view of Western governments and agencies supporting their position, and ignore the evidence of courageous whistleblowers and dissidents, we are risking the lives of people in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. When those of us promoting inclusion of evidence are smeared as 'deniers', then we are in a sorry state indeed. Asking awkward questions is not a Thought Crime.
A few years ago, Monbiot had what he believed was a brilliant, revelatory insight: that the left is marred by a 'malign intellectual subculture', comprised of Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, John Pilger and others, including us, that is as blinkered and intellectually dishonest as the 'libertarian right'. The left also sees only what it wants to see. Monbiot was able to grasp this because, as he says:
'I've long prided myself on being able to handle more reality than most...'
The perfect irony is that, to cling to this view of the 'malign' subculture, Monbiot has had to turn his own blinkered eye to the many times the left's sceptical response to state-corporate claims justifying war has been vindicated. Saddam Hussein did not 'expel' weapons inspectors prior to bombing in December 1998, as claimed. He did not deliberately attempt to worsen the effects of sanctions by obstructing UN food supplies. He was not involved in the September 11 attacks and did not have links to al-Qaeda. He did not attempt to hide WMD that he did not have. Gaddafi did not fuel mass rape with Viagra, he did notuse African mercenaries, and there is noevidence that he was planning a massacre in Benghazi. The 'pattern' of the left questioning these claims is something to celebrate, not disavow.