Last month, Glenn Kessler, who writes the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column, slammed Donald Trump for telling what Kessler deemend a giant whopper — receiving his highest rating of “Four Pinocchios” for lack of truthfulness.
His own truthfulness, however, leaves much to be desired.
Briefly, the back story is that Donald Trump in a Twitter post cited a Breitbart piece containing the statement:
Hillary Clinton received a classified intelligence report stating that the Obama administration was actively supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group that became the Islamic State.
Under the headline “Trump’s bizarre claim that the Obama administration actively ‘supported’ terror groups”, Kessler writes:
The Breitbart article that Trump touted was based on a memo circulated by the Defense Intelligence Agency in August 2012, stamped “secret” and distributed across the U.S. government. A declassified version was obtained by Judicial Watch. The claim that the memo — labeled an“information report, not finally evaluated intelligence” — showed that the Obama administration “supported” al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is based on these two sentences:
THE SALAFIST, THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI ARE THE MAJOR FORCES DRIVING THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA. THE WEST, GULF COUNTRIES, AND TURKEY SUPPORT THE OPPOSITION; WHILE RUSSIA, CHINA, AND IRAN SUPPORT THE REGIME.
There was little profound in this analysis. Moreover, the idea that Western support for opposition to the Syrian regime translated into Obama administration support for AQI is rather loopy, especially if you know anything about the policy debates in the administration at the time.
It was precisely the fear that radical jihadists were involved in the Syrian fight that made the administration hesitate about committing any resources to the opposition, for fear the aid could end up going to terrorist groups. The Obama administration, in fact, drew sharp distinctions between the rebel groups.
A bit further on, he adds:
The DIA memo “shows there are some elements of the Syrian opposition that were vulnerable to extremists, and that is one of the main reasons the USG has been so careful about who we are supporting with what kind of assistance,” said Derek Chollet, who in 2012 managed policy concerning the Syrian conflict as the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. “It is why we were so concerned about others who were less judicious about that support — the Turks and Persian Gulf partners — and pressed them to support only the moderate opposition.”
Chollet noted that although the memo is dated August 2012, it was not until a year later that the United States provided any military support to the opposition. He said this decision was made “only after policymakers were satisfied that the vetting requirements were strong enough that we could be confident where the assistance was going and how it would be used — for the very purpose of fighting terrorists.”
In sum, Kessler asserts that the DIA memo only stated that the US was supporting rebels, but not the extremists among them, that the US didn’t even begin arming the rebels until a year after that memo was written, and that when it did so, it carefully vetted the groups and so prevented the arms from falling into the hands of the extremists.
“Fact Checker” Lie #1: Willful Omission of the Key Paragraph from the DIA Memo
Here’s Kessler’s first whopper: the claim that Trump’s interpretation is based on the excerpt of the DIA memo he quotes. Yes, that excerpt is important for context as it explicitly states that the West, inclusive of the US, was supporting the rebels.
But here’s the actual key excerpt from the memo that Kessler willfully omits:
IF THE SITUATION UNRAVELS THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME…
Here’s another key piece of information that Kessler declines to inform his readers: former DIA director Michael Flynn has noted that his agency was warning the White House that its policy of supporting the rebels would facilitate the rise of what became known as the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh), but that the Obama administration made “a willful decision” to do so.
Here’s Flynn in an interview with Al Jazeera:
Hasan: You are basically saying that even in government at the time you knew these groups were around, you saw this analysis, and you were arguing against it, but who wasn’t listening?
Flynn: I think the administration.
Hasan: So the administration turned a blind eye to your analysis?
Flynn: I don’t know that they turned a blind eye, I think it was a decision. I think it was a willful decision.
Hasan: A willful decision to support an insurgency that had Salafists, Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood?
Flynn: It was a willful decision to do what they’re doing.
“Fact Checker” Lie #2: Claiming the US Didn’t Begin Arming Syrian Rebels Until a Year After the DIA Memo
So we come to Kessler’s second whopper: the claim that the US didn’t begin arming the rebels until a year after the August 2012 DIA memo was written. In fact, we can turn to Kessler’s own publication to demonstrate what a lie this is. Here’s the Washington Post in May 2012 — three months before that memo:
Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.
It was well understood that the CIA was coordinating the flow of arms to the rebels already in early 2012. Here’s the Wall Street Journal that June:
As part of the efforts, the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department—working with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other allies—are helping the opposition Free Syrian Army develop logistical routes for moving supplies into Syria and providing communications training….
The U.S. in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, say U.S. and Arab officials….
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing the funds for arms….
And here’s the New York Times little more than a week later:
A small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.
The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.
The C.I.A. officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said.
“Fact Checker” Lie #3: The CIA Kept Delivered Arms Out of the Hands of Extremists
This brings us to Kessler’s third whopper: the claim that the CIA carefully vetted the weapons so they didn’t fall into the hands of the extremist groups among their ranks.
So here’s the New York Times in October 2012 — only two months after the DIA’s warning about the consequences of the Obama administration’s policy, when, according to Kessler, the US supposedly wasn’t helping to arm any of the rebels, much less the extremist groups:
Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists….
American officials have been trying to understand why hard-line Islamists have received the lion’s share of the arms shipped to the Syrian opposition through the shadowy pipeline with roots in Qatar, and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia. The officials, voicing frustration, say there is no central clearinghouse for the shipments, and no effective way of vetting the groups that ultimately receive them.
Here’s the phenomenal Seymour Hersh writing in the London Review of Books about this whole episode:
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the DIA between 2012 and 2014,confirmed that his agency had sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the civilian leadership about the dire consequences of toppling Assad. The jihadists, he said, were in control of the opposition. Turkey wasn’t doing enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border. ‘If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic,’ Flynn told me. ‘We understood Isis’s long-term strategy and its campaign plans, and we also discussed the fact that Turkey was looking the other way when it came to the growth of the Islamic State inside Syria.’ The DIA’s reporting, he said, ‘got enormous pushback’ from the Obama administration. ‘I felt that they did not want to hear the truth.’
The Pinocchio Test
This is what happens when people with little understanding of policy or context choose to willfully misinterpret documents. This is a relatively unimportant memo, with little information not in newspapers at the time. Rather than showing that the Obama administration is supporting terrorist groups, the information in the memo demonstrates why the administration was so reluctant to back rebel groups in Syria, often to the annoyance of Republican hawks.
So what can we conclude from all this? What can we make of Kessler’s extraordinary hypocrisy? Simple. Glenn Kessler is just another state propagandist doing what most mainstream commentators do, which is to blind themselves to inconvenient truths (at best) and to deliberately deceive the public about the true nature of US foreign policy in their service of the state.
Kessler gets Four Pinocchios for telling not just one, but three major whoppers.
(Due credit to Brad Hoff of the Levant Report, who broke the story of the DIA memo and has done a most phenomenal job of covering it since.)