Secretary of State John Kerry. (AP Images)
Days later and we still have no idea where Secretary of State John Kerry got that amazingly precise number of 1,429 killed in the alleged Syria chemical agent attack. He hasn’t cited full sourcing for it or taken questions on that. He merely claims he can’t say because it would “compromise” intelligence, which sounds like utter bull. President Obama also cited the death toll as fact in public statements beating the drums for war.
And all other sources put the number a little or a lot lower. Why does this matter in the current debate? Obviously the higher number, particularly with the also unproven claim of more than 400 dead kids, is meant to sell a US military attack to the American people—and that’s why it’s a key claim. That 1,400 number makes the latest attack seem so much worse than earlier alleged Assad chem attacks, which we did not find horrible enough to claim they crossed the “red line.”
Despite all that, most in US media for days still cited the number with little qualifying or probing. It was often said that Kerry “revealed” the number of deaths, not “claimed.”
That’s starting to change, finally, although few in the media are charging Kerry with a deliberate lie. In the midst of a major AP story (on the US’s missing signs of the chemical attack) last night the reporter notes: “The administration says 1,429 died in the attack. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower.” A September 3 New York Times piece referred to the “stunningly higher” US death figure.
Mark Seibel, a top McClatchy editor, was on Democracy Now! Wednesday taking up that issue, among others, and see full transcript here. McClatchy had published a piece the day before analyzing the questions about the high figure. It quoted Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who criticized Kerry as being “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” of 1,429.
A Los Angeles Times piece late yesterday took a very tough look at it, citing the lower figures from the Brits and French. And this:
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally regarded as one of the most reliable sources of information on casualty figures in Syria, says it has confirmed 502 deaths, including 80 children and 137 women. Rami Abdul-Rahman, a Syrian expatriate who runs the organization from his home in Britain, said he was shocked by the White House’s count.
“I don’t know where this number came from,” Abdul-Rahman said in a phone interview. He said some Syrian opposition groups disseminate propaganda and exaggerated death tolls in an attempt to sway American politicians. “The U.S. took this high number from one part of the Syrian opposition that is supported by the U.S. government,” Abdul-Rahman said. “We don’t trust them.”
A former CIA official tells the LA Times: “I would suspect most of that information would be on the high side initially. You’ll have sources who want to influence you, so they’ll give higher figures.” Also see an in-depth Marcy Wheeler post here which explores the US sourcing, as far as it goes. (And see my book, So Wrong for So Long, on how the media helped give us the Iraq war, and keep us there.)
Greg Mitchell questions why AIPAC’s role in this debate is being censored.