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Here’s why Sean Spicer’s ‘warning’ to Assad really was just news management

Theories which have abounded since Sean Spicer the White House spokesman ‘warned’ Syria against launching a chemical attack are over complicated. All the facts point to the ‘warning’ being part of a successful campaign to bury reporting of Seymour Hersh’s story about the alleged Khan Sheikhoun attack.

Alexander Mercouris

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On Monday Sean Spicer, President Trump’s press officer, published a statement on the White House website purportedly ‘warning’ President Assad and the Syrian government against a chemical attempt which the US had supposedly detected the Syrian military preparing to carry out.

In the hours that followed it became clear that the statement had not been coordinated within the US government.  The State Department and CENTCOM were taken by surprise, and apart from the inconsequential Nikki Haley all the senior officials of the US government – Tillerson, Mattis, Coats, Pompeo, McMaster and President Trump himself – maintained a stony silence about it.

In the hours that followed reports dribbled out that US intelligence had supposedly detected the movement of something which might be a sarin gas container to a single aircraft at Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base.

This is of course the same air base the US attacked in April, and from which according to the US the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack was carried out, and which the Russians and the Syrians ever since have been unsuccessfully trying to get the OPCW inspectors to inspect.

US officials speaking informally to the media have declined to say what level of confidence the US has in this latest ‘intelligence’.

Subsequently US Defense Secretary General James Mattis said that the US is seeking ‘de-escalation’ in Syria, and the fact that no chemical attack had taken place showed that the ‘warning’ had been ‘heeded’.

This has now been followed with reports – so far unconfirmed – that the US is preparing to evacuate the base it has established in Syria at Al-Tanf.

Ever since there have been any number of attempts to make sense of this strange episode, with speculations by those who do not believe the claims made in the ‘warning’ that some sort of ‘false flag’ attack is being prepared, either to justify another US military attack on Syria, or to wreck the coming meeting at the G20 summit between Presidents Putin and Trump, or for some other sinister purpose.

There is also a theory that the episode reveals some sort of conflict within the US government between conciliators, who would presumably include General Mattis, who wish to ‘de-escalate’ in Syria, and hardline interventionists, who want to escalate there.  In support of this theory some point to reports a week ago that some hardline officials in the US government were looking to stage a conflict in Syria with Iran.

The fundamental problem with all these theories is that if the US really were planning a ‘false flag’ chemical attack in Syria then there would be no need to announce it in advance by publishing a ‘warning’ about it.   On the contrary, all that announcing such a ‘warning’ is likely to do – especially when it is backed by ‘intelligence’ which is so unconvincing – is foster more doubts about it rather than reduce them.

As it happens there is no previous case of the US warning about a chemical attack in Syria before one happens, whether that be the chemical attack which happened in Ghouta in 2013, or the alleged chemical attack which happened in Khan Sheikhoun in April this year, or any of the many other chemical attacks which have also taken place in Syria over the course of the war there.

Since there is no sense in warning of a ‘false flag’ chemical attack in advance, and since the ‘intelligence’ that the Syrian military was preparing such a chemical attack is unconvincing to say the least, and since the State Department and CENTCOM appear to have been taken completely by surprise by a ‘warning’ issued not by a senior official of the US government but by the President’s press officer, what is the explanation for this bizarre affair?

My view that it was an over-the-top piece of news management, intended to discredit and bury Seymour Hersh’s story about the Khan Sheikhoun attack, has been received with predictably little enthusiasm, but I would submit that it is the only one that makes sense.  I notice that one other writer reviewing the same facts – Jonathan Cook writing for Counterpunch – has however now come to the same conclusion.

Moreover as Jonathan Cook also says, the OPCW report published today, which appears to support the Trump administration’s claims – that there was a deliberate sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun, with the sarin spreading from the small hole in the ground where the alleged gas canister is supposed to have been found – also seems to have been rushed out for the same purpose.

As Cook rightly says, it has long been known that the OPCW would report that a sarin gas attack took place at Khan Sheikhoun, and as Cook and the Russians also say, since the OPCW inspectors have refused to carry out an on the spot inspection of the alleged crime scene at Khan Sheikhoun (allegedly for ‘security reasons’, though a local ceasefire is supposed to be in place), and as the provenance of the samples (supposedly taken from a Jihadi controlled town without any external check of the way they were collected) cannot therefore be fully trusted, this conclusion is unsafe.

I understand the reluctance to accept that an incendiary suggestion that the Syrian government might be planning a chemical attack can have been nothing more than a grossly disproportionate and incredibly dangerous way to bury Seymour Hersh’s story.  It is human nature to think that something greater and more sinister must be involved.  I would however point out that the Trump administration has form in this regard.  By way of example, it persisted for weeks in making the ridiculous claim that the crowds which turned out for Donald Trump’s inauguration were bigger than the crowds which had turned out for Barack Obama’s first inauguration, even though comparisons of the films of the two events show that this was obviously not the case.

There have been any number of other such cases, with the reflex reaction of this administration when it is caught saying something which turns out to be untrue being to double down and go on repeating it.  That I am sure is what has happened in this case.

There will however be serious consequences even if the cause of the ‘warning’ almost certainly was a trivial one.

Firstly, as I have said previously, the Trump administration’s ‘warning’ to the Syrian government not to stage a chemical attack is a green light to the various Jihadi groups in Syria to stage a ‘false flag’ chemical attack, even if that is not the Trump administration’s intention.  There are any number of dangerous people in Syria – and any number of unscrupulous agents of the various local intelligence agencies who support them – who must now be thinking and looking for ways to carry out such an attack in order to force Trump’s hand.  I should say that I interpret Maria Zakharova’s comments hinting that Russia knows where such attacks might take place first and foremost as a warning directed to these people.

Secondly, the Russians are utterly furious because of this episode, a fact made crystal clear by the angry words they have said about it.  Not only do they (of course) know the truth that the ‘intelligence’ upon which the ‘warning’ was based is fictional, but they almost certainly suspect the cause, and they must be completely exasperated that the Trump administration is acting in such a reckless way.

Beyond this it seems that the ‘warning’ contradicts assurances which were given to the Russians during US Secretary of State Tillerson’s visit to Moscow in April.  It seems that Tillerson may have told the Russians that incidents like the Al-Shayrat attack would never again recur.  If so then the threat contained in the ‘warning’ – that President Assad and his military would “pay a heavy price” if another chemical attack took place – has told them that Tillerson’s assurances are worthless.  Probably they already suspected the fact, but it must nonetheless be exasperating for the Russians to have the truth of this exposed to them so clearly.

Whatever else this episode has done, its effect will therefore be to make the Russians trust the US if possible even less, this at a time when US and Russian military officials have been working hard together in Syria to try to reduce tensions between their militaries there.

Last but not least, I can do no better than repeat and endorse these comments by Jonathan Cook about the total blackout in the US and British media which has been imposed on Seymour Hersh’s story.  To my knowledge not a single British newspaper has reported its existence, and nor has the BBC.  This in respect of a story put together by the single most famous US investigative journalist who has in the past exposed scandals like the My Lai massacre and the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

the US threats increase, rather than reduce, the chances of a new chemical weapons attack. Other, anti-Assad actors now have a strong incentive to use chemical weapons in false-flag operation to implicate Assad, knowing that the US has committed itself to intervention. On any reading, the US statements were reckless – or malicious – in the extreme and likely to bring about the exact opposite of what they were supposed to achieve.

But beyond this, there was something even more troubling about these two stories [the ‘warning’ and the OPCW report- AM]. That these official claims were published so unthinkingly in major outlets is bad enough. But what is unconscionable is the media’s continuing blackout of Hersh’s investigation when it speaks directly to the two latest news reports.

No serious journalist could write up either story, according to any accepted norms of journalistic practice, and not make reference to Hersh’s claims. They are absolutely relevant to these stories. In fact, more than that, the intelligence sources he cites are are not only relevant but are the reason these two stories have been suddenly propelled to the top of the news agenda.

Any publication that has covered either the White House-Pentagon threats or the rehashing of the OPCW report and has not mentioned Hersh’s revelations is writing nothing less than propaganda in service of a western foreign policy agenda trying to bring about the illegal overthrow the Syrian government. And so far that appears to include every single US and UK mainstream newspaper and TV station.

These comments speak the whole truth, and I have nothing to add to them.

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Beijing Threatens “Severe” Retaliation Against Canada If Huawei CFO Is Not Released

China’s warning marks an escalation in Beijing’s rhetoric as investors worry that the arrest could cause the shaky trade detente between the US and China to devolve into acrimony.

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Via Zerohedge


Canada’s extraordinary arrest one week ago of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei founder and billionaire executive Ren Zhengfei, and its decision to charge her with “multiple” counts of fraud – a preamble to her likely extradition to the US to face charges of knowingly violating US and EU sanctions on Iran – has elicited widespread anger in Beijing, which declared Meng’s detention a “violation of human rights” during a bail hearing for the jailed executive on Friday.

That anger has apparently only intensified after the hearing adjourned without a decision (it will resume on Monday, allowing Meng’s defense team to argue for why she should be released on bail, contrary to the wishes of government attorneys who are prosecuting the case).

And with Canada insisting that it will prosecute Meng to the full extent of the law over allegations that she mislead banks about the true relationship of a Huawei subsidiary called Skycom, angry Chinese officials have decided to issue an ultimatum directly to the Canadian ambassador, who was summoned to a meeting in Beijing on Saturday and told in no uncertain terms that Canada will face “severe consequences” if Meng isn’t released, according to the Wall Street Journal.

China’s foreign ministry publicized the warning in a statement (though Canadian officials have yet to comment):

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned Canada’s ambassador to Beijing, John McCallum, on Saturday to deliver the warning, according to a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

The statement doesn’t mention the name of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, though it refers to a Huawei “principal” taken into custody at U.S. request while changing planes in Vancouver, as was Ms. Meng. The statement accuses Canada of “severely violating the legal, legitimate rights of a Chinese citizen” and demands the person’s release.

“Otherwise there will be severe consequences, and Canada must bear the full responsibility,” said the statement, which was posted online late Saturday.

Phone calls to the Canadian Embassy rang unanswered while the Canadian government’s global affairs media office didn’t immediately respond to an email request for comment.

The warning marks an escalation in Beijing’s rhetoric as investors worry that the arrest could cause the shaky trade detente between the US and China to devolve into acrimony. A federal judge issued a warrant for Meng’s arrest back in August. Though after she was made aware of the warrant, Meng avoided travel to the US. She was arrested in Vancouver last Saturday while traveling to Mexico.

Aside from breaking off trade talks, some are worried that Beijing could seek to retaliate in kind by arresting a notable US executive. While the threats of Chinese bureaucrats might not amount to much in the eyes of US prosecutors, threatening a US executive with long-term detention in a Chinese “reeducation camp” just might.

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The trials of Julian Assange

Eresh Omar Jamal interviews Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi in relation to the situation of Julian Assange.

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Authored by Eresh Omar Jamal for The Daily Star (Bangladesh):


Stefania Maurizi is an investigative journalist working for the Italian daily La Repubblica. She has worked on all WikiLeaks releases of secret documents and partnered with Glenn Greenwald to reveal the Snowden Files about Italy. She has authored two books—Dossier WikiLeaks: Segreti Italiani and Una Bomba, Dieci Storie. In an exclusive interview with Eresh Omar Jamal of The Daily Star, Maurizi talks about the continued arbitrary detention of Julian Assange, why powerful governments see WikiLeaks as an existential threat, and the implications for global press freedom if Assange is prosecuted for publishing secret government documents.

You recently had the chance to visit Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. When was this and can you describe the state he is in?

I was able to visit him on November 19, after 8 months of failed attempts, because last March the Ecuadorian authorities cut off all his social and professional contacts, with the exception of his lawyers, and in the preceding 8 months, I had asked for permission to visit him nine times without success—the Ecuadorian authorities didn’t reply at all to my requests.

When I was finally granted permission to visit the WikiLeaks founder at the Ecuadorian embassy in London last November, I was literally shocked to see the huge impact his isolation has had on his health. Because I have worked as a media partner with him and his organisation, WikiLeaks, for the last nine years, I have met him many times and can tell when there are any changes in his body and mind. I wondered how his mind could keep working; but after talking to him in the embassy for two hours, I have no doubt that his mind is working fine. I still wonder how that’s possible after six and a half years of detention without even one hour of being outdoors. I would have had a physical and mental breakdown after just 6 months, not after 6 years.

Detention and isolation are killing him slowly, and no one is doing anything to stop it. The media reports, the commentators comment, but at the end of the day, he is still there; having spent the last six and a half years confined to a tiny building with no access to sunlight or to proper medical treatment. And this is happening in London, in the heart of Europe. He is not sitting in an embassy in Pyongyang. It is truly tragic and completely unacceptable. And I’m simply appalled at the way the UK authorities have contributed to his arbitrary detention, and have opposed any solution to this intractable legal and diplomatic quagmire.

Having bravely defended Assange for years, the Ecuadorian government in late March cut off almost all his communications with the outside world. What prompted this turnabout and what is its purpose?

Politics has completely changed in Ecuador, and more in general, in Latin America, since 2012, when Ecuador granted Julian Assange asylum. I have never had any interviews with the current Ecuadorian President, Mr Lenin Moreno, but based on his public declarations, it’s rather obvious to me that he does not approve of what Julian Assange and WikiLeaks do.

With all his problems, Rafael Correa (former president of Ecuador) protected Assange from the very beginning, whereas Lenin Moreno considers him a liability. Moreno is under pressure from the right-wing politicians in Ecuador, and also from very powerful governments, like the US and UK governments, who will leave no stones unturned to jail Assange and destroy WikiLeaks. I am not sure how long Lenin Moreno will hold out against this immense pressure, provided that he wants to hold out at all.

Assange was vindicated not so long ago as to why he cannot leave the embassy when the US Department of Justice “accidentally” revealed in November that the founder of WikiLeaks had been secretly charged in the US. What do you think those charges are for?

It’s hard to say unless the charges get declassified and I really appreciate how the US organisation, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is fighting before the court in the Eastern District of Virginia, US, to have the charges declassified.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the US authorities have always wanted to charge him for WikiLeaks’ publications. They have wanted to do so from the very beginning, since 2010, when WikiLeaks released its bombshell publications like the US diplomatic cables.

But the US authorities have been unable to do so due to the fact that WikiLeaks’ publication activities enjoy constitutional protection thanks to the First Amendment. So it will be very interesting to see how they will get around this constitutional protection in order to be able to charge him and other WikiLeaks journalists and put them all in jail.

Why have some of the most powerful governments and intelligence agencies invested so much resources to attack Assange and WikiLeaks?

You have to realise what it meant for the US national security complex to witness the publication of 76,000 secret documents about the war in Afghanistan, and then another 390,000 secret reports about the war in Iraq; followed by 251,287 US diplomatic cables and 779 secret files on the Guantanamo detainees; and to watch WikiLeaks save Edward Snowden, while the US was trying everything it could do, to show the world that there is no way of exposing the NSA’s secrets and keep your head attached to your neck having done so.

You have to realise what this means in an environment like that of the US, where even the most brilliant national security reporters didn’t dare to publish the name of the head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, Michael D’Andrea, even though his name and the abuses committed by his centre were open secrets within their inner circles. Although the New York Times finally did, later on. But this was and still is the reality in the US, and even though it may not be as bad in the UK, it’s still quite bad. Look at what happened with the arrest of Glenn Greenwald’s husband, David Miranda, at the Heathrow Airport during the publication of the Snowden Files. Look at what happened with The Guardian being forced to destroy its hard drives during the publication of those files.

There are different levels of power in our societies and generally in our western democracies, criticism against the low, medium and high levels of power via journalistic activities is tolerated. Journalists may get hit with libel cases, have troubles with their careers; however, exposing those levels is permitted. The problem is when journalists and media organisations touch the highest levels, the levels where states and intelligence agencies operate.

WikiLeaks is a media organisation that has published secret documents about these entities for years, and Julian Assange and his staff have done this consistently, not occasionally like all the other media organisations do. You can imagine the anger these powerful entities have towards WikiLeaks—they perceive WikiLeaks as an existential threat and they want to set an example that says, “Don’t you dare expose our secrets and crimes, because if you do, we will smash you.”

If Assange is prosecuted, what impact might it have on other publishers and journalists and on press freedom globally?

It will have a huge impact and that is why organisations like the American Civil Liberties Union are speaking out. Never before in the US has an editor and media organisation ended up in jail for publishing information in the public interest. If Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks’ staff end up in jail, it will be the first time in US history and will set a devastating precedent for attack on press freedom in the US, but actually, not only in the US. Because if a country like the US, in which the activities of the press enjoy constitutional protection, treats journalists this way, you can imagine how other countries where the press doesn’t enjoy such strong protection will react. It will send a clear message to them: “Your hands are free.”

At the end of the day, I think there are two sides to this Assange and WikiLeaks saga: the US-UK national security complex, but more in general, I would say, the people within the national security complex, who want to destroy Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to send a clear message to journalists: “Don’t mess with us if you don’t want your lives to be destroyed.” While on the other side, there are the freedom of the press guys, meaning journalists like me, who want to demonstrate the exact opposite: that we can expose power at the highest levels, we can expose the darkest corners of governments and come out alive and well. And actually, we must do this, because real power is invisible and hides in the darkest corners.

Eresh Omar Jamal is a journalist for The Daily Star (Bangladesh). You can find him on Twitter: @EreshOmarJamal and Stefania Maurizi: @SMaurizi

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Diplomacy a Waste of Time with Washington

Trump’s JCPOA pullout and threatened INF Treaty withdrawal show Washington can never be trusted.

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Authored by Stephen Lendman:


The US is a serial lawbreaker, operating by its own rules, no others.

Time and again, it flagrantly breaches international treaties, Security Council resolutions, and other rule of law principles, including its own Constitution.

Diplomacy with Republicans and undemocratic Dems is an exercise in futility.

Trump’s JCPOA pullout and threatened INF Treaty withdrawal show Washington can never be trusted.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova’s proposed US outreach to discuss INF Treaty bilateral differences is well intended – despite knowing nothing is accomplished when talks with Washington are held, so why bother.

It’s just a matter of time before the US breaches another promise. They’re hollow when made. Kremlin good intentions aren’t enough to overcome US duplicity and implacable hostility toward Russia.

“We are ready to continue the dialogue in appropriate formats on the entire range of problems related to this document on the basis of professionalism and mutual respect, without putting forward unsubstantiated accusations and ultimatums. Our proposals are well known and remain on the negotiating table,” said Zakharova, adding:

“We have admitted (US) documents for further consideration. This text again includes accusations in the form of unfounded and unsubstantiated information about Russia’s alleged violations of this deal.

Comments to Washington like the above and similar remarks are like talking to a wall. The US demands all countries bend to its will, offering nothing in return but betrayal – especially in dealings with Russia, China, Iran, and other sovereign independent governments it seeks to replace with pro-Western puppet ones.

Not a shred of evidence suggests Russia violated its INF Treaty obligations. The accusation is baseless like all others against the Kremlin.

“No one has officially or by any other means handed over to Russia any files or facts, confirming that Russia breaches or does not comply with this deal,” Zakharova stressed, adding:

“We again confirm our consistent position that the INF Treaty is one of the key pillars of strategic stability and international security.”

It’s why the Trump regime intends abolishing it by pulling out. Strategic stability and international security defeat its agenda. Endless wars and chaos serve it.

The US, UK, France, Israel, and their imperial partners get away with repeated international law breaches because the EU, UN, and rest of the world community lack backbone enough to challenge them.

It’s how it is no matter how egregious their actions, notably their endless wars of aggression, supporting the world’s worst tinpot pot despots, and failing to back the rights of persecuted Palestinians and other long-suffering people.

The only language Republicans and Dems understand is toughness. Putin pretends a Russian/US partnership exists to his discredit – a show of weakness, not strength and responsible leadership.

In response to the Trump regime’s intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty, he said Russia will “react accordingly” – precisely what, he didn’t say.

A few suggestions, Mr. President.

  • Recall your ambassador to Washington. Expel the Trump regime’s envoy from Moscow and other key embassy personnel.
  • Arrest US spies in Russia you long ago identified. Imprison them until the US releases all Russian political prisoners. Agree to swap US detainees for all of them, no exceptions.
  • Install enough S-400 air defense systems to cover all Syrian airspace. Warn Washington, Britain, France and Israel that their aircraft, missiles and other aerial activities in its airspace will be destroyed in flight unless permission from Damascus is gotten – clearly not forthcoming.
  • Publicly and repeatedly accuse the above countries of supporting the scourge of ISIS and likeminded terrorists they pretend to oppose.
  • Warn them in no uncertain terms that their aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic no longer will be tolerated. Tell them the same goes if they dare attack Iran.
  • Stop pretending Mohammad bin Salman didn’t order Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, along with ignoring the kingdom’s horrendous human rights abuses domestically and abroad – including support for ISIS and other terrorists.
  • Put observance of rule of law principles and honor above dirty business as usual with the kingdom and other despotic regimes for profits.
  • Do the right things at all times and damn the short-term consequences – including toughness on Washington, the UK, Israel, and their imperial partners in high crimes of war and against humanity.

VISIT MY NEW WEB SITE: stephenlendman.org (Home – Stephen Lendman). Contact at [email protected].

My newest book as editor and contributor is titled “Flashpoint in Ukraine: How the US Drive for Hegemony Risks WW III.”

www.claritypress.com/LendmanIII.html

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