Chemical weapons in The Newsroom


Much like Matt Santos’ Obama-like bid for the White House in the Aaron Sorkin-penned television drama The West Wing, the sarin gas attack storyline in The – also Sorkin written – Newsroom prophesised events in the real world. But it’s not the Syrian Government who is accused of using chemical weapons by the staff of fictional news network ACN but the American Government itself. Led by Jeff Daniels’ charismatic anchor Will McAvoy, the news team believe they have uncovered a massive cover-up by the US military.

During the discussions about whether to run the story, White Phosphorus (WP) is mentioned, with ACN’s president Charlie Skinner noting in passing that if US forces “shot White Phosphorus into an enclosed area that alone would be chemical warfare.” His remark is ignored and the narrative soon moves on. The story (spoiler alert!) turns out to be false. There was no government cover-up.

Sorkin, seen as one of the smartest guys working in television, seems to be unaware that there is no need to explore the issue in a fictional context: The US has fired WP in an enclosed area – in Falluja, Iraq in 2004, with many arguing this constituted the use of a chemical weapon. I’m not aware of any reliable figures for how many Iraqis were killed by the US use of WP in Falluja. However, a Red Cross official noted that at least 800 civilians were killed during the November 2004 US assault on the city. During the attack the US targeted medical buildings, cut off the water and electricity supply, refused entry to aid agencies and refused exit from the battle zone to males aged 15 to 55 years old.

Initially, when questions were raised the US military denied using WP as a weapon. However, in 2005 bloggers uncovered evidence showing the US had indeed deployed WP as a weapon. “WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition”, noted the March 2005 edition of the US army’s Field Artillery magazine about the US attack on Falluja in November 2004. “We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes where we could not get effects on them with HE [High Explosive]. We fired ‘shake and bake’ missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out”.

Speaking to the BBC a spokesperson for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) stated that "If… the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because the way the [Chemical Weapons] Convention is structured or the way it is in fact applied, any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons."

For me, a lay person, this quote seems to show the US use of WP in Falluja in 2004 should be considered a use of chemical weapons. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot agrees, telling Democracy Now! In 2005 “The US Army was acting in direct contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It committed a war crime.” However, the chemical weapons experts I contacted for clarification were far from certain. Dan Kaszeta, a former officer in the US Army's Chemical Corps, noted “WP falls into a grey area and opinions” vary widely. Alastair Hay, a Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Leeds, noted the OPCW definition above “requires a lawyer to interpret it.” Another expert who declined to be quoted explained that if used as an incendiary WP is not a chemical weapon, although if it is used for its toxic properties then it could be considered a chemical weapon.

While the experts stress the complexity of the issue, it should be noted the Pentagon has no problem making a clear statement on the subject. A declassified US Department of Defence document from 1991 reports that “Iraqi forces loyal to President Saddam may have possibly used white phosphorus (WP) chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels”.

All this is important when one considers how the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government in August 2013 caused an avalanche or moral outrage in the media. Taking her cue from the US and UK governments, the day after the chemical weapons attack Channel 4 News′s Sarah Smith asked “Syria chemical weapons horror – is it time for intervention?” Over at the Independent the front page headline on 26 August 2013 was ‘Syria: air attacks loom as West finally acts’. The Indy’s use of “finally” speaks volumes.

In contrast, although the possible use of chemical weapons by the US government in 2004 received some attention from the mainstream media, it was often reluctantly covered following pressure from concerned viewers and readers. There was, and continues to be, a noticeable lack of moral outrage outside of a couple of honourable exceptions like Monbiot and John Pilger. And there has been a distinct lack of further journalistic investigation, which if the experts’ uncertainty is anything to go by, is desperately needed to uncover the truth.

Arguably, Sorkin, along with many contemporary conspiracy theorists, fundamentally misunderstands how modern day propaganda works. The most effective, most insidious thought control is not based on huge cover-ups involving tens, maybe hundreds of people. After all the US use of WP in 2004 did receive some coverage in the mainstream media. But importantly it has been quickly forgotten and certainly didn’t inform the political debate about how or who should respond to the Syrian Government’s possible use of chemical weapons. War crimes happen and war criminals get away with it because the historical events are refracted and therefore shaped by non-conspiratorial journalistic and academic processes such as omission of key facts, framing, sourcing bias, subservience to power, careerism and adherence to the dominant ideology.

As with many things, George Orwell explained it best. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary”, he wrote in the suppressed preface to his 1945 classic novella Animal Farm. “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” How? “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is 'not done' to say it”.

The continued silence of the vast majority of UK journalists, columnists and editors clearly shows it is currently “not done” to say the US may well have used chemical weapons in Falluja in 2004. Or that the US helped Iraq to use nerve gas during the Iran-Iraq War, as Foreign Policy magazine recently reported. No doubt many journalists in Syria have also stayed silent about the many crimes of the Assad Government. And for good reason – reporting inconvenient truths in Syria today could well be life-threatening. What excuse do journalists working in our supposedly free and combative media have for their silence?

Ian Sinclair is the author of ‘The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003’, published by Peace News Press. https://twitter.com/IanJSinclair

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